5: Online research: a whole world of additional information

Although online research took some time to gain acceptance in academic circles, it is now viewed as an additional source for excellent academic information and platform for gaining access to materials not often found in local libraries. If anything, it opens up a world of information for students, tapping into research from other parts of the world that had never been previously accessible. There is also the convenience and budget-friendly factor for students to use online research for their essays and other research projects.

However, caution must also be used in turning to the Internet for essay research. That's because there is just as much bad and inaccurate research - maybe even more - than good and valid research located online. It cannot be relied upon so books and journals still are a very important tool to use for your undergraduate essays and postgraduate essays.

This chapter covers all the strategies that will help you make the most and best of online research, including staying safe while working online as well as where to look and how to determine what type of information found online will fit the criteria of academic research.

Chapter 5: Contents

5.1: Staying safe online

Much has been written about the need for caution when working and interacting with others online. It is important to know the risks and dangers of using the Internet to locate and download information. Here are some words of advice about staying safe while you do research online:

  • Stick to known websites for information or those recommended by your tutor or university.
  • Avoid websites that show some warning in the search engine about their safety. Google and other search engines spend considerable time on trying to keep Internet users safe. Listen to their warnings!
  • Do not give out your username or password to anyone.
  • Be cautious about what you download from the Internet. You do not want to pick up any computer viruses or bugs that end up damaging your computer and corrupt your valuable files.
  • Choose any discussion sites online with caution and do not interact with anyone seeking personal information about you or that want to send you files or have you click on unfamiliar hyperlinks.
  • Remember the adage that if it looks suspicious or feels suspicious, it probably is so avoid the site or anyone trying to interact with you.

Most of staying safe online is about common sense.  The more challenging aspect of researching online is actually to determine where to look and what is considered academically acceptable research.

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5.2: Where to look online for research

In the vast world that is the Internet, it may seem challenging to know just where to look and which websites to trust for your essay research. Over the years, we have had our researchers and writers use various websites, and they have offered their feedback on which ones they like the best and why. To start you on the right path, we are listing some of these great trustworthy sources here:

  • Google Books (http://books.google.co.uk): This is a great website that contains full text versions of thousands of books across all subjects and include all pages where you can gather all the reference information you need for your bibliography or reference list. You will be able to read, but you cannot download or copy and paste any of what you see. The books that are not available as full-text versions may have a few pages or links to other websites where you could get more information from within that particular book.
  • Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.co.uk): As another great resource from the brilliant minds at Google, this website offers you journal articles and extracts from academic journals, papers, and presentations. Some of the links take you to other websites that require you to pay for the full copy of a particular article.
  • Questia (www.questia.com): For a small subscription fee, students can access an extensive online library of books and journals. Various subscription packages are available so you can get a few months of access or numerous years, depending on what you need and can afford.
  • IngentaConnect (www.ingentaconnect.com): Here, you can get free abstracts to scholarly journals or pay a subscription fee to get the entire article. However, many universities may offer free access to this site.
  • Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org): With so many believing that information should be free, this site was started as an online public library where you can 'check out' what you need without worrying about money.
  • The British Library (www.bl.uk): This site has thousands of pages of information and images that can enrich your essay writing efforts.
  • Infomine (http://infomine.ucr.edu): This American site is often available at universities and is maintained by librarians, offering links and information on a wide range of subjects.
  • JSTOR (www.jstor.org): This site has over 1,000 different journals and a million images to choose from across a diverse subject matter, which is used by students, researchers, business people and universities.
  • JournalSeek (www.journalseek.net): This site is a database that can connect you to almost 100,000 different types of journals from around the world where you can search by journal name or journal category.

This is just a sampling, but there are more and more available every day. And, while we will discuss the use of Wikipedia later in this chapter, the website has done a good job of creating a page dedicated to listing academic databases and search engines for research. The table contains the name of the database, link, whether is free or fee-based, the discipline it specialises in, a description of the database and who provides or operates the particular online database or website. To learn more about what other academic online databases are available, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_academic_databases_and_search_engines.

You can also choose to use search engines to seek out your research. There are those that you most likely use regularly, such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo!. However, you can also gain additional insights through other search engines that might be geared more toward academia or research. Consider these additional online research engines:

  • RefSeek (www.refseek.com): This search engine connects students and researchers to a significant amount of research, data, and information from across the world.
  • Microsoft Academic Research (http://academic.research.microsoft.com): A trusted name in technology, Microsoft has branched out into compiling a search engine of academic papers and academic research across numerous disciplines.
  • Search Engine Colossus www.searchenginecolossus.com/academic.html: This connects you to academic search engines and academic research sites, saving you time and energy across different search engines. It works like a directory listing site to connect you to a wide range of research sites that might work for you.

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5.3: Acceptable academic information online

While we have provided some great sources and channels for academic research in this chapter so far, it is important that we dedicate the bulk of this chapter to explaining what is considered acceptable and approved academic information as found through the Internet. Although the debate on what is considered will continue and perspectives will evolve, these sections offer what the majority believe is acceptable for essays at the university level as well as further explains those areas often criticised like Wikipedia.

Whatever you use, it comes down to one key point: can you verify the information from that website?

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5.3.1: Criteria that defines acceptable academic websites

To help you better understand what defines acceptable academic websites, here is our list of criteria:

  • Consider the source of ownership of the domain. If the site is .ac.uk or .edu, it is an academic site while a commercial site would be .org.uk or .org, .net, or co.uk or .com. You may also need to delve further into ownership by reading an About section on the website to understand who owns the information and how it was compiled. Other things to think about in terms of ownership as a way to validate the academic nature or lack thereof would be:
    • Is the site sponsored by a business?
    • Is it just a blog and, if so, who are the authors?
    • Is it just an index or directory and who has determined the criteria for recommending certain sites in that index or directory?
    • Does it seem to be pushing a certain political, religious, or cultural point-of-view where it could be viewed as biased?
    • Are they selling any product or service on the website?
    • What are the links on the site and where do they connect to?
    • Looks do mean something when it comes to judging whether a website is scholarly and academic for essay purposes or it is just a popular and glossy website.
      • Scholarly quality is defined as something that has more text, professional and technical text, charts and graphs, formal language, a bibliography or reference list, an abstract, in-text references or footnotes and a notation that it was reviewed or submitted for review.
      • Popular websites tend to minimise text and use more images, advertisements and animations or video as well as colloquial language, informality, informal structure and no references or citations.
      • While it may be okay to use media sites for certain places within an essay, such as in the introduction or background to set up key points about a particular issue or problem the essay is covering, overall, media websites are not considered academic sources. Here's why:
        • This is because they are often biased and have some type of agenda that is often political or corporate in nature.
        • They often take information and quotes out of context for dramatic effect or to prove a point.
        • If a media article mentions a certain research study or survey, it is better to use the link or search for the original study or survey and use that over what the media report has pulled from these sources.  Again, the media may have used this information or statistical data out of context or left out some important criteria associated with it.
        • Look at the dates of the content on the websites and see how often information is updated or provided as well as how it is presented in terms of accuracy. For instance, check for the following:
          • Copyright;
          • Dates of publication; and
          • Gaps in information.
          • Take some time to learn more about the authors on some of the online material to see if their background or experience lends themselves to being an expert on a particular subject. You can do the following to learn more about authors:
            • Google them or use another search engine to get a biography or information on their background. For example, they might be teaching at a university or come from a specific industry that gives them credence as an expert on a particular subject.
            • See what else they have written and read any available reviews on their other writing.
            • Contact the author if it all possible to learn more about their background if you cannot otherwise find anything on them.
            • While bias and accuracy can be questioned in nearly every type of research out of the very fact that human beings with different emotions and perspectives participate in that research, online research has often gotten the brunt of disapproval based on the impression there is a higher rate of inaccuracy and bias for the very fact that there may be fewer quality controls available for online research. Here are some ways to check your online research sources:
              • Consider the language used and how the argument is shaped; if there is anything dramatic or seems to fluff out the argument, there could be greater bias and reduced accuracy.
              • Do not trust anything that states everything as a definitive; even the most seasoned academic will admit to limitations and caution when it comes to their findings and advice. Words like 'always' and 'never' are red lights that a student must note with caution.
              • As much of the information must be verified by using similar sources elsewhere like a book or journal. While there are differences of opinion, certain information related to known theories should be checked for accuracy.

There are still other things to think about when it comes to determining the academic nature of online research. Just to give you more to think about, we have put these factors down as critical to check for:

  • Do you have to register for the site or provide your personal information? This is okay if it is a subscription-based database or the like but if it is another type of site, there may be some marketing aspect tied to the site where it would take away any academic element to the information or research provided. For instance, white papers are more about marketing and less about academic information that would suit an essay. These white papers are simply trying to sell a product or service.
  • Is the website wide-ranging in the content it offers and the available research? If it is a site that contains just a couple of pages with no library of articles or research, it will not help you effectively write an essay.
  • Are there spelling and grammar mistakes? We are all human but academic websites tend to pay great attention to these kinds of things to ensure it does not take away from their academic respect.
  • Are there any peer reviews on the article or credible attachment to a conference, university, or journal? It is not elitist to look for this as you are trying to write an essay and use sources that the reader would link to an expert on the subject.
  • If sources are listed, what is the quality of those books, journals, and material? They have to be academic as well or it just will not be considered an academic website.

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5.3.2: To Wikipedia, or not to Wikipedia?

When it comes to Wikipedia, there are some very strong opinions out there about this website and they are usually extremely positive or downright negative. Some universities, in fact, state outright that students are not to use it as a source or reference for any of their work, including essays.

Wikipedia falls into the category of an online encyclopaedia and, with these types of reference websites, an encyclopaedia often presents general information rather than delving into the research to any depth or offer any specific thoughts on theories, issues, or statistical data.  It is this degree of generic information that concerns most universities because they want students to delve into topics on a deeper level.

However, the most significant criticism of Wikipedia is that the pages are not written by experts, which means the information may not be accurate because what is stated as fact is completely wrong or the information is old or even just simply biased. Even the founder of Wikipedia has suggested it may not be the most ideal site from which to conduct academic research.

Here is a list of the advantages and disadvantages of Wikipedia as a site to use for any academic work like essays:

Advantages Disadvantages
It is good for background material and a starting point. The information can be inaccurate, biased, and slanted to a particular opinion.
The references listed offer a good direction for more academic material. The information is not verified on the pages.
You can locate alternative keywords and niches for your academic research you might not have thought of. You will have to check that the information is correct by verifying with other credible sources, which takes more time than it is worth.
It is a quick place to find something on a subject no matter how niche it may seem The information is always changing, which can make what you use in an essay irrelevant.

Also note that, as you research online, you may run across other 'Wiki' sites for specialised subject matter like philosophy. Consider these same sites with caution as well when deciding to use them for an essay. It might be better to look at the references list at the end of a Wiki site entry and jump to those reference materials instead for credible academic information.

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5.4: Other tips for online research success

When working online to gather research for an essay, we wanted to provide you with some other advice about what makes it easier and maximises what you do while you are online:

  • Be sure to have software to open certain journal articles that are stored as PDFs. You will need to download Acrobat Reader to view certain research. You can find a free version of it at www.adobe.com.
  • You can bookmark certain searches you have done, which makes it easy to find the search later on. Nothing is worse than spending way too much time trying to find search results that you had before but that seem to have disappeared when you go back and try to recreate what you had previously.
  • Sign up for a Google Alert for each topic or keyword so the latest research or news on a particular subject is delivered to your email inbox.
  • Change the screen dimensions for viewing purposes so that, as you read and study the information available online, it is easier to read so you can make smarter decisions and hopefully not end up with a headache or eye strain!

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Chapter 5: In summary

In summarising the chapter, remember these points about researching material online for your essay:

  • Do you know what you need to do to stay safe and protect your identity and computer when researching online?
  • What are the best websites to use to find research material, including search engines, directories and indexes, and databases?
  • Is Wikipedia good for an essay?
  • What can help me determine the academic quality of a website?
  • Should I pay for a subscription-based academic research website or can I get away with doing my research for free?
  • What else should I know that will help me make as quick and effective work of online research as possible?

If you can answer these questions, then you retained what you learned in this chapter; if not, maybe go back and read again. If you are ready to move on and are reading the chapters in order, next up is how to take the great notes you need that will serve as the basis for your essay writing success.

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