The wealth of information available online makes it simple to research virtually any topic. However, in order to do so efficiently, you need a strategy to find quickly exactly what you need, in the right format and from the sources that are relevant to your current task. An efficient, yet simple strategy is to use the best online research practices: identify your best search terms and places, use online libraries, narrow down your search using Google’s search operators.
The key to a quick and successful search is, of course, to search for the right thing in the right place. When searching for information online, this means that you need first to find out two things: the domain terms that are most relevant for your topic and the desired context of your sources.
The domain terms are specific words and keywords that are commonly used to describe your topic by people who work in related fields (specialists). It is important to realize that the domain terms are not necessarily always the same words that a non-specialist would use.
For instance, if your topic is “how to design computer programs that are pleasant and easy to use”, you would need to search for the domain terms “user interface design”, “usability” or even “human-computer interaction” in order to find the most relevant sources. A simple search based on the original topic description is likely to return mainly articles written by non-specialists and hence less reliable, possibly containing less information and surely less appropriate as sources for an academic assignment.
The desired context of your sources refers to whether you need for instance academic sources (such as papers published in scientific journals or conference proceedings), newspapers articles, or even texts from a specific discipline or domain (such as electronics, medicine, law or computer science). If this context is clear to you, then you can identify the main websites that are relevant for your search and use the following best practices to find on these websites the information that you need.
If the context that you identified is academic, your best chance for finding fast the most relevant information is often to search directly in online libraries. Depending on the concrete topic and domain of your research, useful online libraries might be the ACM DL (Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library), IEEE Xplore (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Digital Library), Questia (a more general, less technically-oriented online library) or Jstor (a library of academic journals).
All those online libraries (and many others) have their own search facilities and quite often allow more specific searches (for instance, searches based on the keywords stated by the authors of a paper or based on a hierarchy of topics for a domain). Alternatively, you can also use GoogleScholar to search through a wider set of academic papers than offered by a single online library.
To find quickly what you want instead of having to read through a long list of results, you need to narrow down your search, using Google’s search operators. One way to do this is by using Google’s advanced search form. However, the fastest way is simply to use the operators directly in the search box.
The most useful operators include quotes, plus sign, minus sign, site, intitle, intext, filetype. They can be used one at a time or combined together for a more complex search. For instance, a valid search is: “user interface design” -“human-computer interaction” site:portal.acm.org. The results for this search will be only pages from the website portal.acm.org containing the fragment “user interface design” and excluding those pages that contain “human-computer interaction” as well.
Using the above best online research practices, you can save a lot of time and find quickly the exact information that you need and the best sources for your paper. Those practices usually focus on narrowing down your search that only relevant results are returned. However, when an information proves elusive and hard to find, don’t be afraid to also expand your search with cleverly chosen alternative keywords and search practices.
To avoid plagiarism while using materials found online, you need to follow a few steps that will also help you write your paper faster, better and with greater confidence in its originality: narrow down your topic; keep track of sources and take notes; analyze and synthesize; use proper quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing and citation.
The first step to avoiding plagiarism is to know very clearly what you will be writing about. This will guide your research for online materials and will help you find your own original ideas and thoughts on the subject.
At the very beginning of your project, take a few moments to narrow down your topic so that you understand not only the general subject that you will be writing about (such as “avoiding online plagiarism”), but also the exact angle and issues that you will cover (such as “concrete steps to write good papers and avoid plagiarism while using online sources”).
Having narrowed down your topic, you can start searching for related information. To avoid plagiarism, it is crucial that at this step you keep track, in an organized manner, of everything you read, and that you take notes.
Keeping track refers to recording the full URL of every page or document that you read for your paper, preferably with an offline copy of it as well and any details required by the citation style that you will be using.
Taking notes refers at the very least to summarizing in a few words what you found relevant on every page or in every document that you are keeping track of. However, notes can also contain your thoughts on the matter (take care to always express them in your own words and never to use words from the original text) or even fragments of the text that you consider citing in your paper.
Make sure to clearly mark, with citation marks, any fragments (even single words) that you copy directly from the source – this will help you at writing time to avoid any form of plagiarism. Moreover, mark in a different way (for instance by using a different color, or italics) what is summarized, so that you will know, if you decide to use it, that it requires a citation of the source.
Finally, organizing means to group those URLs and notes in a way that is meaningful, based on the information that they contain. To help you with this task, you can use special software such as a citation manager, or you can just use separate files and folders on your computer.
The key to avoiding plagiarism is to obtain your own, original thoughts on the topic of your paper and this can be done only if you analyze and synthesize first the materials found online.
Analyzing means that you extract the ideas from the text you read and try to think them separately, identifying their components and implications. It is best to do this while you are taking notes – it will help you to write down useful notes and to find your own words and thoughts.
Synthesizing is the next step and consists in connecting the various ideas that you identified during analysis, finding new relationships among them. It helps at this stage to add to your notes any new thoughts and to regroup your notes according to the new relationships.
If you followed the previous steps, the first draft of your paper is ready, made up of your previous notes. Now it’s time to put them all together, properly acknowledging your sources. Try to use quotes sparingly and to paraphrase rather than quote. Paraphrasing simply means restating the content of the original text using your own words.
Whenever you use a quotation, a paraphrazed or a summarized fragment, make sure that you add immediately both the paranthetical citation and the relevant entry in the reference list (or bibliography). Don’t leave this for later, as you might forget about it. At the end, do a final review and check that everything that appears in the paper and is marked in your notes has the proper citation as well.