Using the Web as a Research Tool

Learn about effective Web researching from a pro.
Table of contents

Using the Web as a Research Tool

How do you do research on the Web?
First, figure out key words to use in the search. To find sites on the Penobscot Indians, for example, think of other words to describe them. If you just type Penobscot, you'll miss tons of information and get some really off the wall stuff. Instead, try to think of more common, less specific words: Native Americans, American Indians, Native American tribes, etc. Next, I choose a search engine on the Web.

Subject Trees
A subject tree lets you browse through topics. It organizes sites into subject areas -- like in a card catalog at the library. This can really help narrow down a search. If you're looking for info on Memorial Day, for example, go to Yahoo. Click on "Society and Culture," then on "Holidays," and so on. The subject tree helps you go from the general to the specific. Sometimes you'll find answers right away, and of course, sometimes you won't. If your search words are common, like Memorial Day, it should take you right to the sites. If it doesn't, you'll at least get some good ideas for key words to search by.

True Search Engines
A true search engine searches the whole Internet. You can be more flexible on how you phrase the search. You can use any or all of your key words at one time. With Hot Bot, you can be really specific and look for quotes. You also have search options. You can search by "all words" or "exact phrase" and modify searches to exclude certain words. If you want information on the Civil War, but not on President Lincoln, you can type, "Civil War and not Lincoln." the best search engine is the one that you know how to use. It's much better to use one or two really well than to jump around.

What is on the Web that's not in the library?
The Internet lets everyone publish! People who are passionate can get on and tell you everything about their favorite subjects. There is nothing to prevent someone from publishing lies. Hate groups can't be prevented from publishing. There are no minimum standards. On the Internet you'll find really poor quality material mixed with really great stuff. How can you tell the good from the bad? When you are doing research, you need to look carefully at who's putting up the information. Consider their background. A math site put up by a high-school freshman may have a different level of expertise than one put up by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

If you are searching for something that involves opinion, consider the source very carefully. Check out the biography of who or what organization is responsible for the material. A bathtub manufacturer will predict that fewer people slip in the tub this year than an emergency room doctor. Why? Because he has a stake in the number. Look at bibliographies. Beware. The information may sound objective, but the author most likely is trying to persuade and convince you that his/her opinion is the right one.

That doesn't necessarily mean the information is bad, but do your best to look for another viewpoint or supporting material. Definitely cite the site where the material came from. You can even acknowledge that it came from a source that may be biased.

What is in a library that's not on the Web?
First of all, they have librarians. Someone who can help. You won't find that on the Internet. Libraries also decide ahead of time what they want to offer and how to balance material. Someone is making a decision about how much of a subject is collected from cookbooks to books about WWII. Librarians look for credibility, quality, content, and presentation. All aspects of publications are critiqued. Libraries have budget constraints limiting their collections, and they are also "catalogued" or better organized than the Internet. Cookbooks are all together over here and fiction is all over there.

Plagiarism and the Web
A HUGE ISSUE! It happens on and off the Web. Some sites put up material that's owned by someone else without permission. That's a copyright violation, and it's plagiarism. If you copy something from the Internet and put it in your report, that's also plagiarism. You are STEALING from somebody else. You may not have to pay a fine if you get caught, but your teacher may fail your paper. Remember you need to cite all of your resources -- even those you find online. It's not enough just to say, "I got it from the Internet." You must cite the author, site title, Web address, and date of document.

The Library or the Internet?
Well, that depends on the project. You may find all you need on the Internet for a homework assignment, but for a research paper you'd probably want to use a variety of print and Internet resources. There are differences in the material that you'll find online and in print:

  • Looking for the date that the US entered WWII? A credible Internet site would be a good source.
  • Writing a paper on the U.S.'s role in WWII? Look at books and articles too. They go into more depth than an Internet site can.
You don't always get the whole picture on the Web. You can get a lot, but not everything. The information is also not evenly distributed. A library usually has a balanced number of science books and history books. The Internet is heavily weighted with science information because that is what it was originally created for.