The Internet is a blessing and a curse. In the old days, students would look up key terms in one of the library’s indexes, then find an entry for a particular source in a card catalog, then physically find the source – which might be bound and in a book, stored deep in the bowels of the library, or available only on microfilm (which required a special viewing station). By the time students found a few sources that were useful, they were exhausted – and teachers were perhaps content with less research or research of a lower quality.

Now it is easy to find hundreds of potential sources – at least for teachers – and so the bar is perhaps set higher than 15 or 20 years ago.

So how does a student navigate this world? The following is one set of suggestions – take whatever appears useful, make sure you pay attention to the specific rules of your institution or course, and most of all ask a librarian for help. Librarians aren’t in their job because they like to shelve books (well maybe they like that part too); librarians love their jobs because they get to learn about all sorts of different ideas and content, and in the process help students with their work.

  1. Start with Wikipedia or a general Internet search ( or
    Teachers around the world, take a deep breath. Let’s get this step out of the way, because 80% of students are going to do it anyway. Students around the world, understand this: Wikipedia can be changed by anyone, at any time. Therefore, it is not credible. End of story.The goal for using a general search is to generate key words and ideas that will make your more sophisticated searches more productive. is particularly useful, because it clusters the results of your search into categories that are easily explored.Example: 

    Perhaps you are working on an engineering project to help design a new structure to support a giant tortoise at the local zoo that has a broken leg. The leg cannot be healed any further, and it cannot be used for walking. Searching on “giant tortoise with a broken leg” isn’t going to result in many useful articles from print sources, so reading the Wikipedia entry on the giant tortoise may be a good first step. If we read about the tortoise in Wikipedia’s typical concise style, we quickly build a list of key ideas: that most species are extinct, that the only living species is the Aldabra Giant Tortoise, that a tortoise is not the same thing as a turtle, some important ideas about anatomy (including the word ‘carapace’, which refers to the animal’s outer shell structure), and info on their habitat. Armed with some of these key ideas we would be able to search credible sources more efficiently.

  2. Search your library’s electronic catalog for books on the subject
    This is an often overlooked step. Books written by experts are highly credible and might be written for a broader audience than the scholarly articles in the next step. Plus, since electronic articles are so easy to find, using some real books might establish you, subtly, in your reader’s mind as a hard-working scholar.You can also search Google’s online book repository.
  3. Search your library’s online resources
    Good beginning resources include Expanded Academic, Lexis-Nexis Academic, Proquest, and Wilson Select. Note: your library might not subscribe to all of these databases.Start with some broad search terms, and if you get many results, add sometime more specific. In the example above, we might start with “giant tortoise anatomy” and then add in “carapace” if we get over 50 results.The immediately frustrating aspect of this approach to students is that each database has its own search page, and each one is slightly different. Most let you add key terms, use quote marks to specify phrases, and include a checkbox for ‘peer reviewed’ or ‘scholarly’ sources only. Most also let you specify “full text,” so if the computer finds a source you can be sure to read the whole thing immediately – no trips to the microfilm department. 

    Depending on your level of reading ability and the subject you are investigating, Google Scholar may be a good bet, too. Just remember that you will be citing the source that you find, not Google Scholar or Lexis-Nexis.

  4. Analyze and Iterate.
    Read what you find critically – that is, constantly challenging whether the source will be of use to you, whether it challenges or agrees with your proposed essay topic, and whether the author and publication are credible. Then iterate.That is, go back through the process, starting perhaps with step 1. After you’ve developed some ideas and learned about your subject, you’ll be better prepared to skim potential sources with a more discerning eye. If it sounds like you could burn up some major time with this process, you’d be just about right. If you get tired of doing research you can always flip over and start writing. After all, it’s only when you start to write that you really begin to figure out what it is you need to do.

Finally: take notes. There is nothing worse than spending 30 minutes trying to find a source that you didn’t think was so important at first, but now desperately need. Some ideas on taking notes:

  • Keep a notebook specifically for research and ideas. Moleskine make very nice, fairly affordable and slender notebooks perfect for keeping notes.
  • Use web-based software like or (many schools license the software for students) to keep notes and automate the creation of citations and bibliographies.
  • Use Microsoft OneNote, Evernote, Google Docs or similar to easily copy and paste bibliographic information.