Researching Online



Despite the fact that the Internet has become an obvious choice when doing research, like any tool, it has unique characteristics that offer both benefits and drawbacks. 

The positive side of online research:

  • Access to new and valuable sources of information that came into being because of the Internet. These include electronic journals (e-journals) and Internet discussion groups.
  • A more efficient route for accessing certain standard information sources such as newspapers, particularly overseas papers and electronic versions of existing print journals.
  • Access to an enormous amount of information. Currently it is estimated that there are about 800 million pages of information on the Web.
  • Access to non-mainstream views. Fringe groups and those without access to the media or a printing press can now make their opinions known on the Internet.
  • Access to obscure and arcane information. Because there are so many people with such diverse interests on the Internet, a search can often turn up the most unusual and hard-to-locate nugget of data.
  • Access to digitized versions of primary sources. Some libraries are digitizing (making electronic versions) of primary research sources such as personal letters, official government documents, treaties, photographs, etc. and making these available for viewing over the Internet. The same is true for audio and, in some cases, video.
  • Access to searchable databases and datasets. There are many sites on the Internet where you can search a collection of statistical data, such as demographic or social science data. While some databases on the Internet are fee-based, others are free. 
  • Access to government information. The U.S. federal government is one of the largest publishers in the world and it is utilizing the Internet as its preferred method for disseminating much of its information.
  • Access to international information. Not only can you easily find official data from other countries by connecting to embassies, consulates, and foreign governmental sites, you can also search other countries' newspapers, discuss issues with citizens from around the world on the newsgroups, and locate Web sites established by individuals from other nations. 

Other key benefits of Internet research include:

Speed.

Doing a search on the Internet can take just seconds.

Timeliness.

On the Internet you can find information that has just been made available a few minutes earlier.

Multimedia.

The Internet delivers not just text, but graphics, audio, and video.

Hyperlinking.

The ability to click between Web pages can facilitate an associative type of research, and make it easier to view citations and supporting data from a text.

Downsides to researching online:

Despite its real and seemingly growing benefits to the researcher, the Internet still presents certain drawbacks. Among the most significant are:

  • Diverse collection of information.

The Internet is truly a potpourri of information, both a strength and a weakness. On the Net you can come across everything from a scholarly paper published on particle physics to a 14-year-old's essay on her summer vacation.

There are newswire feeds from respected press organizations like the AP and Reuters, as well as misinformation from a Holocaust denial group.

There are commercials and advertisements, and there are scientific reports from the U.S. Department of Energy.

All of this diversity makes it difficult to separate out and pinpoint just the type of information you want.

  • Difficult to search effectively.

A traditional electronic database that you might search in a library may take a little learning and practice, but once you get the hang of it, you can become an effective searcher.

But on the Internet, even if you know all the ins and outs of searching, because of the built-in limitations of Internet search engines and the way Web pages are created, you'll only be able to search a small percentage of what's on the Net.

You also won't be able to easily distinguish the valuable from the trivial pages; and you can obtain unpredictable results.

  • ´╗┐Emphasis on new information.

The Web came into being in the early 1990s, and, consequently, most of the information available on the Internet postdates that time. However, this is changing as certain Web site owners are loading older, archival material.

  • Lack of context.

Because search engines will return just a single page from a multipage document, you can miss the larger context from which that information was derived.

  • Lack of permanence. 

Web pages are notoriously unstable. They appear, move, and disappear regularly. This can be of particular concern for academic researchers, who need to cite a stable page for reference purposes.

  • Selectivity of coverage. 

Despite the size of the Internet, the vast majority of the world's knowledge still resides in print. So a search for information on the Internet in no way represents a comprehensive search of the world's literature or knowledge.

A final issue to consider:

A good deal of what's on the Internet is "off-limits" to search engines and is not retrievable.

These off-limit sites include those that are accessible only to those who register, input a password, or pay a subscription fee.

These include most of the major commercial fee-based databases and online services that have a presence on the Web (e.g., Dialog, LexisNexis).

Other "off-limit" sites include newspapers that require subscriptions or registration, professional association members-only sites, and so forth.

In all, you can see that researching on the internet can be a blessing or a curse for good research results. But doing some research on the internet can, at least, provide a good foundation for your researching endeavors.


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