Jump Start Your Online Researchby Greg Knollenberg
The Internet Writing Journal, June 1998
Online research is an essential part of finding the information you need for your article or story. Each day an enormous amount of new information is added to existing websites. New sites also come online each day. Without knowing where to look or where to start your research you may miss some key elements in your research project. This article will lead you to some of the major starting points to begin researching, as well as some of the best places to find discussion and interactivity on your subject.
It would be hard to completely research a subject on the Internet without running a search through one of the major search engines. In last month's article we discussed how learning to use search engines effectively can aid you in your online research. In this article you will find links to the major search engines with expanded tips on how to use them effectively. If you are in a hurry you can also use meta-search engines, which allow you to search multiple search engines at one time and then browse through the results.
Metacrawler, Metafind and Dogpile are meta-search engines that will allow you to search multiple search engines. The major search engines included in these searches are Infoseek, Excite, Yahoo, Lycos, AltaVista and Webcrawler, to name a few. The meta-search engines can be useful if you are seeking quick results. If you are doing in-depth research, however, you may want to go directly to the specific search engine itself to use one of its advanced search options. Search engines can get you directly to articles and interviews of interest as well as to websites pertaining to your topic. However, search engines should not be your only stop before you finish your research project. In addition to search engines there are additional starting points and research hotbeds that will get you to the information you are seeking.
Sites with Multiple Searches
The Internet contains numerous searchable databases that have been placed online by commercial entities, universities and individuals. Many times a database for a particular topic might provide you with the information you are seeking or lead you right to it. An excellent place to start is Search.com, which allows you to search different online databases including databases for colleges, recipes, words, news stories, jobs, medical news, software and many others. The main search on the Search.com site is Infoseek, so if you want to search one of the many specific databases you need to select a topic from the menu located below the Infoseek search box. Other starting points that allow you to search numerous online databases are the Web Taxi and the Internet Sleuth. The Internet Sleuth also allows you to query multiple databases at one time.
Online Dictionaries provide the user with quick information on a word meanings, similar to the print versions. An advantage of online dictionaries is that you likely can find a highly specialized dictionary or a translation dictionary that you might not find offline or that might cost you $25 or more - even though you might only need to reference the book once. Some of the major online dictionaries include One Look, Merriam Webster's WWW Dictionary and Roget's Internet Thesaurus. In addition, there are numerous specialized dictionaries as well as translation dictionaries online. Some places to start looking for these specialized dictionaries include: Webcrawler's Dictionary Section, a Web of Online Dictionaries and Yahoo's Dictionary section.
We have all used Encyclopedias at some time. Publishers of Encyclopedias have started moving them to the Internet, where they can be updated more often than annually and have interactive features - similar to what you find in the CD-ROM versions of Encyclopedias. Currently, the Internet versions do not have as many of the interactive features as do the CD-ROMs, but this is likely to change in the future. A free encyclopedia resource can be found at Encyclopedia.com, which consists of over 17,000 articles from the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. This site can be searched or browsed. Infoplease.com is also free to use and consists of an almanac, dictionary and an encyclopedia. Microsoft's encyclopedia Encarta Online can be found at: http://encarta.msn.com/ and used at no charge.
Although it is not an encyclopedia, PBS provides encyclopedia-like websites on different subjects related to its theme-based television shows. These sites can be accessed from PBS's homepage at www.pbs.org. In addition, websites for magazines or publications that run encyclopedia-like articles sometimes have large reference sections. For example, look for sites like History.net, Smithsonian Magazine's website and Discovery Online.
Fee-based encyclopedias can also be used. Encyclopedia Britannica's website, which boasts over 75,000 articles, can be found at: www.eb.com. There is a subscription fee to use the service.
Online News Searches
The search engines InfoSeek, Google News, Excite and Yahoo will allow you to search and pull up recent news stories. These are explained in detail in the article, "Effective Use of Search Engines". Other news-specific search sites also exist. See Newslinx for recent headlines in the Computer/Technology arena. Sites that will allow you to pull up the news headlines but charge you to retrieve the full story include Electric Library and Northern Light. Lexis-Nexis is an excellent research tool that charges a subscription.
Due to the large size of newspaper databases, most of the above-mentioned searches will produce results which include only the major articles in the major papers. Therefore, it is often more effective to use the newspaper's own search feature on its website. The majority of newspaper websites have their own searches.
Library and Research Oriented Websites
Library websites typically contain scores of information and research links. LibrarySpot contains links to research sites and online library websites. LibWeb is another library index. You can also find information of interest on the website for the Library of Congress. Also useful is the Library Journal Digital, the online version of the Library Journal, a publication for librarians.
Some excellent reference sites include The Internet Public Library, The Virtual Library and My Virtual Reference Desk. Each of these sites are excellent research starting points with numerous links to good online resources. In addition, Study Web can also be used to used to find reference sites, as can the Writers Write® Reference Resources for Writers.
Newsgroups and Mailing Lists
Another great way to find the latest information on your subject is to find out what other people are saying about it. Internet discussion not only takes place in chat rooms but also in newsgroups and mailing lists. They allow users to post messages that can then be read by others who receive the mailing list or subscribe to the newsgroup. Mailing list(s) or newsgroups may be moderated or unmoderated. If you can find a moderated list on your subject, this could be very valuable, because only messages appropriate to the subject area will be allowed to be delivered to the subscribing community.
A website called Liszt, the mailing list directory, provides an excellent way to find the newsgroups or mailing lists you are looking for. Liszt allows you to search for mailing lists and newsgroups pertaining to your keyword. Dejanews is an excellent resource for newsgroups. You can also browse through newsgroup postings on its website. Other resources to find information on mailing lists is Paml, which stands for Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists, and Tile.net lists.
Online communities can also be found on the large Internet providers such as AOL, Microsoft Network, etc. and on the large search engine websites such as Excite and Yahoo. These also can be valuable areas to find discussion. In addition, most community sections on website(s) of newspapers or specialty services will also have message board type areas for discussion. For example, Writers Write® has a message board section at: https://www.writerswrite.com/messages/.
In addition to observing and/or partaking in discussion with members of the online community, the Internet can also allow you to hear live chats with experts. Popular celebrity types can be found on large commercial sites. You might also considering browsing through Yahoo! Net Events, http://events.yahoo.com/, which contains details on many online events, including chats. Also, keep an eye on any large commercial site(s) related to your subject to see if they have any upcoming chats or interviews of interest.
The best thing to keep in mind when trying to research online is that the Internet really does contain an enormous amount of information. You will want to minimize the time you spend searching so that you can afford more time to writing and finalizing your article, research project or story. Therefore, be sure to spend some initial time learning how to use the search engines and familiarizing yourself with some key reference websites that can get you where you need to go. In addition, you will definitely want to become familiar with any website, mailing list, newsgroup, etc. that engages frequently in your topic so that you can stay abreast of updates and changes. Of course, when doing any research it is crucial to check your sources. If you are unsure about the reliability of a source you find on the Internet, double check it. Obviously, some sources will be more reliable than others: National Geographic's website is more likely to have valid information than the homepage for someone whom you do not know, no matter how informed the person sounds. And remember to cite your sources using the appropriate citation format if you are writing a formal research paper. You'll be glad you did.
**Greg Knollenberg is the CEO of Writers Write, Inc.