Student Success Blog For Educators


February 26, 2016

Becoming a Better Online Researcher: Tools and Practical Advice for Students

Academic research is an important part of college and university life and as more information moves to the web, many students are now conducting research online. In fact, online study is also becoming increasingly popular, as can be attested by the growing number of students through web portals around the world.


Online research is something that most students end up doing, whether studying online or attending a traditional college. For that reason, it is crucial for them to develop good online research habits to help distinguish good and bad references, find information sources, and ensure that anything used is factual.


Plan to Learn

It is important that you approach any research as something you don't yet know a lot about. This means that you should take time to familiarize yourself with the topic, gain background knowledge, and find synonyms and similar topics to give you a better base with which to research. Even if you have a set list of items to research, gaining background knowledge of your topic can be extremely beneficial.

  1. Use general questions to learn more about the topic
  2. Identify your project scope and adjust your searches to that range
  3. Ask specific questions to find specialized answers
  4. Compare your resources
  5. Validate any assumed information, even if you believe it is true


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Choosing the Right Sources

There are two main considerations to keep in mind when choosing resources for academic research. Those are credibility and accuracy. Unfortunately, there are many factors that affect each case, so it is important that you choose trusted resources. For example, you probably know that you should never use Wikipedia or another open source platform as a resource (but they often use quality resources and link to them), but many blogs and websites are off limits as well. Peer reviewed journals are almost always a good source, as are respected magazines and publishers who generally review and confirm their data.


Information bias, misinformation, and even outright lies are unfortunately common on the web as well. It is important that you learn how to recognize them, how to research to prove facts, and how to recognize if the author has an agenda. For example, if the author seems to be promoting a product such as a drug, they are hardly a reliable resource on the effectiveness of said product.


There are a few questions you should always ask when choosing a resource. For example:

  1. Does this resource provide ideas for points?
  2. Is the author an authority in the field?
  3. Can you prove the data with additional sources?
  4. Where did the knowledge come from?
  5. Why do you trust the author? What are their credentials?
  6. How was information collected?
  7. Is this information biased?
  8. Check to see if the resource has been peer reviewed

Most of the time, if your information comes from a government, educational, museum, or other state run agency, it's probably valid. But, you should still double check to ensure that context, the exact information, and the author are correct.


Research Techniques

In some cases, you may be able to answer your questions with a single result, but these cases are rare, and often mistaken. Unless you are researching something very simple, you will most likely have to use a process known as chaining to get your results. Chaining involves using information found from multiple resources to create a single conclusion. Most academic research requires a variety of resources, and most academic writers search for as many resources as possible to add to the value of the completed piece. For example, Stephen Pinker, a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, used 717 individual resources in his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature".  

  • Collect resources before you begin working
  • Consider finding multiple resources for each question you have, each may include slightly different information.
  • Gather more resources than you need, the additional research will help you with your topic, even if you don't use them.
  • Check for updated versions of your resources, the newer the release, the better.

Building Great Work/Study Habits

Great study habits are crucial to researching and studying online, simply because you have to set aside the time to get started, dedicate yourself to doing it in your own time, and ensure that all of your work is an efficient use of time.


Don't Multi-task – Studies show that researchers who multi-task, check email or Facebook, or do other things while researching take up to 400% longer to finish the task. Save yourself time by shutting off your media devices and devoting a block of time to research. You can plan in short breaks every hour or half hour, and check your media then.  


Work with Your Habits – Figure out a schedule that works with you. This is especially important if you study online, where you get to choose your own habits. For example, many famous authors have extremely different productivity habits, with some being more productive at night and others in the morning. A study of their habits and testing whether you work better during the day or at night, can help you to improve the productivity of your research.


Don't Procrastinate – Procrastinating and putting a large job off for too long can be detrimental to your study. However, many research projects are often too large and daunting to approach without procrastination. Instead, consider using a notebook or Word document to break your research project down into small, bite size pieces that you can tackle in an hour or less.


For example, if you're writing a paper on the Civil War, you could break your initial research down into collecting resources for individual dates, battles, or even public figures. Which you could accomplish individually fairly quickly. Creating smaller tasks that you can complete quickly is motivating, because you'll be able to see progress, and will therefore be more motivated to tackle the next one, instead of feeling that you haven't accomplished anything. Plus, it will get you started sooner. A study by John A. Caldwell, evaluating the performance of air pilots, found that performance is best in short 60-90 minute bursts, followed by a period of rest or low intensive activity.


Using Smarter Searches

If you're not familiar with search, Matt Cutt's 3 minute video "How Search Works" is widely regarded as the go-to, in and out of academic circles. While some elements, like Page rank are now redundant, you can get a great idea of how a search works. This will help you to perform smarter searches to help you find the information you're looking for.


Using smarter searches means learning how to adjust your search terms to bring up academic quality content, bring up the topics you need, and find the topics you need under different names and subjects. You can also learn to search a specific website, search archives and academic papers, and otherwise remove general content from your search.


Using Tools to Improve Your Research Skills

Tools are a great way to improve your research and your use of the web, and can help you with finding academic quality references, better quality information, and more data. The following tools include a small sampling of what is available.


Google Scholar – Google Scholar allows you to search academic articles, patents, and case law, which you can use as a reference. Articles are from peer reviewed journals and websites, and you can save and upload your own for reference. Microsoft Academic Search is a good alternative.


Google Books – Google Books is a collection of full text books published online, which you can read online and reference to. Alternatively, you can use the Gutenberg Press, which is a collection of copyright free books, including academic and scholarly books.


Virtual Libraries – There are many virtual libraries you can use to look up and reference work online. For example, the Library of Congress Virtual Reference Shelf and World Cat.


Purdue University Online Writing Lab – The Purdue University Online Writing offers resources, search, and a plagiarism guide to help you find original articles.


Kentucky Virtual Library – The Kentucky Virtual Library is one of the largest online databases of references, books, academic papers, and more. It also integrates with 9 individual research search engines including the Encyclopedia Britannica, Academic Search Complete, Explora, and many more.


Google Advanced Search – Advanced Google Search allows you to specify specific terms for your search including the author, words to exclude, region published, last update, copyright, and much more.


Questia – Questia includes a large collection of online resources including books, papers, periodicals, and journals, which you can use to quickly reference and search material online.


A great researcher is someone who understands that publications on the web are not always truthful or quality references, and who knows how to sort through the millions of publications to find academic quality links and papers. It's also important that you know how to use your time study effectively, and that you know where to find the references you need.


Online research is now the norm, even for students at traditional colleges, and is likely to continue to grow as more libraries move their resources online. Digital publications, papers, and journals are also growing in popularity, allowing you to access more information, more quickly than ever before. When taken with a healthy dose of pragmatism, cross referencing, and fact checking, the Internet can be an invaluable research tool.


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Guest blogger:


This article was written by Mike Hanski, who spends a lot of time researching ideas for blog posts and content marketing assets for his clients. You can find his latest posts on Bid4papers, and many other online publications.

Feel free to contact Mike on Google+:


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