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Internet Research, Find Sources

How to Do Internet Research and Find Sources to Use

Nov 03, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
When it comes to doing research, there's no easier resource than the internet. You don't even have to leave your desk to find all the sources you need for a research paper. But using the internet has a downside as well: the fact that it's simple to access makes it easy for you to find pretty much anything you need, but it also makes it difficult to tell whether what you find it accurate. After all, anyone can write and publish on the internet. So, if you're going to be using the internet to do research, you have to know how to sort out the good sources from the bad.

What makes a good source?

The key part of finding a good resource is to verify that the information you're citing is accurate. Because anyone can post information on the web, you need to have some sort of independent verification of the information. Often this means using a resource that has a reputation that extends out into the real world like a newspaper, government website, or academic journal. These sources are known to uphold good journalistic and academic practices and are legally responsible for their writings, which makes them more reliable than other sites.
A good source will also be unbiased. If you're looking at a website that is clearly pushing an agenda - for example, a political blog or a report published by an industry lobbying group - then you should be careful about quoting them in your essay. This doesn't mean you can't use them as a source, but you should note in your paper if the source of your information is questionable.

Good sources

Online versions of print publications

Most print publications these days have an online component, which means you can access their material from your computer and still rely on their real-world status as reliable sources of information. Large newspapers like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times of London are good sources for research papers on current events, as are news sites like BBC and CNN and reputable magazines like The Economist and The Atlantic.
If you're doing academic research, peer-reviewed journals can also be found online and are always a good research source. These journals publish only material that has been vetted by professionals in the field and are the gold standard when you're doing any sort of academic research paper. Look on sites like EBSCO, PubMed, and JSTOR to find journals related to your topic. These sites aren't free, though. Usually access can be found through a library or university, but if you can't access these sites, articles can be purchased individually or you can try a free resource like Google Scholar.

Official sites

The official sites of institutions like government offices, universities, hospitals, and non-profits are also good places to look for reliable information on the web. Government websites will end in .gov and can be a good source of facts and figures on everything from energy use to environmental issues to medical questions. University websites end in .edu, and many of these will have their own publications as well as databases of other good resources.
Groups like non-profits, unions, trade associations, and religious organizations usually have websites that end in .org (although there are technically no restriction on the use of that domain). These types of organizations can often be good sources for research paper. For example, if you're writing a paper for an education class you may want to visit the sites for programs like KIPP or Education Trust, or if you're writing about environmental issues you can look at sites like The Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund.

Bad sources

Open source encyclopedias

Wikipedia, the most common open-source encyclopedia, is a great place to start your research, but you should never cite it in a research paper unless it's explicitly allowed by your teacher. There is very little editorial oversight on Wikipedia, and because Wikipedia entries are written by anybody who wants to contribute to the site, there is no way to tell if the information you're citing is accurate.
The site can, however, be a good place to start with your research. You can gather basic facts and get an idea of what type of paper you want to write. Many entries will cite reputable sources like books and peer-reviewed journal articles, so if you find something you'd like to quote in your paper, check and see if the original source is cited in the Wikipedia entry. If it is you can locate that source to use in your paper; just remember to double check the original source to ensure that it was cited correctly.

Blogs/personal websites

Much like Wikipedia, blogs and personal websites can be a good place to get started with your research, but you should never quote from them in your research paper. If you find information you want to use, try to find the original source to cite instead. If you can't find the original source and you really have to use the information in your paper, make sure that you note these issues in your essay so the audience can evaluate you argument.

Everything else

And then there's everything else. The internet is a big place, and a lot of sites won't fall into the categories listed above. For websites where the source of the information is unclear, it's up to you to decide whether the site is reliable and would therefore make a good resource for your paper. If you're unsure about the site, try to dig deeper to determine where the information originated from. Do they cite published studies, articles, or other verifiable sources? Keep in mind that just because you can find the information on other sites doesn't make it true - you need to be able to find the original source to cite in your paper.
If there's information you want to use, but you can't find a credible source, you need to weigh how important the information is versus how it will look in your paper if you cite an unverifiable resource. The key is to find the balance between information you need and citing sources that will make your paper seem credible. Remember, the reader will be judging your argument in part based on where you got your information, so citing reliable resources is an important component of writing a good essay.
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