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Thesis & Research Papers: Web Research

Help for Junior Students doing English III Thesis (including Honors III) : Research, Citation, Plagiarism, Writing, Forming Arguments, Etc.

Before you Search

Pre-Search: Before you even type words into a thing, think about...

1. What kind of resource would have the information I want (and  "a Website" is not specific enough).

2. What tool is the best to help you find that kind of source  (search engines, like Google, are one kind of tool, but not the only kind)

3. How will I tell that tool what I am looking for?

Do Better Searches

  • Use multiple search terms. Searching for the exact phrase of your topic isn't good research.
    • Search "around" your topic, and for other related topics. The results you find may help you narrow in.
    • As you learn the terminology of your topic, be sure to also use those terms in your RE-search.  How you describe something may not be how the larger community describes it.   Terminology may have changed over time as well
    • Use synonyms  ("Black Plague," Black Death", "Bubonic Plague" etc).
    • Find out what "Subject Headings" exist for your topic. These are descriptive terms that have been assigned to topics to help group them together (more often found in databases and library catalogs).
  • Use multiple search engines, there is more to search than just Google.
    • Yes, we love Google (they've done a good job making us love them), but relying solely on the search engine you are most familiar with can limit the success of your research.
    • Each search engine works differently in how they catalog and rank web sites, thus each will bring you slightly different results. If you're only using one, you will miss things.
    • Over time Google will "learn" you and give you what it thinks you want, rather than what you might actually need.  (This feature might be good for personal use, but it can be very harmful to academic research, especially if you are looking for unbiased, or opposing, ideas)
    • Bing, Duck-duck-Go, Yahoo, etc. are all other 
  • Use the Advanced Search boxes and techniques:
    • ‚ÄčAdvanced Search features let you make more precise searches, allowing you to limit your searches to a specific site or domain, a specific range of dates, specific types of content, and specific combinations of words.
      • putting search terms in to quotation marks (" ") tells the browser to search for that exact phrase.
      • A minus-sign "-" in front of a word eliminates that word from your search.
      • Use  "site:" to only search within a specific website.
    • Some search engines let you use Boolean search terms (AND - "both of these words", OR - "either of these words", & NOT - "not this word") to help focus your search
  • Evaluate your Results page
    • This is the first step in evaluating a resource... before you even read it.
    • The first result isn't necessarily the best one, or the most relevant to what you are looking for.
    • Read the "snippet" of text describing the website.
    • Identify what might be an advertisement or paid placement
    • Go beyond the first page of results,  appearing early in the results doesn't mean it's most relevant to you

Search the Web

Google Web Search

Evaluating Quality on the Web

There are any number of systems and checklists recommended for evaluating the quality of websites. 

Be wary though,  being able to "check the boxes" in a checklist is NOT evidence of the quality and reliability of a website

Evaluating Domains

In the past, you may have used a rule of thumb that  ".edu" was better becasue it was "educational", or ".org" was better than ".com", or other things like that.  Throw those rules away.

All the Domain ( the "dot whatever") tells you is what kind of institution owns the space. It says nothing about the quality, accuracy, or bias of the information.   Anyone in a school, including students who are younger than you, can have a ".edu" website.  White Supremacist groups are usually non-profit groups (".org"), and the New York Times is a for-profit (".com"), but very reputable source.

Two letter domains  (ex. ".uk" (United Kingdom), ".io" (British Indian Ocean Territory), ".co" (Colombia)) only tell you where a website is registered.

Evaluating URLs / Web Addresses

Carefully reading website URLs is important when evaluating websites. Many Fake News and spoof sites purposefully use URLs that are very close to existing ones to make them seem credible at a glance.  An official sounding website name is NOT proof of quality.  The classic example is  that a White Supremacist group that happens to own the ".org" URL with the name of a very famous civil rights activist, and they use it to add fake credibility to the intentionally biased and misleading information on the site.


Lateral Reading:  You learn more about the quality and authority of a source by reading outside the source, than by looking inside it.  You should not trust the website itself to tell you if it is a good site or not.

Beware Design...

How a website looks does not tell you whether or not a site is reputable: ugly websites can have great information (but may be a sign of age), and some low quality, or fake,  websites are intentionally designed to be visually pleasing (or even copy the look and feel of existing websites) in order to put you at ease and make you trust them.

However,  looking at how a page is designed can give you clues as to the quality of a website.

How to use Wikipedia

How to Use Wikipedia in Academic Research

  1. Don't Cite it as a Source in your Work.  Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, a tertiary source, which are almost NEVER cited in analytical academic writing. Encyclopedias are good for general background information.
  2. DO use it to get more background on a topic.   If  you don't really know very much about a topic or term, reading a wikipedia article to become more familiar with a concept (and learn about other related concepts and terms) is great. But getting background knowledge is not doing research, nor is it content that you would be analyzing.
  3. DO use it to find other sources. Good wikipedia articles have citations of their own that direct you to where they got their information from. Follow those breadcrumbs toward better information.
  4. DO be skeptical about the information you read in a Wikipedia article. While the fact that anyone can edit it helps to keep it basically factual, there does exist the possibility that at any given time it may have been edited to be incorrect (for a number of different reasons). ALSO, the number of people working to maintain wikipedia pages is decreasing, which lowers their quality, currency, and the likelihood that someone has checked its accuracy recently.
  5. Wikipedia is a Starting Point, Never an Ending Point.