Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Using the Internet Wisely

Chapter 2: Section 3, Lesson 3

If you’ve grown up using the Internet, you may not realize how much it’s changed over the last ten or fifteen years. In spite of the changes, basic search principles remain much the same. For a discussion of purely academic online resources, like academic databases and library catalogues, see Using the Library Wisely. See below for more general methods to search the Internet.

Internet Resources
If you have a tablet or a smartphone, you’ll likely be able to access apps that can help with your search. Some apps offer educational resources and detailed information about a given topic or specialty. For example, an app might act as a well-researched handbook, a technical manual on a specialized topic, a collection of academic articles, or an encyclopedia on a specific topic. Some apps allow you to search a given resource or database on the go, such as a library’s catalog or a newspaper’s databases. Other apps offer regularly docs issues of newspapers, magazines, journals, and blogs.

You can find a lot of contemporary e-books, as well as e-books of literature and many other types of writing, on devices such as the Kindle. Often, the book will only be readable on a particular type of e-reader, but you can sometimes find e-books in different formats, such as PDF, Word, or HTML, that can be read on multiple devices. Some current academic e-books are offered for free on academic websites, organizational websites, or as part of an open-publishing arrangement. Classical books that are out of copyright, such as Darwin’s essays or Shakespeare’s plays, are also available for free through online archives. Check the e-books carefully, though; many print texts are converted to e-books using optical character recognition (OCR) software rather than by hand. Those texts may not have been proofread well and could have many typos and errors; even professionally published e-books may have lingering formatting and layout issues that make the text more difficult to decipher.

Online News Sources, Magazines, and Journals
Newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and even your local paper are on the web, often without a subscription fee. Magazines geared to the general public (like Time Magazine) and journals directed to professionals (like The New England Journal of Medicine) are available for free, too. Newspapers have started to make back issues available online as well, so it’s now possible to search The New York Times website for articles published decades and even centuries before the Internet was accessible. Many of these articles are freely available while others are available for a nominal fee. Now, you don’t always have to go to a library’s microfiche room to find newspaper articles from prior decades. First, check the publication’s website.

Government and Institutional Websites
Governments, research institutions, and non-profits often provide a wealth of resources, articles, and studies that they have authored, have conducted, or are associated with. Some non-profit groups, such as those whose mission is to search for missing children or those that discuss health issues like arthritis, have websites, as do specific government departments, research organizations, and political action groups. While the sources are easy to access, you’ll want to check their credibility carefully. For example, research published by a think tank with a clearly-defined political position will be less credible than an article in a peer-reviewed academic journal. That doesn’t mean that such sources are useless. They might well contain valuable and relevant information; with any source, you should carefully consider its credibility in relation to its topic.

Individual and Corporate Websites
You can access individual people's homepages or web pages created for their personal use, but read those pages with a grain of salt. While they may have some useful information, the pages may not have reliable sources, and they may be very biased. Corporations also make research and information available on their websites. Consider the source of information, and be just as skeptical about it as you are with research provided by a political think tank.

Social Media
Social media is becoming an increasingly popular form of research as more and more academic institutions, organizations, and researchers operate social media accounts. You might find Twitter links to a new article on bat population decline, or question-and-answer sessions in the comments section of a blog. You might find a Facebook group dedicated to sharing information and articles about a current literary movement. These are all forms of secondary research, but social media can also be a great medium for primary research, whether you’re conducting a survey or simply observing public discussions about an issue. (See Completing the Research Process for more on primary and secondary research.) Most documentation styles, such as APA, also have guidelines for citing social media, so consider it a valid resource in your online search.

Finding Your Information
It’s important to note that the Internet offers many different search interfaces and search resources beyond traditional search engines. Newspapers, databases, apps, catalogs, and social media services all offer search functions, each with different options, capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Get to know the resource’s search functions and capabilities before you begin to maximize your search efforts.

Many of these resources, like traditional search engines, make use of Boolean terms. These are unique terms that you can use in the search field to expand, narrow, or otherwise adjust your results. A resource such as a library catalog might use drop-down menus that allow you to apply Boolean terms while another resource such as Google might require that you type the Boolean terms into the search field. You might want to use the following Boolean terms to expand and narrow your search:

  • AND between keywords lets you find sources that include two specific words (e.g., multiple AND intelligences). AND narrows your search. In some search engines, the AND is represented by a plus (+).
  • NOT also narrows your search. For example, “orioles NOT baseball” will narrow your search to orioles as birds or some other uses of the word. In some search engines, the NOT is represented by a minus (-).
  • OR between keywords will expand the search. OR tells the search engine to find sources that include either one of two words, sometimes synonyms (e.g., students OR youth).
  • Wildcard characters like * and ? let you shorten a term while broadening the search (e.g., if you type writ* as your keyword, you can get results for writer, writers, and writing).

If you combine these terms, your searches can become even more precise. For more information about keyword searches, email or visit your librarian or use your library’s “Live Chat” service, if available.

Think About It

  • What information do you need to find, and what online sources are likely to provide it?
  • Which sources can you use as part of the open Internet?
  • How can you use Boolean terms to make your search more effective?

When using the Internet for research, you should consider not only what topic you need to research but also the various types of sources—like websites, e-books, or apps—that might provide the information you need.