On The Web

These days it's easy to forget that the Internet and the World Wide Web began as academic research networks. But they did, and today the Internet's potential as a research tool is even more apparent. On listservs and in newsgroups, scholars informally discuss the most recent developments in their fields. Private research centers and government agencies accept grant applications, conduct peer reviews, and publish papers online. By conducting a few effective searches you should be able to turn up several excellent sources on almost any topic.

But the Internet also has a lot of what scholars call "noise"--unreliable, misleading information that interferes with the research effort, like static disturbing a radio station. Besides locating sources, then, it's also important to evaluate those sources for quality of information and for relevance to your topic.

Effective Searching

To get the most from Internet research, you need to "cast a wide net." The resources listed below are only a few of the excellent search engines available on the Web. Experiment with a few different ones. Even if you have a favorite, trying some new search engines, and practicing with your query language (read each site's instructions) will help you get a wide ranging search with relevant results, sorted to your needs.

AltaVista is almost always ranked highly for thoroughness and for allowing carefully worded queries, but is sometimes considered difficult to use.

HighBeam searches for magazine and newspaper articles on topics of your choice. These can be organized and arranged in folders for future reference. It is a subscription site with limited free fea tures and a free trial of all features.

HotBot is a powerful and highly regarded search engine associat ed with Lycos. It organizes responses into categories of relevance.

Google has become a favorite first choice for most web users. It is noted for sorting and ranking results well to match a user's inter ests. Its clean, simple interface may be welcome if you're feeling overwhelmed by possibilities, but Google is not good at allowing complex queries.

Metasearch allows you to query several search engines at once. The results are well sorted, and precise queries are possible.

Yahoo! contains vast categories of sites arranged hierarchically. Besides browsing the listings, you can search them, but the search will not be as extensive as some others.

Northern Light organizes your results into folders to help you find categories of response. It has a vast database and takes a spe cial interest in academic research.

About.com is a solid, well-organized resource that emphasizes education and organizes sites into categories like Yahoo! Because the categories are maintained by people rather than web bots, About.com covers less of the web than the big search engines, but makes up for that by being high on quality.

 

Sorting and Sifting

While a good search engine may return hundreds of sites, only a few of those may prove useful. Explore all possibilities to turn up what you can. Then sort, prioritize, evaluate.

Many sites will be rejected as low quality or not relevant to your topic. Bookmark other sites of interest for future reference. Pick a few of the highest quality, most relevant sites to explore in depth.

How current is the site? Check to see when the site was last updated. Many sites will have this information displayed in either a header or a footer on each page. Bad links, sloppy grammar and mechanics, and poor navigation features are other signs that a site isn't up to the standard of professionalism that you want from your sources. Compare the quality of the site's information, design, and writing with other sites you've visited.

Who sponsors the site? Is the site sponsored by a governmental agency or by a university? If so, it may have more surface credibility than a site published by an advocacy group or by an individual. The Center for Disease Control or The Johns Hopkins Medical School, for instance, would be good places to look for information on Multiple Sclerosis. But what about a small personal website detailing one person's struggle with the disease? That could be valuable, too, depending on how you intend to use the information.

Who created the site, and why? Is the author identified? Look for an "About" page to learn who created the site and why. Check the author's credentials. Do you see any advanced degrees or publications or professional affiliations?