Web Research: Starting Points

Why would I need this research guide? I know how to search the web!

In many cases, you will find print and electronic resources purchased and provided by the library more appropriate for your research than information you find available on the "free web." However, there is an increasing amount of information available for free online that could be valuable for your research. In some cases, this information or research is not easily accessible elsewhere. Collection of digitized primary source collections, grey literature, statistics and data, publications of academic and professional societies, and recent news are all examples of the kinds of sources that could be accessible to you. The availability of useful resources depends on many factors, including your discipline, field of study, and specific assignment.

Finding relevant, high quality information that complements your research can be time-consuming and challenging. The following is a list of strategies and resources you can use to make your search more focused and relevant, resulting in more manageable and hopefully authoritative results. This guide also includes guidance on how to think about information that you find online.

Strategies for Using the Internet in Academic Research

Use a specialized search engine!

A specialized search engine is one that searches specific parts of the web and/or for content that is contained in a database, which is not easily accessible by regular search engines.  This part of the web is sometimes called the "deep web" or "invisible web".


Discipline-Specific Engines

Below are a few examples of search engines that have a disciplinary focus.  (Keep in mind, there are numerous other search engines specific to a discipline or field of study that may be useful for your research.  Browse the Subject Research Guides (see the box below) for more suggestions.

Subject Guides

Researchers, professors, and librarians put a lot of thought and energy into creating guides designed to help students and scholars find the best resources on a subject.  These guides are often categorized and annotated.

Start with a guide you know:

Academic and Professional Associations

Organizations often provide links that point you to resources and people who are interested in similar topics.

There are several ways to identify an organization affiliated with your discipline or area of research.  The website for your department may direct you to the major associations for your field:

Another way is to do an internet search for keywords describing your field or topic, the terms "association OR organization", and limit this to the .edu or .org domain.

Ex) Google Search: historians association site:.org yields:

Web Directories

Web directories pull together sites on similar topics and categorize them.  The level of evaluation and intervention can vary.

Advanced Search Options

Take advantage of advanced search options!

Many search engines have some form of an advanced search that gives you more control over your search.  Look for "Advanced Search" or "Options" in your favorite search engines.

Some examples:

  • Limit your search to a particular domain
  • For example, if you know that non-profit organizations are interested in your area of research, you may want to limit your search to .org domain.  Or, limiting your search to .edu sites will also reduce the amount of search results.
  • Use quotes (" ") to search for phrases, and use operators to indicate proximity or importance of terms used.

Evaluating and Documenting Information

Remember to evaluate and document what you find online carefully!

It is always important to think critically about the information that you find, regardless of format.  When thinking about the appropriateness of a web content for your research, it is often useful to ask yourself several questions about the site's authority and relevance.

Ask yourself questions about the authority of the site: Who is responsible for this site?  What are their credentials for writing on this topic?

It is equally crucial to think about how what you find online fits into what you already know or have found on a topic.  Could the information you are interested in be covered better elsewhere?

Many web guides exist that provide further explanation of concepts.  Below are a few:

Take lots of good notes!

It is equally important to document the sites you browse carefully.  Part of being an effective and responsible researcher is being able to retrace your steps.  (And it will also save you lots of time!)

There are also an increasing number of tools, freely available, that can help you to manage your online research.  For more information, see the "Keeping Track of Your Citations" tab on Carleton's "Citing Sources" guide:


Research/IT Desk

When Carleton librarians are not available, librarians from other institutions will be available to help you 24/7.

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