Using the Web for Student Research

As you may have figured out from looking at the web pages I have constructed, I think that using the Internet for research is not a bad thing. There are many useful sites out there. But that doesn't mean that I think you should just grab whatever you can find out there and stick it in a paper or project. Here's some things you need to know about using the internet:

1. The World Wide Web is notorious for having useless and misleading information. Why? Because anyone can post anything. There is no scholarly process of editing or peer review. It is the ultimate in vanity publishing. So how do you know what's good and what isn't? Well, I've tried to help with that by building "portal" pages, which link to stuff I think is good in a particular area. But I certainly wouldn't want to stand behind everything I've linked to.

This means that you have to develop good judgment, which is part of good critical thinking. The goal is to tell better from worse, good from bad. Don't believe something just because it is in print on on a screen. It is worth knowing the process by which something came to be in print or on-line. What are the credentials of the writer(s)? Was there a review process? Were there separate editors, who might catch mistakes or challenge interpretations?

2. The internet can lead to some very bad habits. The worst (and it is unfortunately very common) is:
PLAGIARISM. It is very easy to just cut and paste information into your own word processor. But be warned: as easily as you found the source, the professor can also find it. Plagiarism isn't using good judgment or critical thinking, it is just stealing.

3. Using the internet for research can lead to another bad habit: forgetting that there are other sources of information, sometimes far better. Only about 15% of scholarship is currently available on-line. Where do you find the rest? In
books and journals, mostly. It is therefore CRUCIAL that you actually handle real books and journals for any assignment. The internet supports library research, it does not replace it.

4. So, how should you use the internet? Well, it is a pretty good thing when you are trying to formulate the question which you are writing about (this is relevant even when you have been given the question in an assignment). What is the range of uses of the terms in the question? What are the various angles on the question?

The internet is also useful as a kind of big card catalogue. Of course, there are literal card catalogues (virtually every library has its holdings on-line). But it also gives you an idea of the resources available. People post their own bibliographies, which can be very useful.

There are various services, usually available through the university library, that bridge the gap between the internet and the traditional library. JSTOR, EBSCO, and many others provide full text articles that have been published in reputable journals. These are very useful, especially since you can search the text of many articles at once if you are looking for something specific.

So, yes, use the internet. But learn to think, while you are using it. It is always easy to settle for something you find on Google after a cursory search, but is it really the best you can do? How would you know? What would a good answer to your particular question look like?

B. Janz