Quick Tips for Internet Research
Writing an English paper often requires research, which in the past meant countless hours spent in the library. With more and more quality information available on the Internet, it is now possible to do some of that research quicker and easier than ever before. In addition, using the Internet can reduce the number of trips to the library and can make those trips more productive. But the Internet contains a vast amount of data that is irrelevant or just plain wrong. Use these tips to help ensure your Internet research is more of a time-saver than a time-waster.
The CSU Sacramento Library (http://library.csus.edu/) website can be a valuable source of research information. From the library’s home page, the Eureka Library Catalog (http://eureka.lib.csus.edu.proxy.lib.csus.edu/) lets you search the various catalogs and collections from home and can often tell you if the book is currently available before you make the trip to the library. With a SacLink account, you can use the Prospector gateway (http://prospector.csus.edu/) to search all the electronic resources and databases available at the library. Prospector allows you to search all available databases, or to limit your search to the most relevant. Some databases that English majors may find particularly useful are the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), the Essay and General Literature Index in Firstsearch, and the MLA (Modern Language Association International Bibliography). The CSUS library also offers online access to Scholarly Internet Resources (http://library.csus.edu/infomine/), a collection of “databases, electronic journals, electronic books, bulletin boards, mailing lists, online library card catalogs, articles, directories of researchers, and many other types of information” built by librarians at a number of universities nationwide.
If you’re new to Internet research or want to enhance your techniques, Florida Community College provides an online course (Introduction to Internet Research, http://faculty.valencia.cc.fl.us/jdelisle/lis2004/index.htm) that delivers basic Internet information as well as providing some valuable information on search techniques. If you just want a quick brush-up on searching using the web’s most popular search engine, check out the exercises in Googling to the Max (http://www.csus.edu/indiv/r/rodriguezm/373A/Googling_Max-Spring2005Exercises.pdf). The exercises were created as part of an Internet Researching class at University of California, Berkeley. Google also offers Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/) specifically for academic research.
Although Google (www.google.com) is arguably the most popular search engine, it is by no means the only one. The State University of New York at Albany offers a limited listing (http://library.albany.edu/internet/engines.html) of search engines. A more comprehensive list can be found at allsearchengines.com (http://www.allsearchengines.com/). This site also offers a breakdown of topic search engines including educational and library engines. Search engines do not always contain the same listings and do not rank the information using the same algorithms, so be sure to try your search through different engines to expand your reach.
A lot of the information available on the Internet contains hyperlinks to other information, just as this page contains hyperlinks to other sites. Following those hyperlinks can lead you to more valuable information, or it can lead you down a "rabbit hole" of useless sites and make it difficult to return to the original page. To prevent this, right-click on the link and select the option to "Open in a new window." This means your original page is always open on the desktop waiting for you to return. Another common problem with following hyperlinks is the tendency to get side-tracked following interesting but irrelevant data. Stay focused on the task at hand, and bookmark the interesting sites to return to later, after you've completed the assignment.
Finding information on the Internet can be like hunting for treasure in a crowded attic. There may be valuable antiques among the clothing trunks and torn lampshades, but most of the items are just junk. Because the World Wide Web is a self-publishing medium, it holds a vast assortment of information provided by reputable sources, informed hobbyists, and people with more opinions than facts. Determining the whether the information on a web site is valid is not always easy.
Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) is a classic example. Wikipedia has made a name for itself as an online encyclopedia. Often billed as the world’s largest encyclopedia, Wikipedia has millions of pages of information in ten different languages. The site has grown large very quickly because members of the Wikipedia community provide the information. Anyone joining what is called the wiki (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki) community can add and edit information on any topic they want. But no independent effort is made to fact-check the information before it is published, and the input of acknowledged experts may be rejected in favor of the collective “wisdom” of the community. This has caused some problems with the accuracy of the site. Much of the data on Wikipedia may be accurate, but if anyone can write or edit any entry in the encyclopedia, the validity of every entry becomes suspect. Even the founders of the project, Jimmy Wales (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/18/wikipedia_quality_problem/) and Larry Sanger (http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/12/30/142458/25) have acknowledged problems with the quality of the data.
Before using the information found on a website in a research paper you’ll want to verify the credibility of the information. An excellent reference from the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University is Evaluating Information Found on the Internet (http://www.library.jhu.edu/researchhelp/general/evaluating/). The section on distinguishing information from propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation provides some particularly interesting reading. According to a 2001 study at Wellesley College “students were overwhelmingly susceptible to three types of misinformation—advertising claims, government misinformation, and propaganda—and somewhat susceptible to scam sites.”1 In addition to critically evaluating the source of the information, it is a good idea to find two or three different sources that independently confirm the information is correct.
If you use information found on a website you’ll need to acknowledge the source just as you would cite information from a book or journal article. The Purdue University Online Writing Laboratory (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/) provides examples of electronic citations (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/research/r_mla.html#Electronic) from the MLA Handbook. Some Internet sources provide more than just information. Entire research papers can be found or purchased on some sites. Using these sources without attribution is considered plagiarism (http://library.csus.edu/content2.asp?pageID=353) and can lead to university sanctions.
Much of the literary canon is no longer protected by copyright laws and is available on the web. Many university professors have collected links to these and other resources and made them publicly available to interested searchers. A Rutgers University professor maintains an annotated, searchable collection of Literary Resources on the Net (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Lit/). A comprehensive list of sites (http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/sites.htm) dedicated to American Literature is available from Washington State University, and CSU Stanislaus offers Perspectives in American Literature (http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/TABLE.HTML) as a research and reference guide. The London School of Journalism devotes a page to English Literature Resources (http://www.english-literature.org/resources/) and Cardiff University offers Useful Sites for English Literature (http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/schoolsanddivisions/divisions/insrv/bysubject/english/websites.html). As you find other valuable sites in your research be sure to bookmark them for future use.
Using the Internet can be a valuable tool for researching an English paper. It is not a substitute for library research, but an additional source of information and resources. It allows you to preview library resources to make those visits more productive and provides access to critical information from a variety of other sources.
1 Graham, Leah and Metaxas, Panagiotis Takis. “Of Course it’s True; I saw it on the Internet! Critical Thinking in the Internet Era.” Communications of the ACM. Volume 45 No 5 (2003): p73