Going online to do research when you're writing papers and doing projects is a no-brainer. But all of the choices at your fingertips can seem overwhelming sometimes. Knowing how to evaluate and choose online resources can help you avoid headaches and wasted time.
Here are 5 ways to make researching online as easy and effective as possible:
Start at school. Ask your teachers or librarian which resources they'd recommend for your project. That way you can be sure the resources are school approved and the information is accurate. In some cases, your school or teacher may have paid subscriptions to online journals or websites. These can give you information you wouldn't get through a regular Internet search.
Unless your teacher says otherwise, using the Internet should be an additional tool, not your only tool for researching a topic. Your school library is full of books, magazines, and other resources to help you.
Many schools block access to images or websites that may be valuable to your research. So plan on spending some of your online research time at home or your local library, or anywhere else you have online access.
Sort fact from fiction. Before you begin your research, make a list of the kinds of sites that are best for your topic. Is the website reliable and up to date? Check to see if the author is identified and sources are cited. Government sites ending in .gov and educational sites ending in .edu usually are safe bets. Established news-related sites are OK, too, but be sure that you're using the original source. If a newspaper article mentions another source, like an organization or website, go directly to that source to find the information.
Sites ending in .org are usually run by nonprofit organizations. They can be good resources, but it's always best to check with your teacher to make sure he or she considers the site appropriate. Wikipedia.org is popular and ranks high in search results, but it can be edited by anyone, whether a person has accurate knowledge of the topic or not. At most schools, using Wikipedia as a source is not a good way to build credibility.
On commercial websites ending in .com, check to see if the site has advertising. If it does, it may be biased since it's trying to sell a product. And blogs, personal websites, and social media sites (like YouTube, Digg, Tumblr, Pinterest, or Facebook) are more likely to give personal opinions rather than facts.
Search smart. Start with an established search engine, like Google or Bing. Although search engines often do a good job of guessing what you need, you will get better results when you use more specific terms. Try alternative searches with different words and use search operators, symbols, or advanced search to narrow your results. If you want to learn more ways to improve your searches, ask your teacher or librarian for guidance.
Many search engines are paid to place certain results as advertisements. Sometimes these ads show up at the top of the search result page. The ads will look different from the regular results (appearing on a shaded background, for example) and should be clearly marked as ads. Even when the top results aren't ads, they still might not be the best possible choices. That's why it helps to know the best sites for your needs (point #2 above).
Stay focused. When you're ready to check out websites or go to search engines such as Google, stay focused on your research by logging off of social media and email (and turn off your phone!). If you need to take a break, make a note of where you are before you walk away from your computer. Taking a 5- or 10-minute break from the computer every hour works well for most people. Use the time to move around and stretch a bit.
Cite right. When you research online, it can be easy to copy and paste text, then forget to cite the source or go back and put the thought in your own words later. Just as teachers can recognize your voice in class, most can recognize your voice in your writing. Even accidental plagiarism can have serious consequences for your grades — so don't take a chance. Identify the text you've quoted and add the citation before moving on to the rest of your paper. The format for citing online resources is different from print resources, so be sure to check the particular style your teacher wants you to use for Internet citations.