There’s no feeling like the trepidation one experiences at the outset of a large research project. Where does one begin? What is the best sequence of steps to take in completing the research? Using the internet to do research poses some issues: while it may seem that having so much information at one’s fingertips should make academic research a less time-consuming endeavor, the sheer amount of stuff out there can make it hard to know which sources to fully trust.
In this guide, we’ll explain the most efficient way to conduct online research, how to assess the legitimacy of sources, how to cite them the correct way, and conclude with a broad list of resources spanning a multitude of fields. No sense in getting lost in the quest for citation-worthy academic sources, it’s all right there in front of you..
Selecting a Topic
The research topic you choose has a huge effect on the outcome of your assignment: select a topic that’s broad and well trodden and there will be little to distinguish your work from others, while if you select a topic that’s too obscure, and it will be a struggle to gather relevant research.
The correct path lies in the middle ground: the right balance of background resource availability and uniqueness.
Here’s a sequence of steps to get you on your way:
- Pick a field you’re intrigued by and read some background information on it. If you pick a topic you have little interest in, it will be hard to stay focused. Read an encyclopedia (or even wikipedia) entry on your topic to gather general knowledge.
- Based on what you’ve gathered from preliminary research, zero in on a specific focus. Reading an encyclopedia entry on your topic will allow you to sharpen your focus on a more specific aspect of the topic. If your given assignment limits you to a particular style of argument, this may be even simpler.
- Choose several major areas of research relevant to your topic and sort your research into these categories. Filing your research into categories based on main keywords will simplify your task.
- Don’t be afraid to switch gears. If you struggle to find relevant information on your chosen topic or articles that back up your argument, pivot to a different topic that is better supported by the research you are doing.
Getting the Most Out of Search Engines
First of all, for general searches, always use Google. Unless you are in China where the site is banned and you do not have a VPN subscription (in which case, you’ll have to use Bing), Google will bring you the best results.
A few tips on improving your Google searches:
- Visit here for some shortcuts on how to refine your searches.
- Place exact quotes or phrases within quotation marks to drastically reduce search results.
- Enter in “All in text:” before your topic to filter out irrelevant results. (example: “all in text: victorian vampire novels”)
Of course, if you are looking for academic resources, i.e., psychological studies, mathematics papers, etc., a Google search won’t cut it. You’ll have to choose an academic search site focused on a specific field of study. Quite a few of these websites are listed below, sorted by field.
Choosing and Vetting Online Sources
Over twenty years into its existence, there’s still a bit of a “wild west” feel to much of the internet, where a lot of information presented as credible is actually inaccurate, or from dubious sources with certain agendas.
Generally, if you stick to the databases and archives listed below, and cite from peer-reviewed sources, you’ll be okay. To be sure of the credibility of a source, Google search it to gather background information that can verify its legitimacy.
Another thing to avoid is predatory open access publishers running low quality journals that charge fees to hopeful authors without granting them the resources or clout associated with legitimate journals. Using sources from these types of publishers begets an unethical practice.
Go here to find a list of predatory journals.
Using Sources Properly
When you use information from a source in your work, even if it’s paraphrased (phrasing the information using your own words), you must cite it, or else what you are doing qualifies as plagiarism.
Best to err on the safe side: some professors are extremely strict about plagiarism, and being accused of the practice can have serious consequences, including suspension or even expulsion.. When in doubt--even if the material reads like general background information--cite your source.
Furthermore, you should be careful about reusing material from previous essays you’ve written. Self-plagiarism is a real thing, and if you repeat yourself without citing the previous work, you are guilty of it.
Run your work through this free plagiarism checker to be sure you are in the clear.
When citing sources in your work, it’s important to be consistent and stick to a specific citation style throughout the work. Likely, your teacher or professor will prefer one of three main styles be utilized. These styles are the American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA) and Chicago styles. The rules for each of these styles is extensive, and citations will vary based on the type of source cited. It’s best to follow a thorough guide for each. Here’s one for each style:
- MLA style: Purdue Writing Lab MLA Formatting and Style Guide
- APA style: Mendeley APA Citation Guide
- Chicago style: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide
This list of research databases and other helpful sources should be a boon to any young researcher. Some sites require a subscription (which may be granted to you simply for being a student), while others are free for anyone to use.
Search Engines and Databases
- iSEEK Education: A great academic resource search engine with an “authoritative” setting that returns only articles vetted by universities, noncommercial providers, and government organizations.
- Google Scholar: Google’s own scholarly material search engine that extends a vast reach across a wide ranges of databases, returning full articles or metadata as well as lists of citations and related links.
- JournalSeek: JournalSeek claims to be the web’s largest free collection of journal information, with a collection of over 40,000 titles. The searchable categories are vast and include arts and literature, economics, and all of the branches of physical science.
Books, Libraries and Archives
- Google Books: The search giant’s Books project has spanned over a decade, with the expressed purpose of scanning and making available every one of the estimated 130 volumes around the world. Right now, the number’s around 30 million.
- jSTOR: A vast archive of academic journal material and the #1 go-to for university students and educators, alike. Much of the content is free, although full access to the archive costs $19.50 a month. Many students will be granted free access based on their enrollment, alone.
- Project Gutenberg: A huge database compiled by thousands of volunteers of over 57,000 free eBooks that have found their way into the public domain.
- Catalog of U.S. Government Publications: The U.S. federal government’s official catalog of publications from congress and other sources. An excellent resource for firsthand sources and academic research.
- Library of Congress: All manner of media, including books, videos, images and sound recordings are available through the Library of Congress’s website, as well as information about upcoming exhibits, and more.
- The National Archives: A boundless source of records and data, including genealogical information, military enlistment records, and documents detailing labor strikes and work stoppages stretching back to 1800.
- The Internet Archives: Another terrific nonprofit online catalog of all manner of media and texts from a dizzying array of sources. One of the most interesting projects is the Wayback Machine, which began in 1996 and is dedicated to documenting the history of the internet.
- The World Factbook: Providing detailed information and statistics on 267 “world entities” (their words), few sources can be more trusted for information gathering than the CIA.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: The online version of the premier U.S.-based dictionary. Beyond the comprehensive dictionary and thesaurus, there are also articles discussing the history of the usage of certain words currently trending in the zeitgeist.
- Encyclopedia Britannica: No encyclopedia is more respected than the Britannica, and now all volumes are available online. Full access will cost you, but the seven-day free trial is worth checking out.
- References: A massive compendium of great reference links categorized in dozens of categories. Claims to be the web’s largest.
- Thesaurus: The go-to online thesaurus. Entries include a word history as well as a list of antonyms for your viewing pleasure.
- Literary Encyclopedia: A frequently updated, expertly maintained catalog of articles covering literature and culture, with entries on works, authors, styles, and historical context. Visitors are allowed one free article per day, while an individual subscription costs $9.95 a month, or just $18.95 for a full year.
- AP Archive: One of the most trusted news sources, the Associated Press’s archive of news stories and media spans back all the way to 1895, with tons of new content added daily. The organization’s partnership with other networks like ABC enriches their video library.
- The New York Times Times Machine: The Newspaper of Record’s archive of just about every single news story they’ve ever printed in the past 150 years. An excellent research resource for discovering how historical events were covered contemporaneously.
- Google News Archive: Google’s predictably exhaustive collection of scanned copies of hundreds of newspapers from around the world which, in some cases, date back to the early 19th century.
Health and Medicine
- PubMed: A U.S. National Library of Medicine sponsored collection of over 28 million biomedical literature citations. In some cases, full text articles are available, while other times only the citations are available.
- Mayo Clinic: One of the nation’s most respected hospitals also hosts a website with a ton of information about various medical conditions, their causes and symptoms, and possible treatments.
- The British Medical Journal Archive: The premier UK medical journal’s full archive spanning back to 1840 won’t be cheap to access, at 138 pounds a year (about $180), but for medical students and researchers, it’s worth it.
- Science.gov: The official government portal that you can use to search over 60 databases and 2000+ websites for scientific research material.
- Worldscience.org: Another great search tool for finding scientific research and development material. This site provides results in many languages owing to a partnership between organizations from countries around the world.
- NASA: One of the best sources for the latest astronomical news and discoveries. NASA’s wonderful gallery of satellite images is unparalleled, and a major draw for visitors of the site.
- Science Magazine: Journals: The archive of one of the world’s leading academic journals, with access granted to subscribers. A year subscription is only $25 for students.
- Astrophysics Data System: Run by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and paid for by a NASA grant, the ADS may look like a website from 1998, but it contains over 14 million records from publications in Physics and Astronomy.
- Genetics: For students of biology, the journal Genetics is a must-read, covering the major developments in a field whose knowledge base is exploding and which will have major ramifications for the century ahead.
Engineering and Technology
- IEEE Xplore Digital Library: An online library of literature covering the fields of technology and engineering dedicated to “advancing technology for the benefit of humanity”. Subscriptions are purchased by institutions, so you may already have access, depending on which school you attend.
- Technology in Society: An international journal dedicated to discussion on how technology shapes and affects the world around us. Submissions to the journal are more philosophical in nature than others.
- Engineering.com: A nice site of media and resources for engineering students with games, utilities, and an archive of journals.
- Current Anthropology: One of the best anthropology journals around the world published by the University of Chicago. Subscriptions are relatively affordable and can be purchased by both individuals and institutions.
- American Psychology Association: A necessary website for psychology students that includes an archive of back publications, up-to-date news, and general information on the practice of psychology.
- American Sociological Review: A leading sociological journal that can be accessed through a subscription to SAGE Publications, a publisher of over 1000 journals, worldwide.
Politics and Law
- Law Library of Congress: The Law Library of Congress website has an absurd amount of available information, include the constitutions and law codes of just about every nation in the world.
- Congress.gov: The site where you can view all of the latest legislative action taken by Congress, as well as a schedule of upcoming meetings of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- Harvard Law Review: Few student-run organizations carry as much prestige as the Harvard Law Review; it’s weighty journal published monthly from November to June prints articles by experts in the field of law.
- Find Law: A great resource for both contemporary legal news and searching for cases and decisions posted by courts around the country. Visitors can search by topic or jurisdiction.
Economics and Finance
- Economics Search Engine: Utilizing a beta version of the Google Custom Search Engine, the ESE allows visitors to search over 23,000 economics websites for the material they’re looking for.
- U.S. Small Business Administration: A government-sponsored site that serves as both an informational resource, and a directory of government offices and sources of funding based on one’s needs and status.
- FRED: Hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, FRED is a great source for finding all manner of economic data and information.
- Smithsonian Institution Collections Search: If you are unable to visit the Smithsonian in person, no matter, you can still search the museum’s online record, which includes over 14 million records of museum objects and exhibits, including 3 million images, audio files, and videos.
- Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Scholars of ancient history will love this site, which hosts primary sources from all of the major ancient civilizations, from the Mesopotamians to the Romans of Late Antiquity.
- Digital History: Covers American History from a number of angles and spans all time periods. Hosts a huge library of primary source documents from the Revolutionary Era to the present.
- HistoryNet: The website of the world’s largest history magazine publisher. Visitors can read (and cite) articles from all nine of the publisher’s magazines.
- zbMATH: zbMATH is the top search site for finding papers published in leading mathematics journals. Visitors can also search for specific software and formulas, which you won’t find in databases of other fields.
- CIS - Current Index to Statistics: A library of the core contents of 160 statistics journals dating back to 1975 (or before, in some cases). Since the beginning of 2017, CIS has been open to the public.
- Yale University Library Art & Art History: A broad index of art history literature and images of artworks. Visitors must sign on through their academic institution.
- Web Gallery of Art: Need a high res image for your art history paper? Look no further than the Web Gallery of Art, which has been up for over 20 years and contains over 46,000 reproductions.