Conducting research on the Internet can prove to be either a gold mine, rich with nuggets of knowledge and information, or a mine field littered with stretched truths and dead ends. Which of these two you experience depends on how you go about your research, where and how you look for information, and how you organise it when you find it.
Here are five top tips to make your research easier, more accurate and more effective.
1. Know your sources.
It’s easy to find pretty much any information you want on the World Wide Web. The problem is that it’s not always entirely accurate. For this reason it’s good to try and find the same information from multiple sources and, if possible, the original source. You should always ask yourself if the site you are using is the most reliable source of information. Does it cite additional sources? Do the authors write objectively or subjectively? Is it a creditable organisation?
Citation of the source information is very important when you are looking for information on wiki-style encyclopaedias like Wikipedia. Anybody can edit the information presented on a wiki. While this allows for vast sums of knowledge to be collected more easily, it also leaves a wide margin for error and, in some cases, exploitation. Good Wikipedia articles will always cite sources of information. If there are no citations or the sources seem flaky at best, you should try to verify the data elsewhere.
Government (.gov.uk) and University (.ac.uk) sites are often good sources of information. There are also many private intelligence and information databases, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw; these subscription-based sites are indispensable sources for legal research. The CIA runs a great website called World Fact Book, and it is an excellent source of geographical information. WolframAlpha is another huge database of knowledge which may be useful for legal research. Always seek out the best-quality sources, and keep in mind that often even newspapers or other big news websites may spin a story in their own political direction. For these reasons it’s good to read multiple news articles about the same story in order to extract all the facts.
2. Use your web browser properly.
Web browsers have evolved over time from being able to handle only one page at a time to multi-headed dragons capable of keeping open and managing several pages at the same time in one window. Not only is this a more convenient way of browsing and managing open pages, but it is also easier on your PC. On any modern browser, pressing Ctrl-T will open a new empty tab. If you want to follow a link but keep the original link open, you can right-click and choose “Open link in new tab”. This makes skipping back and forth between pages to compare information a breeze.
Modern browsers like Firefox have the ability to install extensions. These are browser add-ons that extend the capabilities of your web browser. These extensions do anything from word counting to finding citations. There are several add-ons which search LexisNexis, Westlaw, Wikipedia and Google Scholar for citations and legal data.
3. Organise your bookmarks.
It may sound obvious, but many people don’t take the time to manage their bookmarks. If you are trawling through a lot of data, life becomes a lot easier if you make good use of bookmarks. The simplest method is using your browser’s built-in bookmark manager. Create folders for specific things you are looking for, and store related URLs in them. You can go as far as creating sub-folders. If you really want to organise your bookmarked sites, you should try installing a bookmark add-on in Firefox. Bookmarking services such as delicious.com provide official Firefox add-ons which let you go as far as managing your bookmarks with tags. Tagging makes finding data easy because you only need to type in the tag “criminal justice bill” to find anything you have tagged with those words. Some bookmark providers will even show results from other users who have tagged the same information. However you go about it, having a well-organised bookmarking system is a must for effective research.
4. Learn to use advanced search techniques.
Effective Internet research depends a lot on how you search. What keywords are you using? Are your search phrases worded as well as they could be? Are you using advanced search operators? If you haven’t already, you should read my tutorial on advanced web searching with Google. It’s a great start if you want to learn advanced web-searching techniques, and it can help you find the right information much more quickly and accurately.
5. Follow the web.
The oldest methods can sometimes still be the best. Follow the web, surf the wave of information and follow your intuition. Every link you click and page you read will take you closer to your goal. Like a gold prospector of old, sometimes the best discoveries are made using the ingredients of chance, luck and finding the right page at the right time. Sometimes you may stumble onto a page that contains a bit more information than a previous one. Try searching for the names and places you find; stringing information together like this can often result in much better finds. The more you use the web for research, the better you will become at it. In time you will find yourself locating the right data with the least effort. It just takes practice.
Do you have anything to share with fellow members? Research tricks that others may find helpful? If so, feel free to discuss them in the comments section. Happy researching.