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Electronic Research
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Electronic Research

You can conduct research over the Internet in several ways:

  1. Conduct basic Internet searches
  2. Consult electronic encyclopedias
  3. Search government web sites
  4. Connect to your school’s virtual library (catalogue and databases)
  5. Search e-journals (through your library or not)

Internet Searches:

The most important thing to remember about using a basic Internet search engine (such as Google) to conduct research for an academic essay is: DON’T DO IT! A Google search, even if you are using Google Scholar, will most likely not turn up anything useful. The majority of sites out there on the Web are:

  1. Unreliable
  2. Not regularly updated
  3. Written by people who are not experts in the field
  4. Not reviewed by any professional or authoritative body or editorial board
  5. Full of personal opinion, generalization, and even false information
  6. Sponsored by companies who place their monetary interests first
  7. Full of plagiarized information

So if your first instinct upon being assigned a research project is to type your keywords into a search engine, don’t do it. The best advice we can give you is to skip this step entirely. Instead, start your research at your school’s library, either in the stacks or online.

Electronic Encyclopedias:

Use electronic encyclopedias carefully and avoid them when you can, although your library may have some that are helpful—consult your librarian to find the best. Sources like Microsoft’s Encarta may be helpful for giving you a basic overall picture of your topic, but for a research essay, you will need more detail than they can offer.

DO NOT USE Wikipedia! This site has become extremely popular with students, but you should never use it as a source for an essay. The information given on the site may not be reliable because anyone with access to the Internet can post “facts” on Wikipedia. Avoid it at all costs.

Government Web Sites:

Government of Canada web sites are usually the most reliable sites to use for gathering data. If you need statistics on drunk driving and accidents, for example, you may be able to find them on a government site. You will need more than statistics for most research essays, however, so don’t rely entirely on these sites. Please go to the Weblinks section of the Online Learning Centre and look under Electronic Research for some sites to try.

Virtual Libraries:

Your college or university probably has a “virtual library”—an online library catalogue and a system that allows you access to databases that your school has subscribed to. You should be able to access your electronic library from home as well as on campus. If connecting from home, you may be directed to connect via a “proxy” server, but this step usually involves nothing more than typing in a user name or number and a password. Often your name and student number are used. If you have any trouble accessing the library from home, talk to a librarian. You may need to bring your student card in to the library to be validated, so don’t leave your research to the night before the paper is due!

Under most library systems, you can search for sources in a few different ways. The easiest way is to log on to your library’s catalogue and type in search words, but you will likely only get lists of full books available in the stacks. In order to find articles on your topic, you will need to search a database.

Some libraries will have lists on their web sites telling you which databases they have subscribed to and providing links for you to connect to them. For example, you may be able to access the EBSCO, ERIC, or Lexis-Nexis databases from your virtual library.

You can also search your library’s periodical indexes, to find articles in journals that your library subscribes to. If your professor asks for “scholarly sources” or “academic sources,” you will likely want to begin your search with a periodical index. Indexes are organized by category. For example, if you are writing an essay on Alice Munro’s short stories, you can search for indexes that fall under the humanities or arts categories. For anything to do with language or literature, the MLA (Modern Language Association) Bibliography is the best. Once you have connected to their site, all you have to do is type in your keywords and you will be presented with a list of all articles that match your request. You will then need to determine whether or not your library holds the journals that these articles come from. To do so, you may need to write down the information and then look up the journals on your library’s local catalogue, or you may be able to click on the article for instant access to a full-text, online version of the article itself.


E-journals can be accessed through a periodical index search, but many libraries will also list e-journals separately on their home pages. This list represents all of the electronic journals that your school has subscribed to. When you search for articles in a particular e-journal, you should be able to see the full article online, without having to find the print version in the stacks. In some cases, a print version may not even be available. Electronic journals often contain some of the most up-to-date information. You can read the articles online or print them off to read later. Whichever method you choose, make sure you take note of all the publication information before you navigate away from the site!

You may also be able to access some electronic journals from outside of your school library’s system. For example, you may conduct some research from your local public library, or from a nearby college or university. In those cases, you may only be able to access the journals while you are in the building. However, many public libraries also have online resources available, and you may be able to access e-journals through those by entering your name and library card number or bar code.

Tips for Electronic Researching

  1. As with any assignment, start early. You should begin researching for an essay at least 2-4 weeks before it’s due. If you need to order books or articles through interlibrary loan, this timeline will enable you to get your materials well in advance of your due date.
  2. Remember that articles from scholarly journals are much more reliable than Internet Web sites. “Scholarly” means that the essay has been reviewed by an editorial board made up of other experts in the field, and they agree that the author’s information is reliable. These articles are usually written by professors with credentials such as a Master’s degree or Ph.D. and are based on that person’s intensive research in the area.
  3. Don’t limit yourself. You may think that taking your research from the first three sources you find is quick and easy, but it is definitely not the best strategy for getting a decent grade. It may also make writing your essay much more difficult. Don’t spend months compiling stacks of source materials, but do make sure you consult enough sources that you are fairly sure that the ones you are using are the best ones for proving your thesis statement.
  4. If you aren’t successful in finding multiple articles or books on your topic right away, try searching using different keywords or combinations of keywords. For example, instead of typing in the title of one of Alice Munro’s stories, try typing in “Canadian short stories.” If you can’t find sources by looking for something very specific, broaden your search to include a wider range of sources. Most databases will also allow you to narrow or broaden your search in terms of the year of publication, so if you want to limit your search to things written in the last ten years, you can. You may even be able to limit your search to scholarly sources by checking a box.
  5. If you ever need help with electronic researching, there are a number of places you can turn. First, see if your library’s Web site offers online tutorials. If not or if you still have a question after taking part in one, try signing up for an in-library demonstration. Most schools offer orientation sessions during the first few weeks of classes. And of course, when in doubt, ask a librarian! Some students are too shy to ask for help, but one simple question to the expert can save you hours of time and frustration.
  6. Always take careful notes when researching online! If you don’t want to get accused of plagiarism, you will want to write down the author, title of article, title of journal, date of publication, and all other relevant publication information on each piece of information you save, whether you do it on your computer or in a notebook. Also make sure that when you write down someone else’s words, you put quotation marks around them immediately. When you go to put those quotations into your essay, you will know who said them and what work they came from. Otherwise, you will likely not remember.
  7. Try not to get overwhelmed. When you search for anything online, you know that you will be wading through a sea of information, some of it useful but most of it not. If you find yourself getting lost, try reexamining your topic question or thesis statement and see if you can narrow it down or change it slightly. If you start with a relatively narrow focus, you won’t have to sift through thousands of useless “hits.” Some students fall into a trap of printing off every article they find, costing them not only time but money. Beginning your research early can also help alleviate this problem. If you feel you are getting bogged down in research, you can take a day or two off from the project and come back to it refreshed.

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