Reviewing Online Research Skills: Part Two

Google Scholar, clustering search engines, citation generators and more

…………Last time I mentioned that most students begin their online research by turning to GOOGLE, and that usually leads to at least one WIKIPEDIA entry. Both of these sites are covered in my last post, and there’s plenty to discuss about them, but with only fifteen minutes left in my presentation, I quickly turn to GOOGLE SCHOLAR.

…………Despite its pedigree, Google Scholar is not a search engine in the traditional sense. Search engines, like Bing, Yahoo Search and Ask retrieve web pages based on algorithms that rank popularity and links to other pages. Google Scholar weeds out most of that noise and focuses on finding obscure hits that are academic, research based papers, publications and other resources that won’t make anyone’s “most popular” list. In this case, that’s a good thing.

…………It’s important to note that many of the finds that Google Scholar returns may be resources that require subscription or purchase. This doesn’t mean that you can’t find useful research material that is free. Included in Google Scholar’s search is the power of Google Books, which often allows users to preview whole sections of books. This is a great resource, especially for high school researchers, whose school libraries cannot keep up with purchasing published materials that are current, reliable, and appropriate for doing academic research.

…………Google Scholar also finds case studies, research publications and other public documents that are published by universities, individual researchers and private think tanks. Many of these resources are not only available for free, but can be downloaded as a PDF. Best of all, if you do find something that you can use in your research, Google Scholar provides the citation information in MLA, APA and Chicago formats. This alone, will save the student researcher valuable time in the end. google scholar Clustering Search Engines

…………With just a handful of minutes left, I finally get to talk about sites not named Google or Wikipedia. (And that’s okay, because it’s important to discuss when and how to use both of those ubiquitous and powerful Internet tools.) I usually have the class brainstorm with me the ways they begin their Internet research, so I return to the list we’ve created. Most times, this list includes other popular search engines such as Bing, Ask, Yahoo Search, maybe Dogpile or Webcrawler. These other sites are also search engines that use different algorithms to search for and sort the finds. They will basically return many of the same websites in different orders, and I don’t have a preference for one over the others.

…………Instead, I introduce students to YIPPY, a clustering search engine. Like the other search engines mentioned, Yippy has a traditional search field where you type in your keyword. Unlike the other search engines, Yippy divides the kind of returns it finds into several categories including what kind of site it came from (.edu, .gov, .org, etc.) and when the site was updated (past week, past month, etc.). Additionally, Yippy also offers a column of related search terms that both expand and narrow the keyword.

…………So, for example, if a student searches “steroids”, Yippy will find the typical Wikipedia entry, all the current news stories dealing with the topic and the sites selling, advertising and talking about steroids. The bonus for student researchers is that the clustering search engine will also divide the websites into meaningful categories such as “Side Effects of”, “Medical Use”, “High School”, “Bodybuilding” and so on. These “clouds” (as they’re called on Yippy) give students other words that could help them narrow or expand their research idea.

yippy2 Citation generators

…………During the final minute of my presentation, I introduce kids to a couple of the great online citation generators that exist to make their academic lives a little easier. I understand that there are still some teachers that insist that their students gather all of the bibliographic information on their own, but I find that most citation generators are imperfect anyway and will demand the students’ attention to correct or complete the information.

…………These online tools are also very useful, I believe, because the amounts and kinds of information that are available to today’s student researchers is ever changing and we could all use a little technical assistance with such matters as proper documentation of sources. The two citation generators I usually recommend are Easybib and Son of Citation Machine. Both of these tools are free and easy to use and require minimum training for learning how to generate proper MLA style citations. (Easybib requires a paid “upgrade” to create APA or Chicago style citations) son of Closing Remarks

…………Just before the bell rings, I remind students that the world wide web is an incredible collection of information, but that most of it isn’t really appropriate for school research. In fact, what most of us know as the “Internet” is really only the tip of the information iceberg that exists online. Stored in private and subscription databases is a whole other world of information that not even Google can reach. If they seem interested in learning more, I’m invited back. If they’re not interested, at least they’ll have some pointers to start with.

…………I hope you found something worthwhile. Next time I’ll discuss the databases available through the Haverhill Public Library and other useful sites for student researchers. As always, thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2015. All rights reserved.

Reviewing Online Research Skills: Part One

This time of the school year, I am invited to visit classes working on research papers to discuss with students how to use the sources available online. Most of the times, teachers are pretty open to allowing their students to pick their own topics to write about. This encourages students to research and share information about subjects, issues and ideas that keep them interested. The teachers work with the students to hone their ideas and develop a thesis statement, and then ask me to come in to their classrooms to talk about where to go online to find reliable information.

Starting Points

Although I’m always pressed for time during my presentations (there really is so much we could talk about), I don’t like to begin by assuming that students don’t already have resources they use to get their schoolwork done. After a quick survey of topic ideas (abortion, women’s rights, illegal immigration, GMOs, internet surveillance, etc.), I ask students where they begin their online searches and inevitably, they respond almost unanimously, “GOOGLE”.

This is a good starting point for discussing what Google is (a search engine) and for taking a look at the kind of results we get when we type a keyword into our search box. Rather than using a Powerpoint presentation during my talks, I use the Polyvision board and a live Internet connection to demonstrate doing online research in real time.* Using one of the suggested topics, I do a Google search that almost always has a WIKIPEDIA hit in the top five returns.

This is when I ask the students what they know about Wikipedia and we talk about how they should and should not use this indispensible online resource. The most common reasons I hear for why they shouldn’t use Wikipedia for academic research is because, “anyone can edit the entries” and “it isn’t reliable”. While the former statement remains only partially true (many articles on the site are locked and can only be edited by certain members of the Wikipedia community), the latter is no longer a legitimate reason for staying away from Wikipedia for school research papers.

In fact, multiple studies have shown that Wikipedia is as good as most traditional print encyclopedias when it comes to accuracy, especially on technical, mathematical or scientific topics. Entries that deal with pop culture, religious and political ideas and/or other issues subject to bias or interpretation, can be more contentious on Wikipedia, but even this can be used as a “learning moment” online.

Using Wikipedia for Research

Most research papers that students write nowadays can be described as argumentative or persuasive. That is, they have an issue in mind that is “debatable” or “controversial” and they have an opinion that they have to support. In order to do good research, the students should also know what the other side is saying about the issue, and this is where Wikipedia’s reliability can be discussed with the students. Topics such as “fracking” or “legality of cannabis” may have an introductory note explaining that there are polarizing views about the subject or that the entry is not considered neutral; and it’s worthwhile to discuss this with students.

In the end, the real problem (for me anyway) with using Wikipedia as a primary source for high school research papers is that it is only an encyclopedia. Just as I wouldn’t allow students to use print encyclopedias such as Britannica or Colliers, I discourage my high school students from thinking of Wikipedia as a primary source.

Instead, I teach them to read the articles for background information, including important dates and names associated with the subject. I also recommend that students look at the REFERENCES section at the bottom of the article. This is where Wikipedia really serves students best as an online research tool. Here they will find links to the articles and information used to write and research the article above. Often, the references have links that will take you to the source, and then the whole process of evaluating that source (for reliability, accuracy, bias, etc.) begins anew.

Hidden treasures of .gov sites    

After spending some time clarifying how to use and not use Wikipedia, I go back to the original Google search and explore the other search finds. This gives me a chance to talk with the students about the different kinds of top-level domains (TLD) that exist on the Internet such as .com, .gov and .org.

There are important differences between who can and cannot have a website in certain domains, but nowadays most web users ignore these distinctions. For students doing research, .gov sites are an excellent source of reliable and accurate information. Here is a handful of .gov sites that I recommend during my presentations:

  • Library of Congress: The largest library in the world with a collection of rare and unique audio, visual and text documents.
  • National Institutes of Health: A great resource for researching diseases, disorders and other health related topics. A search on this site will return government studies and publications on the topic.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Like the NIH above, the CDC is a valuable and reliable online source for health related topics.
  • CIA World fact book: Just as Wikipedia replaced the need for print encyclopedias, this online resource has replaced the library’s need for a print Almanac. Up to date information on the world countries’ population, type of government, economy, geography and so on.
  • NASA: Space exploration continues even if we are no longer sending people on the grand search. The telescopes, rovers and other tools available via NASA should be enough to inspire another generation of stargazers.

By this time in my presentation, I usually stop to ask if there are any questions, and I look up at the clock to realize, I still have a lot more to share, but only about fifteen minutes left to talk. Next time, I’ll discuss Google Scholar, clustering search engines and online citation generators.

I hope you found something useful, and as always, thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2015. All rights reserved.


 

* Of course this can backfire for many reasons and I do have a Powerpoint presentation ready in case of such an event.