While the best way to develop good research skills is through practice and working closely with a librarian, professor or other knowledgable source, there are a few basic tips to keep in mind when conducting research.
Know your websites!
The internet can provide a wealth of information, but it is important to be discriminating. Not all websites are created equally.
Here are the basic website types:
- For research purposes, you want to avoid any web address ending in .com, as this indicates a commercial site that is designed to sell you something, rather than provide accurate information.
- Addresses ending in .gov are governmental websites and usually provide up-to-date, fact-checked information
- Addresses ending in .org usually provide solid information; however, you need to be cautious. Non-profit and other types of organizations do not always have the funding and/or support to regularly update, monitor and edit their websites, so there is a possibility that the information it lists is unintentionally flawed.
- Out of the all types, websites ending in .edu are often the best for research purposes, as they indicate an educational institution and are certain to be carefully edited, updated and fact-checked.
No author? No good!
There are many legitimate instances in which an author or webmaster might not be listed on a website. Often governmental and educational sites are monitored by a web coordinator or group of web designers who will not necessarily claim credit for their work. However, in general, when browsing websites and other types of material for research purposes, you should be suspicious of any information that is uncredited. If a person or reputable organization does not want to claim the information presented, it is very possible that information is flawed, biased, out-dated or has some other serious problem.
- If you are researching primates, you might check out the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International website, which may or may not credit individual authors, but will likely have a webmaster or list a contact person for questions and comments.
- However, citing information from Pete's House of Primates.com, which lists no real information about the author's or organization's credibility, is bad research practice.
Reference materials are not necessarily research materials!
Students often err because they cite reference works as if they were research materials. Encyclopedia entries and dictionary definitions are not considered scholarly research sources.
- If a professor assigns you a research paper on dinoflagellates, but you do not understand what that word means, you will do some initial research into the term's basic meaning before beginning your actual research.
- As such, the Webster Dictionary definition or encyclopedia entry do not count as academic research sources, but are simply sources you utilize in preparation to begin research.
Also, please note that Wikipedia is NOT considered a scholarly research source! Anyone can contribute information to Wikipedia, so there is a large chance that the information it provides is overly broad/general, flawed or incorrect.
Again, familiarizing yourself with the basics of a topic is a good scholarly practice, but you should never consider reference materials as valid, academic sources for your papers!