Written by W. Brock MacDonald, Academic Skills Centre, and June Seel, UTM Library
More and more students are turning to the Internet when doing research for their assignments, and more and more instructors are requiring such research when setting topics. However, research on the Net is very different from traditional library research, and the differences can cause problems. The Net is a tremendous resource, but it must be used carefully and critically.
The printed resources you find in the Library have almost always been thoroughly evaluated by experts before they are published. This process of “peer review” is the difference between, for example, an article in Time magazine and one in a journal such as the University of Toronto Quarterly. Furthermore, when books and other materials come into the University library system, they are painstakingly and systematically catalogued and cross-referenced using procedures followed by research libraries the world over. This process is the basis for the way materials are organized in the Library, and it makes possible the various search functions of the Web catalogue.
On the Internet, on the other hand, “anything goes.” Anyone can put anything they want on a Web site, there is no review or screening process, and there are no agreed-upon standard ways of identifying subjects and creating cross-references. This is both the glory and the weakness of the Net – it’s either freedom or chaos, depending on your point of view, and it means that you have to pay close attention when doing research on-line. There are a great many solid academic resources available on the Net, including hundreds of on-line journals and sites set up by universities and scholarly or scientific organizations. The University of Toronto Library’s Electronic Resources page is one such academic source. Using material from those sources is no problem; it’s just like going to the Library, only on-line. It’s all the other stuff on the Net that you have to be cautious about.
Here are a few basic guidelines to remember:
Don’t rely exclusively on Net resources. Sometimes your assignment will be to do research only on the Net, but usually your instructors will expect you to make use of both Internet and Library resources. Cross-checking information from the Net against information from the Library is a good way to make sure that the Net material is reliable and authoritative.
Narrow your research topic before logging on. The Internet allows access to so much information that you can easily be overwhelmed. Before you start your search, think about what you’re looking for, and if possible formulate some very specific questions to direct and limit your search.
Know your subject directories and search engines. There are several high quality peer-reviewed subject directories containing links selected by subject experts. INFOMINE and Academic Info are good examples. These are excellent places to start your academic research on the Internet. Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines differ considerably in how they work, how much of the Net they search, and the kind of results you can expect to get from them. Spending some time learning what each search engine will do and how best to use it can help you avoid a lot of frustration and wasted time later. Because each one will find different things for you, it’s a good idea to always use more than one search engine. For specialized search engines and directories you might also like to try Beaucoup which includes 2,500 + search engines and directories or the Search Engine Colossus International Directory of Search Engines that includes search engines from 230+ countries around the world.
Keep a detailed record of sites you visit and the sites you use. Doing research on the Net inevitably means visiting some sites that are useful and many that are not. Keeping track is necessary so that you can revisit the useful ones later, and also put the required references in your paper. Don’t just rely on your browser’s History function, because it retains the Web addresses or URLs of all the sites you visit, good or bad, and if you’re using a computer at the University the memory in the History file will be erased at the end of your session. It’s better to write down or bookmark the sites you’ve found useful, so that you’ll have a permanent record.
Double-check all URLs that you put in your paper. It’s easy to make mistakes with complicated Internet addresses, and typos will make your references useless. To be safe, type them into the Location box of your browser and check that they take you to the correct site.
The following points are guidelines for evaluating specific resources you find on the Net. If you ask these questions when looking at a Web site, you can avoid many errors and problems.
Who is the author?
Is the author’s name given?
Are her qualifications specified?
Is there a link to information about her and her position?
Is there a way to contact her (an address or a “Mailto” link)?
Have you heard of her elsewhere (in class, or cited in your course text or in Library material)?
Has the author written elsewhere on this topic?
Who is the sponsor of the Web site?
Is the author affiliated with a reputable institution or organization?
Does the information reflect the views of the organization, or only of the author? If the sponsoring institution or organization is not clearly identified on the site, check the URL. It may contain the name of a university (U of T Mississauga’s includes utoronto) or the extension .edu, which is used by many educational institutions. Government sites are identified by the extension .gov. URLs containing .org are trickier, and require research: these are sites sponsored by non-profit organizations, some of which are reliable sources and some of which are very biased. Sites with the .com extension should also be used with caution, because they have commercial or corporate sponsors who probably want to sell you something. The extension ~NAME often means a personal Web page with no institutional backing; use such sites only if you have checked on the author’s credibility in print sources.
What audience is the Web site designed for? You want information at the college or research level. Don’t use sites intended for elementary students or sites that are too technical for your needs.
Is the Web site current?
Is the site dated?
Is the date of the most recent update given? Generally speaking, Internet resources should be up-to-date; after all, getting the most current information is the main reason for using the Net for research in the first place.Are all the links up-to-date and working? Broken links may mean the site is out-of-date; they’re certainly a sign that it’s not well-maintained.
Is the material on the Web site reliable and accurate?
Is the information factual, not opinion?
Can you verify the information in print sources?
Is the source of the information clearly stated, whether original research material or secondary material borrowed from elsewhere?
How valid is the research that is the source?
Does the material as presented have substance and depth?
Where arguments are given, are they based on strong evidence and good logic?
Is the author’s point of view impartial and objective?
Is the author’s language free of emotion and bias?
Is the site free of errors in spelling or grammar and other signs of carelessness in its presentation of the material?Are additional electronic and print sources provided to complement or support the material on the Web site?
If you can answer all these questions positively when looking at a particular site, then you can be pretty sure it’s a good one; if it doesn’t measure up one way or another, it’s probably a site to avoid. The key to the whole process is to think critically about what you find on the Net; if you want to use it, you are responsible for ensuring that it is reliable and accurate.