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Internet Research Guide
Part 1

What is the Purpose of Research?

While there still remains some stigma attached to the Internet as an academic tool, bias against the Web is slowly diminishing, especially as students are showing instructors how powerful a tool the Internet can be. This web resource is tailored to help you develop Internet research skills.

When we research projects such as papers or reports for class, we need to arrange pieces of information into a meaningful whole. The key to effective research is not just gathering a lot of information. One must also evaluate the information and make sense of it. The process of evaluation is especially important for information you find on the Internet, because the Internet is a resource that provides access to a lot of information that varies considerably in quality and reliability.

The purpose of research—in the context of this web resource—is to deal with college-level, academic research. This kind of research often grounds the argument of an essay in the context or tradition of other thinkers who have worked on the same subject. For instance, you might be required to find sources on Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman. You can compare your interpretation of the play to interpretations that have come before.

College-level research often involves finding information on a specific topic, and arranging that information in a meaningful way. You might even say that research involves making a kind of story out of otherwise unrelated details. Think, for example, of doing research on the civil rights movement in the American South. From a wealth of details (including dates, people, places and events), you need to craft some connections between those details. So research is not just the process of finding information: it is making information make sense.

Assignments that require research
Fact papers
Opinion papers
Combined fact and opinion papers
Useful Sources
Practice: Distinguishing fact from opinion
Choosing sources
Strengths of the Internet
Weaknesses of the Internet
Practice: Choosing sources to fit a topic

Assignments that require research

Here are just a few kinds of research projects you might encounter. While the specifics for each assignment may differ, the strategies for effective Internet research remain fundamentally the same:
  • Fact papers
  • Opinion papers
  • Combined fact and opinion papers

Fact papers

Fact papers generally ask you to gather information on a specific subject. For example, you might be asked to write a fact paper on Woodstock '99.

Note that fact papers are not always called fact papers, but if you are gathering information and reporting on a thing, person, place, or an event, you are writing a fact paper. You still need to be careful in choosing what details to report and in organizing details effectively, but fact papers do not ask for your opinion. In a fact paper you might offer an account of what happened at Woodstock '99, but you would not be required to offer any personal opinion on the subject.

Opinion papers

Opinion papers ask for your opinion on some subject. Do not think, though, that research is unnecessary for opinion papers. It is often effective (and required) to support your opinions with certain kinds of researched evidence. For example, it might be your opinion that equipping classrooms with computers is a good idea. Supporting this opinion with facts on the performance of schools with and without computer-equipped classrooms can only help to strengthen the presentation of your opinion. Or perhaps if you take a stance against public health care, for example, you might want to research who is for and against the same issue, thereby strengthening your argument with the authority of a prominent figure who has taken the same position.

Combined fact and opinion papers

You will often face the challenge of having to combine fact and opinion, sometimes in subtle ways. Therefore it is good practice to make research a part of every written assignment. Remember that "research" doesn't always need to be an exhaustive search covering every angle of many broad topics. Sometimes simply visiting news-related web sites (like CNN, for example) is all the research you might need to keep up on current events. Also, leading journals in most fields have web sites to accompany their printed material. A quick visit to any one of these kinds of sites can yield a wealth of current and authoritative material.

Useful sources

Practice: Distinguishing fact from opinion

Facts are verifiable details, but note that a statement of fact does not have to have explicit verification. Thus the statement "Movie tickets are $10" is a fact. Anybody could go to the theater and find out how much tickets cost.

The tricky part comes in distinguishing between a fact that is incorrect, and an opinion. Saying that movie tickets are $90 is likely an incorrect statement, but, it is still factual since it is something we can try to verify.

Saying that movie tickets are "too expensive" is an opinion, for there is no way to verify a qualitative statement.

It is interesting to consider a case in which almost everybody would agree on a qualitative statement; for example, who wouldn't agree that "$90 for a movie ticket is too expensive"? So if everybody agrees, does the statement become fact, or is it still opinion? Can you think of examples of things that have become so commonly agreed upon that we treat them as fact, when, in reality, they remain opinion?

Label each of these statements as either fact or opinion; if you think both fact and opinion are involved, then write "both," and be prepared to explain each of your answers.
  1. The speed limit on I-75 is 70 mph.
  2. The speed limit on I-75 is too high.
  3. Catcher in the Rye is one of the greatest books of all time.
  4. Catcher in the Rye is one of the best selling books of all time.
  5. Star Wars grossed over 10 million dollars in its first week, and it's one of the best movies of all time.
  6. It is illegal to cross the street when the light is red.
  7. It is wrong to cross the street when the light is red.

Choosing sources

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 of the Internet

The Internet is an especially valuable research tool when you are looking for information that is current and updated often. You can find current data, as well as news on current events, on the Web. Many news web sites are updated many times each day. Most major newspapers, for example, have web sites that are updated throughout the day.

The Web can 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 which is portable and which you can also use to write your thoughts and responses as you read.

Weaknesses of the Internet

The Internet is not the best place to find established viewpoints in their original form since it is often the case that information is changed from its original source. Information on the Internet is often second, third, even fourth hand. Published books remain the safest place to get established fact and opinion, especially if you are looking for traditional, mainstay ideas.

You might be able to find current quotations from prominent public figures on the Internet, but if you are working in an area in which there are certain key thinkers, writers, theorists, and practitioners who have published fundamental work, it is best to go directly to those sources rather than relying on what is often second-hand reporting (or worse) on the Internet.

Practice: Choosing sources to fit a topic

Search for web sites on any of the following topics. List the best sources of information that you find. Explain your choices in class or to a peer who is working with you.
  1. Tobacco lawsuits in the state of Florida
  2. Recent Canada-U.S. border disputes
  3. Major ideas in Freud's work, The Problem of Anxiety
  4. The history of Roanoke, Virginia
  5. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions
  6. Disparities in the funding of men's and women's sports in colleges