Finding Sources on the Internet
I'm frequently asked how to find reliable sources on the Internet. That's something that will take you quite a
while to master (it took me years, honestly) but here are a couple of tips.
To begin with, I choose my search engines carefully. Some search engines just don't produce enough
results, others are great for finding the latest articles on pop stars but not so good for academic
subjects, and others aren't easy to fine-tune. My favorite engine for research is AltaVista (www.altavista.com), because it makes refining your search simple. (There are
other excellent search engines, but since they all have their peculiarities, we'll just deal with AltaVista
If my search term is composed of more than one word -- in other words, if it's a title or phrase -- I
use quotes to force AltaVista to see those words as a unit rather than individually. For example, if I just
typed A Tale Of Two Cities into my search box, I might get reviews of A Knight's Tale or an
encyclopedia article on cities -- just because one of the words in each of those subjects matches one word
in my search term. Typing quotes around the whole phrase -- "A Tale of Two Cities" forces AltaVista to look
for those five words together. This gives you fewer results, but the results are more accurate.
Here's another important tip: if you want to hunt for multiple search terms -- like "A Tale of Two
Cities" and knitting -- put a plus sign right before each term: +"A Tale of Two Cities" + knitting. Doing
this narrows AltaVista's search down to websites that include BOTH those search terms in them.
Your public or school library probably subscribes to a number of restricted-access databases, online
journals, and periodicals -- so if you have borrowing privileges at that library, you should be able to
access those online materials for free. You'll be really surprised at the amount and range of material just
waiting for you to use. Ask your librarian for further information.
And finally, if you're trying to impress professors, be careful of user-generated content such as blogs
or wikis written by people whose background you don't know. Because they are often written in a very
accessible style, material like that can help you get a general overview of the subject while giving you an
idea of what the average person on the street is saying about it. But stay clear of using user-generated
content in an academic paper; you don't want to cite websites that were obviously written by people who
know less about the subject than you do!