Online Research Strategies for Students

Photo: Gaelle Marcel / Unsplash

Photo: Gaelle Marcel / Unsplash

Where to Begin?

Do you have an exciting paper topic, but no idea how to find credible research materials online? You are not alone! In this article, we recommend a 4-step approach to academic Internet research that will allow you to survey available literature while staying organized.

Step 1

The Search

On a Google Doc or other word processing software, write a list of terms related to your topic, then search each term on Google or another search engine. Challenge yourself to find 3-5 online sources for each term searched. Skim the first few lines of the article. If it looks like a potentially valuable article, Copy & Paste the website URL onto your Google Doc. Refine your search as you go, beginning with general terms followed by terms of increasing specificity. The goal is to obtain a list of article links for later reading. Allow 1-2 hours for this process.

Step 2

Evaluating Sources

The second step of the process is to evaluate the credibility of prospective sources on your list. Return to each article using the links you saved. Determine the source type and author, visiting the website’s About page or Home page as needed. Be prepared to skim articles with the goal of understanding the publication context, such as the date, author bio and the intended audience. Note the website type, article title, date and author name on the Google Doc. If a website does not appear credible, eliminate the reference. See below for a list of common website types!

Step 3

Preliminary Reading

Once you have a working list of article links, begin reading prospective sources by skimming the full text. To skim, read the first sentence of each paragraph and allow your eyes to wander quickly over the text, paying attention for keywords related to your topic. If the article seems relevant, challenge yourself to write a one-sentence summary on your notes document. Keep an eye out for references to additional scholarship on your topic. Should you determine the article is not a relevant or credible source, delete it from your list. Allow 5 - 15 minutes per source, depending upon article length and complexity.

Step 4

Reading Online Sources

Now that you have a list of article links and summaries, follow up on any articles or new search terms you came across in your reading and add these sources to your working bibliography, following Step 3 above. Once complete, paste each article into a new Google Doc using the “Paste Without Formatting” option under the Edit tab, tidy up the layout, and print a hard copy.

During this phase of the process, read slowly for as much time as needed to understand the author’s argument, underlining and annotating as you go. Challenge yourself to draft a concise summary of each article in 4-5 sentences. If this is a struggle, reread the article (most scholars read sources 2-3 times). For a 3-5 page research paper requiring 3-6 sources, expect to invest 5-10 hours in background reading. You will need to read more articles than you choose to cite as references.

Conclusion

There is no right or wrong way to conduct Internet research for your writing assignment. The systematic approach we recommend has proven effective for students of all abilities who want to stay organized during the research process. In short, our best advice is to follow the ideas wherever they lead, but keep good notes along the way!


common website types

Academic Journals

Academic journals publish peer-reviewed articles by leading scholars. Visit Google Scholar to read article summaries (“abstracts”), read the full-text article or download the article PDF. Ask your teacher or librarian for assistance if full-text articles are not available.

Corporate / Company (.com)

Encyclopedias

Government (.gov) / Organization (.org)

Magazines / Blogs

News Media

News sources are especially challenging to evaluate, so we have prepared a list of reputable publications for general audiences.

New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Economist, CNN, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, Time Magazine, Slate, Local News Papers

Personal Websites

Social Media

Wikis

Wikis are open-source encyclopedias with articles submitted by anonymous authors. They can be good places to begin background research on your topic because articles often include bibliographic references for further reading. We do not recommend citing a Wiki as a source.


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