Guide to Online Research

The internet has, of course, changed the way libraries work, as well as what undergrads expect from them. Gone are the days of scribbling down 12 figure reference numbers, digging through card catalogs or waiting days for an interlibrary loan in order to get your hands on primary sources. Online archives have made research faster and more effective for students who know what they are doing. Of course, that’s the hardest part. The web can be a misleading and treacherous place for inexperienced researchers. A statement made online is not necessarily true because someone wrote and published it.

This guide covers source material for academic papers: how to find it, how to organize it, how to share it with fellow researchers, and how to cite it.

Evaluating Academic Sources

It can be easy to find yourself mired in information you won’t use, so you should organize your research and spend your time wisely. It’s always good practice to view your sources with a critical eye, especially when it comes to academic research. Some data is clearly citation-worthy, like a published research paper. Some sources, however, warrant a closer inspection.

For instance, Wikipedia is a great place to gain a broad understanding of a research topic, but is not viewed by professors as a legitimate source. Good primary data sources may be discovered within a Wikipedia entry, but it’s not guaranteed and there is no way to verify it unless you check the source links. Seek primary data sources you can confidently cite by conducting your own research.

When analyzing the validity of an online resource, ask yourself:

  • Does the site have a purpose other than to educate readers? Data sources that may appear legitimate are sometimes published by entities that have something to gain. For example, a pharmaceutical company may publish favorable data about the newest drug it’s touting. It’s probably best to be skeptical about that data because the author of the information is trying to sell a product.
  • What is the intended audience for the published information? Academic research often requires citation of detailed data and results; the presentation of these results in a peer-reviewed academic journal is superior to an overview article written for an infotainment news source, for example.
  • Is the data current? Check the date the information was first published and consider whether older data is confusing or conflicting. Has outdated research been updated? Has the author properly cited the original sources?
  • Is the information professionally presented? Evaluate the site from the big picture. Do links function well and videos load? Does the author list proper credentials? Does the site appear to be well-maintained? Inconsistencies in details can tip you off that a resource might not be worth your time.

Tools to Organize Your Research

Knowing what you don’t need is just as useful as knowing what you do, and staying organized is crucial. Depending on the topic, vast amounts of scholarly information can exist, and you may need to hone your discovery to a specific aspect of research. There are a few tricks to keeping track of relevant information as you go:

  1. Annotate your research as you go; highlight key terms or paragraphs, or identify quotes you can use later.
  2. Leave comments or notes to yourself regarding the source’s eventual usage. This will not only help you organize your material; it will also make it easier to scan through large amounts of information and find a particular source later.
  3. Group your data into relevant categories. This is also helpful for time management.

You can avoid redundant or unnecessary research by using tools that help you see how much useful information you have gathered. There are several programs like this that are designed specifically for tracking online research:

Zotero

This free downloadable research tool is available for Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems. Zotero helps you organize your data in customizable folders as you collect it from online sources; one of the most popular features is its storage of citation data. The ability to instantly create a bibliographic citation can save you an enormous amount of time later.

Zotero indexes PDF files, images, full-text articles, abstracts and videos, 300MB of which may be backed up online. More storage is available for purchase. As you accumulate information, Zotero’s advanced search functionality allows you to find single documents easily.

EndNote

This is another reference material organization tool. Linking to scholarly databases and other information sources, EndNote is able to index existing files on your hard drive and online research into customized, easily organized folders. PDF files can be indexed by text, and you may highlight sections of text and add commentary.

Collaboration tools allow you to provide other students or professors with access to your data. Citations are created instantly to match the requirements of any of 5,000 available citation styles. EndNote is not free, however. Subscriber fees primarily go toward EndNote’s unique feature that provides up to 1GB of online backup storage that students can access from any of their devices.

Mendeley

This very popular research management tool is free and works with Mac, Linux and Windows. Users can organize existing PDFs and search results from Mendeley’s large open catalog in an easy-to-use interface that resembles iTunes. Once you define your search terms, the program makes reading recommendations based on new content on the Web. This feature allows users to discover other research groups online, leading to potential collaboration.

Mendeley also lets you annotate and highlight within PDFs and collect segments of data for easy reference later. This service integrates seamlessly with EndNote and Zotero, it bolsters either service with 2GB of online storage, cross-device syncing and instant bibliographic citation tools.

Using Search Engine Operators

Whether you use research organization software or conduct research on your own, you need access to available online resources and an understanding of how best to use them. A handful of Google shortcuts can shave hours from your research time, and Boolean search commands can help you swiftly navigate scholarly and academic database repositories. The most commonly used search operators include:

Boolean Operators

Boolean operators limit irrelevant search results. They can be used on any search engine, including Bing, Google and Yahoo. They work by using the words and, or and not to limit results:

  • Using and combines two terms and creates a limited search
  • Using or adds concepts to the search and broadens the result
  • Including not removes an idea completely from search results

If you want an exact phrase to appear in your top results, wrap that phrase in quotation marks. This will prioritizes pages that prominently feature your quoted phrase. Depending on the individual database rules, other keystrokes serve to customize searches, such as uppercase vs. lowercase, the ampersand, or the use of all capital letters.

Google Operators

Certain search functionalities in Google can limit the amount of extraneous documentation returned on an academic search. Site search is particularly useful.

To search within a particular domain, use site: followed immediately by the domain. Do not add spaces.

  • The domain can consist of a particular website, or it can encompass all websites with a similar file extension. For example, to search all school-owned sites, use site:.edu.
    • You may add in other topical search terms, such as microbiology site:.edu.
    • To search the files of a particular school, use microbiology site:harvard.edu. The same rules apply for other common file extensions such as .gov and .org.
  • If you prefer to research sites that are similar to what you’ve already found, use related: followed by the existing site URL. Ex.: related:bls.org
  • If you are searching for numerals that fall within a range, use two periods without spaces (..)
  • Information about a website, including a cached version of it, can be searched using info:. Ex.: info:pubmed.gov

Accessing Scholarly Databases

Innumerable databases of scholarly work exist, many of which are available to students at no charge or at a discount. Listed here is a breakdown of some of the most commonly referenced resources in academic research.

  • Arnetminer: Explore among your colleagues for fellow researchers interested in your topic, or research the background of a paper’s author with this database of school-sponsored social networks. Arnetminer can also alert you to conferences about your topic or courses being taught.
  • arXiv: Cornell University offers free archived research in statistics, finance, quantitative biology, physics, computer science and mathematics. Search parameters may include new, recent and find.
  • BASE: The Bielefeld Academic Search Engine, or BASE, is hosted by the Bielefeld University Library. BASE offers indexed metadata of more than 50 million documents, about three quarters of which are full-text. Sorting options include author, subject, language, collection and year of publication.
  • CiteSeerX: Developed at the University of Pennsylvania, CiteSeerX indexes scientific literature on computer and information science and uses unique algorithms and software to make the search process most effective. Alerts for new material from an individual or on a particular topic are also available. All data is free.
  • CogPrint: A nickname for the Cognitive Sciences Eprint Archive, CogPrint is a self-archiving tool for scientists. Researchers in psychology, biology, neuroscience, and linguistics may be uploaded. Site content is free and may be searched by subject, publication year, author name or keywords.
  • ERIC: Operated by the U.S. Department of Education, ERIC is a collection of peer-reviewed full-text documents that have been previously published in industry journals. All original source materials are held to strict professional standards. This resource has recently undergone a significant upgrade and is currently adding documentation to its repository.
  • getCITED: This free subscription-based database service boasts indexed content from over 3 million scholarly publications. The accompanying discussion forum provides a forum for professional discussion. Users can create bibliographies, link between publications, generate statistics using the data included, and subscribe to threaded discussion groups.
  • Google Scholar: Google has indexed web content in the form of articles, court opinions, theses, books, abstracts and more in this data repository. This free search tool produces research in multiple languages. Paid subscription-level access is allowed for libraries; this, in turn, allows you to search through data housed in other member libraries.
  • National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER): The NBER is a not-for-profit organization formed in 1920 to promote the understanding of economics. Today, its online database offers free publications related to economics, health and aging; subscription offerings include books, book chapters, and working papers.
  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS): This enormous resource is a federally funded database of scholarly information on drug-related policy and criminal justice. All repository information is available to the public for free; registered members may also receive a bi-weekly newsletter, customized publication alerts, and access to online discussion groups.
  • OCLC: Created by librarians, this vast resource is an online cooperative of participating libraries worldwide. This database’s cloud-based structure allows for unique collaboration opportunities. OCLC members maintain the WorldCat database, which is free to the public.
  • PhilPapers: This database houses existing and ongoing academic research in philosophy. An open access archive and advanced search functionality make it easy for interested parties to access refereed journals, books, and personal notes. Data is available via search, RSS feed and emailed content alerts.
  • PubChem: Chemistry researchers may find PubChem’s informational database on the biological activities of small molecules to be of use. Its three-part retrieval system searches by substance, compound and bioassay. A separate publication site link provides access to original research articles.
  • PubMed: Maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, this database is a massive collection of biomedical literature. Full-text articles, books, book chapters, journals and MEDLINE database content are all retrievable in PubMed. Users may also search by citation and topic.
  • Science.gov: Styled as the gateway to federal science, this resource is operated by an alliance of 15 federal agencies. Free user queries tap into over 55 smaller databases and 200 million pages of scientific inquiry and analysis. Searches may aggregate data by topic, subtopic, author or dates, and may trigger alerts with personalized reading suggestions.
  • SciTech: The U.S. Dept. of Energy is host to this database of scholarly research activity in STEM. Users may sort data by subject, citations or customize datasets. Account registration is required but there is no fee to access the database.
  • Social Science Research Network (SSRN): This award-winning resources combines multiple content streams into a one-stop shop for social sciences research and analysis. Both abstract and full-text data are available on topics ranging from humanities to management to political science.
  • WorldWideScience: Also known as the Global Science Gateway, the WorldWideScience database pulls national and international data portals into one resource for the research sciences. Extensive customizable search options include information in ten languages.

Open Access Journal Indexes

Open access journals are subsidized in some way, often by the publisher and sometimes by the author. This subsidization allows research that is held to rigorous academic standards be accessible to the public at low cost or no cost. By contrast, subscription services for academic journals pass this cost along to the consumer and therefore are not free. Either way, undergraduate students luck out; most students at traditional brick-and-mortar schools are given JSTOR accounts.

For students who don’t have JSTOR accounts or would like to access open access journals, the following resources may prove useful:

  • AGRIS: The International Information System for Agricultural Science and Technology (AGRIS) publishes research and analysis in this specialty of agriculture. Recent articles discussed the drying of carrot pomace, meiotic behavior of wild caricaceae species, and biodiversity conservation.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ): In an effort to make scholarly literature more accessible, the DOAJ collects and indexes peer-reviewed articles, primary research results and literature overviews on nearly all scholarly subjects and disciplines. Usage and online registration are free.
  • Elsevier: This site serves as a clearinghouse for peer-reviewed research and the latest publications in the scientific community. The online tools tab allows users direct access to numerous Elsevier publications.
  • Journal Seek: This resource claims to be the largest completely categorized source of free journal information online. Containing over 100,000 journal articles, Genamics JournalSeek links directly to full-text research in all disciplines.
  • Open Science Directory: This site aggregates research articles from several large external portals, including DOAJ, PubMed, and BioMed Central. Direct links to full-text articles are included.

Properly Citing Academic Sources

There are several accepted styles of citation. For research in the humanities, and some general research efforts (usually in freshman college courses), professors typically expect students to adhere to Modern Language Association (MLA) style. Among the many official rulings, the MLA offers is a detailed breakdown of proper attribution, or citation, of information sources.

Citations should be used parenthetically within text. All reference material is referenced at its first mention in text, and later detailed on a Works Cited page added to the manuscript. You may call out a reference with a number or phrase, or sometimes both.

  • For example: An unlucky and under-reported effect of Hurricane Katrina was the large number of pets that their owners were forced to abandon (Eggers 93).

In this case, the Works Cited must contain a full reference to the text by Eggers. Following the MLA style to reference books, the reference on the Works Cited page should read exactly as follows:

  • Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

For web resources, follow the citation rules in the MLA guide, but include the word “Web.” Then, list the name of the source or site and the date it was published and the date you accessed it:

  • Russell Tony, Allen Brizee, and Elizabeth Angeli. “MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” The Purdue Owl. Purdue U Writing Lab, 4 Apr. 2010. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

MLA citation style is meticulous; every capitalization, punctuation and space matter. The MLA details specific citation style for books, periodicals, articles and more.