3.1 Gathering data

3.1.3 Tips for online research

Many students start the research process online, by using Google or another search engine. Mitchel Kapor famously said: “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” So how does one filter this stream of information? Here are some tips:

  1. Start offline before going online – Have you discussed your research topic with someone already? Have you made a mind map about the topic? These activities will help you organise thoughts before entering search terms into a search engine.
  2. Search engines have settings – Do you know when to use quotation marks for an online search? Are you signed into Google when using Google? What Boolean operators does your search engine use by default (‘and’ or ‘or’)? Are you limiting yourself to articles in one language, are you fluent enough to read pages and papers in other languages?  Go to ‘settings’ or ‘advanced search’ in your search engine and you’ll see a range of options. Play with these to see how your results are affected.
  3. You get what you pay for – Although there are a lot of good, free resources out there, you’ll find a relationship between quality and price. For example, the quality of articles on Ebsco Host and Jstor is far better than those of SparkNotes. Schools and libraries have access to subscriptions to journals and sites, and you can use them. Also keep in mind that ‘free’ information is often supported by advertising. Do you know the difference between organic search results and sponsored search results?
  4. Know the nature of information – Are you hunting for something biographical, historical or factual? Then you can filter out blogs and opinion pieces. Ask yourself: Who would publish the information you’re looking for? Why would they publish it? Answering such questions will help you refine your search.
  5. Keep wading to a minimum – Before you dive into an article or webpage, you’ll find yourself wading through a sea of search results. If you cannot find what you’re looking for in the first 10-15 search results, you probably need to refine your search terms or phrases.
  6. Follow the trail – Sources have sources. For example Wikipedia pages include their references at the bottom of the page. Scientific articles include their lists of references. Literary papers include a list of works cited. Studies in history include a bibliography. Going to your source’s sources will give you a better understanding of the topic, or to aspects of it.
  7. Avoid baby words – Instead of searching for ‘What’s in milk?’ try ‘milk composition’. While you’re at it, try ‘milk production’, ‘milk nutritional information’ and ‘milk facts’. In brief, synonyms are important. This relates back to knowing the nature of knowledge and refining your research question. Ask yourself, "What terms do 'experts' in this subject use when writing about this topic?"
  8. Ctrl F – When viewing a document or webpage, your can conduct a quick search by holding down the control key, ‘Crtl’, and the letter ‘f’. Your browser or word processing software will highlight and take you to all appearances of the word(s) you’re looking for.
  9. PDFs and ‘look inside’ – Do you know the title of the article or essay that you’re looking for? Try searching for the title in combination with "filetype:PDF."  You can often peek at all or parts of print materials using Google Books or the ‘Look Inside’ option on Amazon.
Figure 3.1.3a - Online and offline
Make a habit of writing notes (by hand) before, during and after online research. This will help you process and make sense of the sea of information online.