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How to Research Effectively Online: A 4-Step Guide

When it comes to research papers, legwork is essential. Working ahead of time can help you with finding the best available sources and formatting your paper correctly.

When you use search engines well, you’ll be able to turn up the best results to write unique, A+ worthy papers—that sounds like common sense, right?

But if you’ve ever searched for a topic that just isn’t panning out, you know that finding good sources isn’t easy. Here, we’re going to show you how to get the results you need to turn in an excellent paper on time every time.

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Step 1: Find the Right Keywords

Your goal is to find the general terms people use to look up information about your topic. Start with non-academic terms but also skim other research papers to learn what terms are common.

Let’s say you want to research the diet of a type of bat found in South Carolina forests. Type the phrase “bats in South Carolina forests” into a search engine. Your search should turn up state and federal government websites about the different species of bats.

Write down at least five species of bats; then narrow your search to pick one. Look up the Wikipedia page for that species to figure out what keywords you will need. As an example, to research the big brown bat, you would write down the keywords “Eptesicus fuscus,” “insectivore,” and “cave.”

Step 2: Filter Out Unreliable Sources

Eliminate sources that aren’t always credible. These include Facebook posts, comments on a YouTube video, and user-edited sites such as Wikipedia. You can, however, consider using academic sources that a Wikipedia page cites. Just be aware that many Wikipedia pages cite articles that may be outdated.

You can usually find better sources by entering your keywords into a search engine for academic journals, such as EBSCOHost, JSTOR or LexisNexis Academic. Oftentimes, your school’s library website will provide you with access to these search engines. Make sure to filter academic searches by date so you can find the latest information.

Carefully read through the material to make sure it does not contain suspect information. For example, unless you’re researching a topic that relates to politics, a science article should generally not contain political opinions. It should stay focused on the topic, should not make outlandish claims, and should not reference sources you know have been discredited.

One way to make sure that you’ve chosen a reliable source is to see how many times it has been cited. It should be cited often by researchers in the same field of study. This indicates the authors of the paper are knowledgeable and their conclusions are valid.

Step 3: Cite Correctly

Learn which citation and format style apply to your paper. Many professors prefer beginning students to use APA, MLA, or Chicago style. If your professor has no preference, examine how the sources are cited in the materials you have referenced, and use that style.

Citing sources can be tricky, and there are strict rules for making sure you’re giving proper credit. Luckily there are lots of resources available for every type of style. Here’s one of each to get you started.

APA Style: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab for APA style

MLA Style: Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab for MLA style

Chicago Style: Chicago Manual of Style Online’s quick guide

If you’ve used a variety of papers as sources, determine what academic journal best fits your topic. For the topic of bats, both ecology and zoology journals would be acceptable. Pick one major journal and learn its formatting and citation style. Apply this style to your entire paper in a uniform, consistent manner.

Step 4: Submit a Working Draft

If you have the time, wait a week and then read your paper again to make sure it makes sense. One great strategy is to read your paper out loud. It may seem silly, but you’ll be surprised at the things you catch that you missed when reading silently. As you reread, remove any inconsistencies and explain any pieces that need more clarity.

You can also send your paper to a trusted friend or classmate to see if he or she has any constructive feedback. It is always good to hear one or two other peoples’ points of view before turning work in for a grade. Your professor or a graduate student in your field may also be willing to give you a read-through as well. People with more experience in the field can help you eliminate unreliable reference materials before the deadline.

When it comes to research papers, legwork is essential. Working ahead of time can help you with finding the best available sources and formatting your paper correctly. Visit Course Hero for more tips and ideas about how to write great papers.

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