Online Research Guide
The internet revolutionized the methods students use to conduct academic research. Prior to the advent of online research, preparing for an academic paper meant students had to visit their university’s library; manually select physical research materials; peruse their contents for relevant information; and painstakingly include excerpts, citations, and bibliographies. The internet makes it easy and fast for students to access digital content regardless of their geographical distance from its source. Spending less time researching leaves students more time for the actual writing of their work.
The benefits of online research cannot be denied; however, this research method is not without its drawbacks. The volume of material available from an online search is overwhelming. Wading through search results can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not using the proper tools or filters to refine your searches. In addition, it can be difficult to verify the credibility of an online source. Anyone can post anything on the internet, so researchers must be careful to weed out untrustworthy sites from their potential research sources.
This guide helps you identify useful tools and methods to conduct social work online research efficiently and in an organized manner.
Using Google for Online Research
Running simple Google searches on social work research topics will likely yield massive amounts of information, but much of it won’t be useable for your purposes. Altering search engine settings helps filter out unreliable sources and provide you with search results that are more relevant to your topic. The following section details some methods you can use to modify your searches to get the results you need. We are using Google for these examples, as it is the most commonly-used search engine.
Refining Your Search Results
Seeing thousands of search results when you begin your research can be intimidating. However, Google offers several useful functionalities that help you narrow your search and target sources that best suit your needs. One such tool is search shortcuts. Search shortcuts allow you to focus your search to net specific results. These words or symbols make it easy to indicate exact keywords or phrases that you want to be present or absent in your search results. Additionally, shortcuts help you search for results on a specific page or other sites related to the page in question.
Site search enables users to search within a particular domain. To perform this function, simply type “site:” followed by the domain you want to search within. Note that there should be no spaces between site: and the domain name that follows. You can add a keyword before the site search to find information about a specific topic within that domain. For example: social work certification followed by site:acswa.org. This will bring up information about social work certification on the official website for the American Clinical Social Work Association. This site function is also used to filter to a particular class of site, such as .edu, .gov, .org. You can use the advanced search function to refine your searches without shortcut text. You can further refine your search results using the tools button. By putting in a specific time range for when the page was published, you can make sure you are using the most timely and updated sources.
Google Scholar is a useful tool for social work research journals. It serves as a search engine for users who only want to see scholarly sources in their search results. Scholarly sources include articles, books, theses, and court opinions. This type of material often comes from academic journals, professional societies, and universities. The material has been vetted by publishers for quality and reliability, and is likely suitable for academic research.
The results from a Google Scholar search are returned to the user sorted by relevance and according to their publishing source, author, and the frequency and recency with which they are cited in academic works. The ability to verify the credentials and origins of the sources that appear in search results is useful to ensure that the information you use in your work is accurate and reputable.
Students can set up their Google Scholar preferences to access resources available through their college or university library. You can provide your login information and request that the available resources at your library be considered for inclusion in your Google Scholar search results. Review the Google Scholar search tips page to find details on getting the most out of the system.
Students who are conducting social work research do not have to rely exclusively on Google to find academic sources. There are many other search engines and databases that contain material pertinent to the field of social work. Many of these resources are offered for free or at a discount to students. The next section outlines some commonly-used resources for general academic research, including several that may be especially helpful for social work students.
Featured Online Programs
- AMiner: AMiner is a website where users can access a range of research materials curated by topic, including highly-ranked papers, a collection of experts in the field, and related subjects that may be relevant to your paper.
- BASE: Facilitated by Bielefeld University Library, BASE is a search engine for academic sources with approximately 60% of the collected documents accessible in full text, free of charge.
- CGP: The Catalog of U.S. Government Publications is a searchable collection of historical and current federal publications. Users can read descriptions and full text in some cases.
- CIA World Factbook: The CIA World Factbook is an index of data on the history, government, and people of 267 entities around the world.
- ERIC: Educational Research Information Center is a database of formally reviewed and approved content on many academic topics.
- iSeek Education: The mission of iSeek Education is to provide search results customized for students and teachers, as well as administrators and caregivers. Users can view content from sources including universities and governments.
- National Archives: The catalog at the National Archives allows researchers to access electronic, digital, and authority records in addition to online pages from the Presidential libraries and Archives.gov.
- OCLC: With members in over 100 countries, OCLC is a library cooperative where researchers can sift through academic sources and review the collections of member libraries.
- CORE: CORE aims to gather and index the entirety of publicly available material sourced from digital journals and libraries. Researchers can use their search engine to find information related to their topic.
For Social Work Students
- SAGE Journals: SAGE Journals allows users to browse research journals by discipline, by most read or most cited, or to directly visit a collection of authors, librarians, editors, and societies.
- ProQuest: ProQuest is a database comprised of billions of indexed, vetted sources. Its goal is to facilitate efficient access to scholarly information as well as a deeper understanding of the interrelatedness of various content.
- RefSeek: The mission of RefSeek is to make academic content available to students in such a way that they see comprehensive coverage of their search topic without information overload.
- Virtual Learning Resources Center: The Virtual Learning Resources Center is a database of academic sources compiled by teachers and library professionals. Its collection is meant to facilitate the use of accurate information for teachers and students in academic projects.
- SocioWeb: The SocioWeb is a guide to internet resources available in the field of sociology. Users can browse articles, essays, blogs, surveys, statistics, and sociological associations.
- Social Science Research Network: The Social Science Research Network consists of many specialized research networks with the common goal of facilitating the rapid spread of research across the globe.
When conducting online research, it is crucial that you vet your sources to make sure that the information is reliable and accurate. Because it is often confusing to determine whether a source offers dependable and relevant information, this page provides some questions you can use to guide your efforts in assessing a sources’ reliability. In general, a source with a knowledgeable author, legitimate purpose, professional aesthetic appeal, unbiased tone, up-to-date information, and helpful links is most likely dependable. The tips that follow are based on information from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago Press.
Who is the Author? A great place to start in source evaluation is to determine the author of the page or article. Try to find their name and identify any credentials that shed light on their qualifications or expertise in the area.
What is its Purpose? A good next step in evaluating a source’s reliability is to determine the purpose of the page or piece. See if you can find any connection the author has with the organization or agency that published the writing, which could help you surmise the author’s motive or intended audience.
Does it Look Professional? There are multiple factors to consider in determining whether a source seems professional. A well-built, reliable source should look clean and well-structured and should be free of spelling and grammatical errors. There should be no profanity in the writing.
Is it Objective? As a general rule, professional writing used as source material should not contain the author’s personal bias. The information should be strictly based on fact without interjections of personal opinion and the writing should cover all sides of issues to promote objective analysis.
Is it Current? While it may seem obvious, it’s important to check that your source is as up-to-date as possible to ensure that takeaways and conclusions are still relevant. Check the publication date for all data, especially statistics. It is also helpful to find the last date updated for the page.
What Sites Does it Link to? As a final check for source reliability, spend some time looking at the other sites the source links to and ensure that they, too, are reputable. You should also check to make sure those links are still active and provide current information.
Organizing Your Research
Completing online research to prepare for writing a professional or academic piece can seem overwhelming. Creating a research plan with a methodical process helps keep things organized and avoids extra work. To that end, check out the list of tips below to find out how you can research more effectively and efficiently.
Follow the Trail to its Source: It is always a good idea to cite the original source of information rather than a page that cites a source. This allows you to evaluate the credibility of the original information in an unfiltered way.
Stick to One Topic at at Time: To avoid muddling topics together in your mind as you research, stick to one topic at a time to stay organized and ensure you sufficiently research each one.
Use Reviews and Abstracts: Instead of reading through an entire article or paper, use any provided overview or abstract as a shortcut to determine whether a source will provide the information you need.
Bookmark Folders: One easy way to keep track of all your sources is to create bookmark folders within your browser. You can sort these folders by topic, by type, or any categorization that works for you.
Complete Bibliography as You Go: Rather than leaving it until the end, you will make things much easier on yourself if you complete your bibliography as you write your paper.
Online Tools to Manage Your Research
- EasyBib: EasyBib is an app for automatically generating citations and bibliographies for your research paper. To start, you select the citation format your paper requires and then provide information for the app to identify your source. EasyBib does the work from there.
- Endnote: Endnote is a product with a search engine for users to find academic sources, automatically insert references and citations into their manuscripts, and store documents and files.
- Mendeley: Mendeley is a tool that allows users to build a library of customized research for review and citations. Users can upload documents to share with collaborators and network with other researchers.
- RefWorks: RefWorks lets researchers construct a personalized resource database, share and manage references, and automatically create a bibliography for their manuscript.
- Zotero: Zotero is a service that can automatically run updated searches on the internet for research material according to the parameters of your saved search. You can also generate instant bibliographies and citations and network with fellow researchers.
Citing Online Resources for Social Work Students
While there are various citation formats that apply within the different academic and professional disciplines, the most common style for the social and physical sciences is APA style. As such, social work students should use APA style in writing research papers and crafting formal presentations, making sure to adhere to the general formatting and citation rules for both their writing and any associated bibliography.
As is the case with most citation formats, APA style requires a different form of citation for each type of source. For example, a book should be cited one way while a scholarly journal requires another form. This can be a difficult and confusing task for students, so it is often helpful to check out the Purdue Online Writing Lab for more information, like detailed examples and helpful tips.
Articles From Online Periodicals
A DOI or Digital Object Identifier locates a particular document in a way that is longer-lasting than a URL link. You may choose to include a DOI as part of your citation to direct your audience to the exact location of the source material you cited in your work. Often, publishers of online academic journals provide an article’s DOI on the first page of the document.
What is a DOI?
Originally, when citing sources from online databases, you would use the URL of the source. However, these sources now change too often to use the URL. The Digital Object Identifier (DOI) exists in place of a URL as a stable method of linking to the source.