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How to Teach Research Paper - Finding Reliable Sources

Updated on January 17, 2013

Where to Find Reliable Sources?

The key to a research paper is finding the research. In today's society, with Google a verb that we use on a daily basis, information is at our fingertips in a way it hasn't ever been before. Unfortunately, that means all information -- good or bad. Since the validity of the student's work is dependent on the reliability of the resources they use, we need to equip them with the skills to find credible sources.

The best place to start is the school library. I always schedule the librarian to teach the students about the resources that are available, specifically the subscription databases. Because these databases, like the ones that we used in college on all of our research papers, have information that is collected and accepted as reliable, it's a great place for students to begin.

Of course, not everything can be found in these databases, so learning how to use search engines online is helpful as well. Taking advantage of advance search and the help features of any search engine can help to narrow searches in order to find appropriate information.

It is also important to remind students to avoid Wikipedia. While it is full of a lot of information, students need to know that anyone can make edits and changes to most of the entries. I always tell students that Wikipedia is a starting point; using the article there to gather keywords and even links to better resources, is a great place to begin a research project.


Web Literacy - Evaluating Websites

If students cannot find information in the subscription databases, they may have to venture into the depths of the internet to get what they need. The internet is full of a ton of unknowns, so it is helpful to give students the tools to navigate it and weed out the garbage.

One important rule to remember is that you cannot always believe what you see on the internet. State Farm plays on that rule in one of their recent commercials. And while it can be seen as funny, it's not so funny when one is trying to find credible information for a research paper.

When teaching students how to be careful about what they see online, I usually send them to a few websites. The Endangered Northwest Tree Octopus hoax and the Dihydrogen Monoxide websites are helpful in showing students that just because it looks legitimate, doesn't mean that it is. They need to use their common sense paired with the research they have done and what they know on the topic to determine if there are any red flags in some research they are coming up with.

Domain names are helpful when it comes to evaluating resources. When a website is .gov or .edu one can guess it to be pretty reliable. Anything .com is commercial and paid for and .org is part of an organization that may be pushing an agenda. Take for instance This website comes up in a search on Martin Luther King, Jr. but is incredibly racist and inappropriate. Using the website, one can type in any address and find out who owns the website in question. The Martin Luther King website mentioned early is run by a white supremist group and clearly a resource that we do not want students to be using for research. This is one example of many on the internet why it is important to evaluate resources and never take anything at face value.


How to Search

We all have typed something into a search engine and found that the results that come up have nothing to do with what we really want to find. We will usually reword our search and see if we can do better with different terminology. The resource search process is the same thing. Whether using a database or an internet search engine, consider the language and keywords that are used. There are a few short cuts that can help limit or expand searches.

Using a + or - sign in the search includes or excludes information from the search. This can help to narrow or broaden search terms. Using terms like and, or, and not work in the same way as well. Putting a search term into quotation marks ("") ensures that you are search word for word for that phrase. Using the term near in a search engine helps to find websites where words appear in relation to one another, but not directly next to them.

Of course, each search engine you choose has a help section that can guide the user with techniques and tools to search better on that engine. Encourage students to try different search engines and they are all formulated differently in terms of how information is presented. It's a tedious process, but using these techniques will certainly help.

Lessons Learned

At the end of the day, guiding students towards the places to find useful information, like the library shelves or subscription databases, is useful. We can't pretend that the internet and desire to Google doesn't exist and therefore must arm our students with the tools to search better and to determine the legitimacy of websites.

Once this step is complete, move on to teach students how to Avoid Plagiarism.


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