Monday, March 22, 2010

Looking for good websites for research?

There is no substitute for published scholarly research material, but sometimes that's not what you need. Sometimes you just need a good reference work, or a report, or somebody's summary or opinion, and the Internet is full of that kind of thing. The problem is, the Internet is also full of unreliable material, and telling the difference is tricky and labor intensive.

Here are some of the categories of unreliable material to look out for, with some extreme examples:
In many cases, the unreliable material looks pretty reputable. Student websites have .edu URLs, and professional-sounding domain names are available to anyone who can afford them. Anybody can come up with a nice logo and design template. For that matter, anybody can put MD or PhD after their name (they might even go to the expense of buying a degree from a diploma mill if they're really committed!) Someone might have great writing skills so they sound intelligent and informed, but their information is still wrong.

What should you be looking for on the Internet?

First, think of who or what would have the information you need in the real world. For example, if you're studying economic development in third world nations, you might think of the United Nations Committee on Development. Their website is full of articles and reports.

Second, .edu websites are a good choice - as long as you confirm that what you're looking at is by faculty or experienced grad researchers.

Third, .org websites are a mixed bag. Organizations can be as biased and ignorant as individuals. On the other hand, many of them are havens of expertise and contribute to the public good. These have great information in their reports and articles. Go to the site's About section and learn about the organization's agenda and the credentials of the people who are putting information on the site. Look them up on Google and see if there you can detect any ties that seem suspicious or if they look clean.

Fourth, in any site you choose, look for signs of agenda, bias, poor research methods, and errors.
Finally, if you want to find some good websites on your subject in a hurry, go to the Subject Guides. Select the Guide for your Area of Study, and click the Selected Websites tab. All of the sites in the Subject Guides have been picked out by the librarians and faculty because of their scholarly reliability and usefulness.
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