The Online Students’ Research Toolkit

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Academic research has seen a lot of changes in the past couple decades. Many students don’t have the know-how to find reputable, academic research topics and sources. Next to figuring out how to pay for college, learning how to conduct effective online research is one of the biggest hurdles for undergraduate students.

If you find yourself in this situation, this research guide by Maryville University can help you find the student resources needed to succeed. Those looking for strategies for finding information online, properly citing sources, searching for authoritative research, or evaluating sources to determine if they are suitable for academic purposes, have come to the right place. Let’s get started:

Students taking notes while using laptops to conduct academic research

Image Source:Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

How to Find Information Online

There is much more useful advice to finding information online than “just Google it.” When seeking out information for research purposes, general surface-level blogs likely won’t help. Regardless of your level of expertise — whether you’re pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate in your field of study — you’ll need to use extremely specific search queries to yield helpful results. Using a number of advanced search tips, you can conduct effective online research on Google and electronic databases for academic journal articles:

  • Use special operators when searching: Certain characters can be used to omit or include different keywords from your search results. Most of us know that a subtraction (“-”) symbol will cause the following keyword to be omitted from results, but did you know that you can use a tilde (“~”) to find results with words similar to the keyword? Quotation marks can be used to find a specific phrase. Furthermore, an asterisk (“*”) can be used in a phrase to replace a word with any other word or phrase. You can find additional search operators on Google Search Help.
  • Combine keywords and phrases with “AND”: Typing complete sentences into search engines doesn’t usually lead to useful search results. Instead, use key terms or phrases, placing “AND” between each. Doing so signals to search engines that you are looking for content with each of those keywords without regard to what order they appear in the content.
  • Try limiting your search to PDFs by using “filetype:pdf”: High-authority sources, like articles from academic journals or government organizations, are often available online as PDFs. Using “filetype:pdf” before typing in your keywords is a helpful method of finding authoritative information.

Additional Advanced Search Resources

Clearly, using Google while doing online research involves more than simply typing in your topic of interest and clicking “I’m Feeling Lucky”; by using advanced search operators, researchers can locate extremely specific information from reputable sources. Want to improve your search engine skills? Take a look at these resources:

Citing Your Sources

An essential part of using online research in your own academic work is properly citing your sources. If you borrow specific words, concepts, or images from another source, you need to cite them. Maryville University, for example, requires proper citations as part of its academic integrity code. Doing so demonstrates that you’ve done your research and are acknowledging other authors for their work. It helps you to avoid plagiarism and gives readers an opportunity to review your sources firsthand.

Learners who are pursuing bachelor’s degrees often encounter new writing styles, and as such, face unfamiliar citation rules. There are many different citation styles, and the one you use will depend on course requirements or instructor preference. Each style of citation involves some basic elements — like the author name, the title of the work, and the date the work was published — but different styles present information in a certain order and use different punctuation and formatting.

Here are four of the most common citation styles, as well as how each style cites online articles and web pages:

ACS Style

The American Chemical Society (ACS) style was developed for use in research papers in the field of chemistry. It consists of two parts: in-text citation and a reference list. In-text citations can appear as numbers — either superscript or italicized — indicating a corresponding source from the reference list. They may also appear as the author name/year of publication (ex. “Author, 2018”).

On reference lists, online publications should appear like this:

Books:

Doe, J. M. The Book of Everything; Amazing Books Press: Oxford, 2010. http://www.(web address).com

Journals:

Doe, J.; Smith, J. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1989, 91, 1230-1242. http://www.(web address).com

*** For journal abbreviations, consult CASSI

Web pages:

Doe, J. Non-Traditional Students: Health and Wellness Resources. https://online.maryville.edu/blog/non-traditional-student-health-and-wellness-resources/ (accessed July 1, 2018).

APA Style

Developed by the American Psychological Association (APA), this style was designed for use in research papers in psychology and social science fields. Citing sources of information involves both in-text citation and a reference list. In-text citation requires the last name of the author and the year of publication of the information.

In reference lists, use the following format for online publications:

Books:

Doe, J. (2010). The Book of Everything. Oxford, UK: Amazing Books Press. Retrieved from http://www.(web address).com

Journals:

Doe, J. M. (2010). Critically analyzing the effects of lecturing on learners’ attention spans. Journal of Pedagogy for Dummies, 12, 180-184. Retrieved from http://www.(web address).com

Web pages:

Doe, J. (2010, January 1). Non-Traditional Students: Health and Wellness Resources. Retrieved from https://online.maryville.edu/blog/non-traditional-student-health-and-wellness-resources/

GSA Style

The Geological Society of America (GSA) style of citation is used in academic studies in geology. GSA style requires in-text citation (consisting of the author’s last name and year of publication) and a references cited list.

In your references cited, follow the example below for online publications:

Books:

Doe, J. M., 2010, The Book of Everything: Oxford, Amazing Books Press, 201 p.: http://www.(web address).com (accessed July 2018).

Journals:

Doe, J., 2010, The ignored ignominy of igneous rocks: Journal of Rocks, v.120, p.107-110: http://www.(web address).com (accessed July 2018).

Web pages:

Doe, J., 2010,  Non-Traditional Students: Health and Wellness Resources: https://online.maryville.edu/blog/non-traditional-student-health-and-wellness-resources/ (accessed July 1, 2018).

MLA Style

Students pursuing liberal arts majors can expect to use Modern Language Association (MLA) style. Like the other styles listed here, in-text citation is required.

Authors should also include a works cited. Modern MLA works-cited lists focus on the common features of publications rather than the format, so it takes a different approach to referencing sources.

When listing an online publication in a works cited, follow the following example:

Books:

Doe, John. The Book of Everything. Amazing Books Press, 2010. Website Name. http://www.(web address).com.

Journals:

Doe, John. “I Fear Shakespeare.” The Journal of Literary Phobias, vol. 13, 2010, http://www.(web address).com

Web pages:

Doe, John. “Non-Traditional Students: Health and Wellness Resources.” Maryville University, 1 Jan. 2010, https://online.maryville.edu/blog/non-traditional-student-health-and-wellness-resources/.

Websites to Help With Citations

If you still need some help with in-text citation or creating a reference list, check out some helpful (and often free!) online tools:

  • Writinghouse: This free automatic bibliography and citation maker can be used to create a citation page in line with MLA, APA, and Chicago styles.
  • Citefast: If you need help creating a bibliography or title page in the above styles, this free tool is another option.
  • Mendeley: An online research assistant platform, Mendeley helps users to collate research, create data sets, and properly cite information. It is free to create an account, but users can pay for a premium subscription for more personal storage and additional features.
  • Zotero: This research assistant tool can also be used to collect, organize, cite, and share research. Like Mendeley, it is free to use, but users can pay a subscription fee for additional storage.
  • Refworks: Need help with research? This platform partners with authoritative publishers in order to provide students with authoritative information collections for research purposes, as well as tools to manage information databases and cite sources. It requires a subscription.
  • EasyBib: This tool can automatically detect plagiarism and directly add in-text citation to your writing. As a bonus, it can also detect grammatical errors and make style suggestions.

Evaluating Sources and Information

One of the key parts of doing online research is determining whether or not the information you find is authoritative, accurate, and objective. When writing a research paper, your research only has as much integrity as your sources do; critically analyzing sources of information is key. While some indicators of questionable sources of information are clear — such as grammatical/spelling errors or shoddy web design — others are less obvious.

Academic-worthy research material is authoritative and factually accurate. Keep the following considerations in mind when analyzing sources:

Most content online doesn’t undergo an editorial or peer review process and is not fact-checked, so you need to take a look into the person or organization publishing the information. Examine the source: Authoritative content plainly lists the author of the work and any affiliations the content is associated with. If this information is not clearly presented, be wary. Determine the reputation of the affiliated organizations and whether or not they have a review process. Is the author a qualified expert in the field at hand? If you come to the conclusion that they are not credible, don’t use the source.

Next, ask yourself the question: “Is the content factually accurate?” You can determine this by taking a look at cited articles, studies, and quoted experts in the content. Facts should be logical and up to date. Do any of the sources have a clear bias or special interests that might influence their opinion? If any of the referenced sources lack integrity, they cast doubt the accuracy of information in the source; don’t rely on authors who use questionable sources.

Academic Sources, Journals, and Databases

Obviously, conducting effective online research requires authoritative, academic sources, journals, and databases. How can you determine if a resource is academic? Ask yourself the following questions when first evaluating a source:

  • Abstract: Identify the reason for the research and the author’s interpretation of the study. Is it impartial? Do the research methods seem valid?
  • Length: Does the article cover all relevant aspects of the subject at hand? Short length may signal that it does not provide a comprehensive view of the issue.
  • References: Does the author cite their sources? Are the sources authoritative and/or reputable?
  • Author affiliations and qualifications: Does the author have any known affiliations that may influence their opinion? Are they qualified to speak about the subject?
  • Appearance and format: Does the source look reputable and well-maintained? While it may seem superficial to “judge a book by its cover,” so to speak, poorly formatted work signals sloppiness — and sloppy research isn’t appropriate for academic research.
  • Voice: Is the voice of the author objective and professional?
  • Publisher: Does the publisher have a good reputation? What kind of other work do they publish? Are those reputable?

If you need help finding academic sources, journals, or databases, take a look at the following resources and online research tools:

General Resources for Finding Authoritative Sources:

  • Google Scholar: If you only want scholarly literature to appear in search results, try using Google Scholar. Results will only include peer-reviewed articles, books, and abstracts from reputable academic institutions.
  • Refseek: An alternative to Google for people doing online research, this search engine focuses on providing results from academic and government organizations, as well as online encyclopedias.
  • Microsoft Academic: Featuring over 176 million publications across 230,000 fields of study, this free public search engine is also a competitor to Google Scholar, helping users with academic research and citation analysis.
  • Paperity: This site bills itself as a “multidisciplinary aggregator of open access journals and papers.” True to their word, the nearly 1.8 million papers on this site are completely free to access.

Sciences:

  • ScienceResearch: This deep web search engine sends your query to many authoritative research/academic search engines, then collates, ranks, and drops duplicates from the results. While there is a cost to access many of the books and articles you’ll find, the search engine itself is free.
  • WorldWideScience: Another deep web science search engine including academic databases and search engines from sources across the globe, WorldWideScience helps researchers locate helpful books and studies, though many full-text works cost a fee.
  • Science.gov: This is a gateway to U.S. government scientific information/research. It compiles results from nearly 40 databases and millions of pages of science information.
  • CAMEO Chemicals: Many fields of scientific study require knowledge of dangerous chemicals or chemical reactions. This free database provides users with that information through helpful datasheets.

Forensic Science:

  • ScienceDirect: If you need access to information about forensic science developments from around the globe, check out Forensic Science International’s articles on ScienceDirect. There is a subscription fee to access content, with free abstracts and links to full-text articles.
  • Forensic Science Technician: This site has a useful article listing 25 of the most reputable, influential forensic science journals and publications. Many of these publications require a subscription fee, and some are open access.
  • Forensic Science Laws Database: The National Conference of State Legislatures provides this helpful, free database for those interested in learning more about forensic science in the U.S. Users can search by policy or by state.

Medical:

  • PubMed: Curated by the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), PubMed provides users with biomedical literature from a variety of authoritative sources. It comprises nearly 30 million citations — many of which contain links to full-text content, though you will need to pay to access many resources.
  • PubMed Central & Europe PubMed Central: Not to be confused with PubMed (though the U.S. version is also curated by the NLM), these are separate databases that provide millions of citations for biomedical literature. Again, there may be fees to access full-text versions of books/articles.
  • MedlinePlus: Another resource produced by the NLM, this site centralizes consumer health information across many government and health-related organizations. In addition to providing general information, it features a directory for medical services.
  • Embase: If you’re a med student looking for a thorough biomedical/pharmacological database of information regarding drug regulatory requirements or drug-disease/drug-drug interactions, Embase is an authoritative database of over 32 million records. While there is a subscription fee, it can be an invaluable resource.

Criminal Justice & Public Safety:

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics: A wide range of statistics and publications relating to criminal justice can be found here. This information is provided by the federal government at no cost.
  • National Criminal Justice Reference Service: This federally funded organization has been offering criminal justice and drug-related information to facilitate research and policymaking since its inception in 1972. Use the on-site search engine to find a wide range of reliable data. You’ll need to pay to access some resources, but many full-text books/articles are free.
  • SafetyLit: Created in cooperation with the World Health Organization and the San Diego State University College of Health & Human Services, SafetyLit is a useful tool for those interested in public safety because it lists recently published research in the field.
  • Global Database on Occupational Safety & Health Legislation: Students looking for information on public safety and legislation should consult this resource, provided by the International Labour Organization.

Legal:

  • The Public Library of Law: The Public Library of Law brings together a virtual library of case law, regulatory and other legal information into one searchable database. It provides free access to state Supreme and Appellate Court cases from 1997 to the present.
  • Legal Information Institute: The Legal Information Institute is a non-profit, public service of Cornell Law School that provides no-cost access to current American and international legal research sources online at law.cornell.edu.
  • Justia: Includes case law, statutes, regulations, articles, opinion summaries (newsletters), and limited access to federal district court dockets.
  • FindLaw: Find access to cases, codes and free legal information for lawyers and consumers at LP.FindLaw.com.
  • Govinfo: Govinfo provides free public access to official publications from all three branches of the federal government.
  • Lexis Web– LexisNexis provides legal research, legal information and workflow solutions for legal professionals and law firms. Start your free trial on any product today.
  • Global Legal Information Catalog: The Global Legal Information Catalog includes information about publications which reprint the laws and regulations of multiple jurisdictions on a particular legal topic. The purpose of the database is to provide additional identifying information about titles, beyond that which is provided in the Library’s online catalog. The database works as an interface with the Library of Congress’ online catalog and is searchable by jurisdiction, title, subject and keyword.

Top Online Educational Communities

  • Khan Academy: Created in 2006, Khan Academy is an educational organization focused on providing learners with free online tools and content to supplement their education, as well as useful study tips. This can especially help first generation college students, who may face challenges due to a lack of knowledge of resources. It is mobile friendly and allows users to track their progress, along with other helpful features.
  • Academia: Academia is a social networking platform designed to allow users to share their research with other users, track how users are engaging with their work, and follow new research in whatever fields they want to track. It is free to use, though users can pay a fee for a “premium account,” which grants some special features.
  • ResearchGate: A free-to-use platform where online scientific research and social media collide, ResearchGate is social networking site designed to allow users to connect with researchers and access content from over 15 million users. Students seeking advanced master’s or doctorate degrees will find the greatest benefit with this platform, as it allows them to share and learn about very specific topics from peers with great expertise.
  • TestDen: Vancouver-based software developer ACT360 Media Ltd. created this site to help users prepare for standardized tests, like the TOEFL and TOEIC tests. It also features other specialized and custom training courses. The cost ranges from $99 to $149 per course, depending on your needs.
  • OpenStax CNX: This open-source platform allows volunteers to provide educational content to users, which can then be remixed and edited to suit individual learner needs. The content of this site is completely free to use and edit, as long as attribution is provided.

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