| Part 1: What is Research?
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> Internet Research Guide > Part 1
General Resources

Use these general resource documents and activities to help increase your success in this course. Some content requires software plugins. Visit our Plugin Help Center for help with downloading plugins.

Part 1: What is Research?

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Being specific
Most search engines allow you to search within a search you've already done. That is, if you've searched for "cars," you can often then search for "antiques" within the results of the first search (instead of searching through the entire web again). Searching within the results of previous searches is often a good way of moving from general categories to much more specific categories.

Remember also that different search engines will yield different results, even if you enter the same search string. Thus if you find you are getting nowhere using a particular search engine, you might want to try a different engine instead of trying to come up with a different search string.

Did you know?
That while most people use standard search engine like Yahoo or Google, there are many others available. A couple of interesting possibilities include ProFusion. With ProFusion you can search the Invisible Web: pages that standard search engines will often miss. ProFusion is a meta-search engine, meaning that it searches search engines. Another interesting search tool is CompletePlanet; this allows you to search by category into “the Deep Web.”

Being up-to-date
As a general rule, it is best to use research sources that are as up to date as possible. As such, it is important to be aware of publication dates on the web. These should usually be available on front or home pages, or will be part of documents you are able to find. (You can often find a Copyright date.) If you cannot determine how recent material is, you need to question whether or not you’ve found an appropriate source. Even if the source says exactly what you want it to say, if you cannot determine the year of its publication, your best bet is to continue searching for more appropriate data.

You’ll notice that almost all credible sources you can find in print or through subscription article databases will provide basic information citations about source, authorship, and date of publication very clearly. This is part of what makes them generally more reliable sources than those you will find on the Internet.

In some cases, recency may not be such a major concern. For example, in the case of literary studies, an interpretation that 6 months old is not necessarily better than one that is 6 years old (though both of these will be more appropriate than the one that is 60 years old!). So you do not, in all cases, need to find sources that are brand new. As is often the case, you will have to make a judgment call about the relative appropriateness of sources. That is, one source is not completely “bad” while another is completely “good.” Rather, one source can seem relatively more appropriate than another. When you are dealing with sources, imagine rating them on an “appropriateness scale” of 1 to 10. Thus you can choose between two sources that are actually both usable by saying one is better than the other, relatively speaking. One is a 9 while the other is a 7 perhaps.

Unlike the web, once a book is printed it enjoys a certain level of permanence. The web, on the other hand, can appear fairly permanent on any given day, but is in fact changing all the time. Part of the determination you will have to make when it comes to evaluating web based sources is the likelihood of its being permanent. A newspaper article you find on the web, for example, is most likely going to remain available for quite some time—if not in the exact same location, then perhaps in an archive or database.

Information or opinion that is simply part of a web page (perhaps not even identified with a specific author) is less likely to remain available, so later researchers looking at your work may have a hard time verifying your sources.

Did you know?
A particularly interesting web-based project is that offered by The Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is being developed as a digital library; one of the coolest features is the Wayback Machine. This database catalogues the contents of old websites. Imagine being able to look at your favorite website (assuming it is one that has been catalogued) as it appeared 5 years ago. Particularly useful for research might be to visit a catalogued website as it appeared on an historical significant date. If I enter www.npr.org as the site I’d like to visit (I click the “Take Me Back” button), I am given a list of dates for which the site has been archived. The oldest is Dec. 10, 1997 (which is pretty old in “World Wide Web years”). I could also visit catalogued pages from September 16, 2001. (The closest date available to September 11.) It might be an interesting research project to compare a number of websites from about the same date. Or to check the same site to see how it has changed over the years.

Strengths and weaknesses of the Internet
One of the first steps in doing research is deciding on the best sources for your project. Best might sometimes mean the most authoritative source, or it might mean the most current source. You might find yourself inclined to use the Internet for all research projects since it seems like the most powerful, and perhaps most familiar, tool; but the Internet, like other resources, has strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths Weaknesses

* current data

* authoritative data

* obscure data

* reliable data

* searchable full-text

A print newspaper is only published once or at most twice per day, and magazines and journals may be weekly, monthly, or even annual. The Internet is especially valuable for the latest news, with updates several times per day in some cases.

The Web can also be good for finding information about very specific places or people—even obscure things often have web sites devoted to them. If, for example, you need information on a specific place, even a small town, you will often find a site run by that town's Chamber of Commerce or a local resident.

Also, if you are studying certain texts, you might be able to find online versions. The benefit of these versions is that you can search them using your web browser's "search" or "find" feature. For example, searching for "darkness" in an online version of Milton's Paradise Lost is much easier than trying to search through your actual text manually. Online texts should always be secondary, however, to your printed text – copying a work to the web sometimes includes the addition of typoes and other mistakes!

Which leads to the weakness of reliability. Five different e-texts of a classic work may each have different errors in the coding or in the transcription, each of which may lead to erroneous interpretation. One famous person's words may be misquoted, and then copied and pasted onto ten more websites, until it's impossible to tell from looking at the web what that person actually said.

While most public organizations have been moving to online publication of their data – US federal and state statistics are usually online these days – copyrighted material and private organizations' work is probably not easy to find on the web. A second- or third-hand account of a work is not the same as finding that work in the format in which it was published, and verifying its contents.

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