Researching Your Topic
Manage and Evaluate Electronic Sources :
Once you become adept at searching electronic sources, two problems present themselves: you either find way too much information (and thus you need to narrow your search) or way too little (and thus you need 10 broaden your search).
Too much information? Try narrowing your research.
A major problem with using the Web is narrowing a search so that it will yield a manageable number of items to consider. Using a search engine such as Google or Alta Vista, you may type in what seems like a fairly specific term only to find it will bring a staggering number of citations. The phrase Lewis and Clark, for example, brings up over 200,000 entries. You can't begin to examine or assess the value of that many entries, so it's important to find very specific terms that will give highly focused and limited results.
Sometimes even your best efforts at finding very specific subject terms produce thousands of hits. When that happens, try adding more terms to your search. Remember that on a basic search screen you can simply group words inside quotation marks, so that you are searching for phrases, not the separate words. Additional words and phrases will further narrow the search. Thus Lewis and Clark maps will produce many fewer hits than Lewis and Clark and Lewis and Clark maps Oregon (search engines usually assume an and exists between words not grouped inside quotation marks) will produce fewer hits still.
On most search engines, you could also switch to an advanced search screen, thus enabling you to use words such as AND, AND NOT and NEAR. Thus, switching from Pocahontas to Pocahontas AND NOT Disney eliminates lots of Pocahontas hits. As discussed earlier, there are other ways advanced search screens let you limit searches, such as by date, by what part of the Web you want to search or by what kind of item you are searching for (an entire Web site devoted to the topic, Web sites that simply mention the topic or an image, for example).
When searching the Web just seems to get you tons of junk but not the kind of results you need, you need to search the more academic kinds of databases, whether you do that search online through your own Internet service provider or through your university library's online facilities. If your interest in Lewis and Clark is historical, try searching a database relevant to the field of history, such as America: History and Life or Historical Abstracts. If your interest is in geography, try searching a database relevant to that field, such as the Applied Science and Technology Index.
Too little information? Try broadening your research.
Depending on your topic, sometimes you will find too little information. On the Web, one solution is to try more search engines. Because different search engines search different parts of the Web in different ways, you can never take "the search engine found no hits on your subject" as a final answer. If you search three or four search engines and still get no hits, try searching on a meta search engine or a specialty search engine, as discussed earlier. If you still get no hits and you want to keep searching the Web, you might try using a more general term instead.
Ultimately, though, if you've tried several different forms of your search, using several different search terms, on several different search engines, you will probably have to switch from search engines to more academic kinds of databases, indexes and archives. Once again there is a premium on knowing which databases, indexes and archives you can gain access to on the Web or through your library and which of those are relevant to your topic. If you cannot find such a resource relevant to your topic, then seek the help of a good librarian.
Evaluating electronic sources :
Using the results of electronic searches in such a way as to be intellectually honest has become a subject that concerns everyone. Remember that no one is in charge on the Internet. There are no editors, instructors or censors who have approved what's published on it. Anyone can contribute to the store of information available online and as a result the Web is full of trash, in addition to enormous amounts of legitimate factual information, scholarly conversations and valid, well-considered ideas. Confronted with this staggering array of unmonitored sources and unedited information, you have to learn to evaluate the sources you find on the Web.
Traditional means of evaluating printed sources include considering the reputation of the author, the reputation of the publishing house and the date of publication. These hold only indirectly for electronic sources. Here are some general principles that you can employ to help you evalu¬ate online sources:
Who is responsible for this page's existence? Look for details that show the credentials of the person who put out the information. Does she have an academic title? Is he a member of some reputable organization like the Smithsonian Institution or the American Museum of Natural History? Does he or she work for a well-known foundation? Can you find the author in a bibliography related to his or her discipline? And if you cannot find the name of the page's author (or at least the page's sponsoring organization, whose credentials you can also check), the page's reliability goes way down.
Is the information presented in reasonable terms, not highly con¬notative or exaggerated? Are claims supported? Be skeptical of overstatements or unsupported allegations.
What kind of page is this? Web pages generally fall into just a few broad categories-personal pages, often indicated by a tilde (-) in the address; corporate pages, often indicated by the ".com" in the address; educational pages (thus, ".edu") and government pages (thus, ".gov"). You can learn more about the different domain names (the part of the Web address after the "dot") by checking out the Glossary of Internet Terms (at matisse.net/files/glossary.html). But judging the category (and hence potential reliability) of a Web page by its domain name can be misleading, more so as the variety of domain names increases. Try to decide which of the following purposes the page is serving and judge the page's reliability as much on the page's purpose as on its domain:
Advocacy. People love to put pages relating to their favorite causes on the Web. You can often detect these pages by their zealous tone, even if the page's stated sponsorship is not as unambiguous as the Save the Whales Foundation or the National Rifle Association. You might be able to start your research by getting rough ideas from such pages, but you must mistrust any such advocacy page's presentation of what the facts are. Claims on such a page that this or that species of whale is headed for extinction or that this or that law will threaten our democratic way of life simply cannot be taken uncritically. Basing your research on information from an advocacy page is extremely unwise. You might start there, but you'll have to do some serious fact-checking in better kinds of sources to convince academic readers.
Business, marketing and commercial. Perhaps the majority of Web sites today are devoted wholly or in part to buying and selling. As with advocacy pages, these pages' contents usually do not make for good sources of research information.
Entertainment. Movie pages, music pages, e-book pages, game pages-how many different kinds of entertainment pages are there on the Web today? Again, it's not a good idea to base your research on those pages' claims.
Information. Pages that present technical reports, scholarly articles or government (and other) statistics can, of course, be great sources of information. If you want the facts about health problems, go to the National Institutes of Health pages (at www.nih.gov) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pages (at www.cdc.gov). The point is not particularly that these are government pages (although they are), but that they are information pages.
Personal. Personal pages have several sub varieties. Those are really personal, such as those listing hobbies, showing pictures of one's pets and so on. And those are in fact personal/professional, including one's professional resume and in the case of researchers, perhaps even copies of articles. Personal/professional pages can be great sources of information, despite the tilde in the address. Truly personal pages are best left out of research papers.
If skeptical consideration of a Web page's nature or claims causes you to doubt the reliability of the page's information, do as any good journalist would: find an independent source or sources whose own credibility is much higher to corroborate that doubtful information. Otherwise, your academic audience will call your research into serious question because you proceeded on the basis of such unreliable information.
USING THE RESULTS OF ELECTRONIC SEARCHES HONESTLY and GIVING FAIR CREDIT TO THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR(S) :
Giving proper credit to the sources of borrowed material in research papers-whether that material is artwork, facts or words - is an important issue for researchers at any level. Charges such as plagiarism or academic dishonesty hurt everyone involved and if proven can be cause for dismissal either from a school or from a job.
Nearly every college professor we know has had a growing number of instances in recent years of students who download whole passages (not just a word or a phrase, but strings of sentences, complete paragraphs, even whole pages of writing) of material off the Web and incorporate it unchanged into their papers as their own-with no attempt by the re¬searcher to rewrite the material into his or her own words, no source citation of any kind. That is dishonesty (in this case, academic dishonesty or plagiarism), pure and simple. Not to put too fine a point on the subject, but if the original passage published on the Web says this (taken from www.deafblind.com/cochlear.html):
The implant centre conducts a careful evaluation to determine if an individual is an appropriate Cochlear Implant candidate. Audiological tests establish the level of hearing loss. Hearing aids and other devices are fitted to establish whether or not these devices might be beneficial.
And if a student’s paper says this:
The implant center conducts a careful evaluation to determine if an individual is an appropriate Cochlear Implant candidate. Audiological tests establish the level of hearing loss. Hearing aids and other devices are fitted to establish whether or not these devices might be beneficial.
Then that is plagiarism, plain as day.
If the student had at least cited the source somewhere, the situation might be just a tad less severe (although it would still be dishonesty). But stealing text from another source (in this case, downloading text from the Web) and incorporating it into your research reports without any effort at paraphrase and without any source citation is a major, major ethical lapse, one that seems to be occurring with more and more frequency because it has become so very easy to do. At most colleges and universities (as in most businesses and most government agencies), the penalties for such dishonesty are severe. The fact that the Web makes such dishonesty easier does not lessen the fault. (And of course students who make this mistake ignore the fact that if they can find this material on the Web, their instructor can find it too.) Sites such as the Center for Academic Integrity (www.academicintegrity.org) or Student Judicial Services at the University of Texas at Austin (www.utexas.edu/depts/dos/sjs/academicintegrity.html) discuss these issues fully. English departments also have access to specific Web sites that make tracking plagiarism much easier.
To continue the section on Researching Your Topic,
1. Set up a general search strategy
2. Use primary and secondary sources
3. Do original research
4. Make a research outline for using the library and the Web
5. Find things out for yourself
6. Be open to serendipity
7. Take notes
8. Manage sources and quotations
9. Manage and evaluate electronic sources
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