The Research Paper: Avoiding Google

In writing on October 15, 2009 at 10:00 am


Once, when I assigned a research paper in class, one student said that he wanted to do his research paper on research papers. “I want to know if it’s possible to still have a social life while writing a research paper,” he said. It is possible, of course, but I think the trick is to be savvy about the way you approach your research. Last week, we talked about generating a keyword list. This week, I want to talk about where to find (or, more importantly, where not to find) your research.

When I suggest doing research, most students gravitate toward Google. We all know about Google. It’s familiar. It’s friendly. It has a cute logo that changes with the holidays — and it seems like the easiest way to get fast search results. When it comes to an academic research paper, though, Google is not necessarily your best ally.

When you type a keyword into Google, you’ll get any website that has that word mentioned. If you type in “international student,” for example, you’ll get sites with scholarship info, with cultural advice, travel information, medical insurance quotes, and people trying to sell student loans to international students. You’ll get information for American students who are studying around the globe and for students who are studying in the United States. You’ll get all sorts of stuff — because Google doesn’t discriminate. Google’s search engine searches for any website that has the keywords you type into the search box, and it searches all types of websites:

.com, .net, .biz – .com stands for commercial websites. Websites that end with .com, .net, or .biz are businesses. These sites often (but not always) exist to make money.

.edu – .edu stands for education websites. These are usually colleges or universities.

.gov – .gov stands for government websites. These are websites created by the US government.

.org – .org stands for organization websites. These are often non-profit organizations.

When you search in Google, you’ll get any of these websites in your search results. You could also get results from blogs, from twitter, and from people’s myspace pages. This means that, when you get 10,000 search results, you’ll have to wade through all the mess to find articles that qualify as academic research.

One alternative is Google Scholar — a search engine that Google created just for people doing academic research. Google Scholar is great. It weeds out all those .com  and .biz websites, so the results you get in your searches are solid websites with solid information. The downside of Google Scholar is that often, your search results will take you to a website that asks you to pay $2 or $5 to read the article. If you’re doing a couple of research papers, paying for all your research can get expensive. Plus, it’s likely that your school already has paid for access to this article, through your school’s library.

Most colleges and universities spend big bucks to give you access to databases that have all the articles that you could find on Google Scholar (and probably many more). It might take a little while to get used to using these databases, but once you do, it’s not all that different from using Google. You type in your words, and you look at your results. Unlike Google, though, you won’t have to go through all sorts of irrelevant sites when looking for your articles. You’ll be able to refine your search to get exactly what you want — and you’ll be able to know that your results will include articles that will make your teachers proud.


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