Conducting research as a college student once required spending long hours in the library stacks, combing through encyclopedias and asking professors and librarians for guidance. Today, thanks to the internet’s continued expansion, students can conduct most of the necessary research for academic papers online. Internet research offers several benefits, including ease of access, quicker search times, and algorithms that do much of the initial work for you. However, online researchers should exercise caution and avoid common pitfalls such as information overload, distraction, and procrastination.
Additionally, because just about anyone can write a blog, build a website, or post information, it remains all too easy to stumble upon untrustworthy and/or inaccurate sources. The guide below can help you create an online research roadmap to navigate online resources, including Google search tools, academic databases, and subject-specific sites. This page also features valuable research tips for nursing students, such as how to determine the validity of an online source and methods to organize your research findings and appropriately cite sources using APA and AMA style guides.
Using Google for Online Research
All search engines work in a similar manner by crawling the web, indexing information, ranking relevancy, and posting results for users. The section below discusses how a user can further refine search results and weed out unreliable sources using preset search engine filters. While Bing, Yahoo! Search, and Ask all possess filtering features, Google is used for the following examples due to its position as the most popular search engine.
Refining Your Search Results
Despite its popularity, many people remain unaware of the refining search functions offered by Google. Among its many search shortcuts — each explained in detail in this support article — the most useful tool may be the site searching function. By entering “[search keywords] site:[domainname.com]” into the Google search bar, the displayed results will be limited to those found at that particular site. To make this shortcut work properly, you should avoid adding any spaces between the search shortcut and the domain name and add your search keywords at the beginning of your entry. For example, a search for “nursing certification site:nursingworld.org” limits results to those related to nursing certification content within nursingworld.org. If the information you seek is likely to appear on a government, school, or organization’s website, but you don’t know which specific site to focus on, you can also perform a wider filtered search with results limited to particular classes of sites (e.g., .edu, .gov, or .org domains). For example, you could type “nursing certification site:.org” into the search bar.
If this method seems too convoluted, or if you forget the search shortcut codes, you can easily access these same features in a guided format by performing an advanced search. To locate the advanced search page, select the “Settings” link at the bottom-right corner of the Google homepage. From there, you can include or exclude information, narrow results to those with search terms in certain locations on a webpage, or limit results to pages updated within a certain timeframe.
Rather than crawling the internet to index popular websites, blogs, and user-created content, Google Scholar maintains a massive index of scholarly literature in the form of professional articles, online academic journals, books, research theses and dissertations, abstracts, and technical reports. However, users should remember that not every source is peer reviewed, meaning they should verify a source’s credibility before citing material. Nonetheless, Google Scholar remains an expeditious way for students to complete relevant research for nursing school essays and assignments. Some Google Scholar results contain the full text of a resource, while others list only descriptive metadata.
To ensure your ability to access the complete text of limited-information results, navigate to the “Library Links” page within Google Scholar’s preferences before you begin researching and fill in the name of your college library. Your search results will then be limited to those that you can access through your school/library, either in person or through an online database. For additional tips on how to best utilize Google Scholar for academic research, visit the search tips page, which offers several subpages related to searching, accessing, and citing results.
If you cannot find the online resources you need through Google or Google Scholar, you may need to seek out dedicated academic databases and search engines. Scholarly databases include those that index content and information for all academic disciplines as well as those with indexes and services dedicated to online research for nurses and other professionals in the healthcare field. The lists below provide an overview of common sites of each kind, many of which offer services at no cost or at a discounted rate for college students.
- AMiner: Part academic search engine and part social network, AMiner contains profiles for more than 700,000 researchers and data related to more than three million publications.
- Bielefeld Academic Search Engine: Operated by Bielefeld University’s library, BASE offers free access to the full text of more than 60% of their 120 million indexed academic documents.
- Catalog of U.S. Government Publications: If you need a government publication for your academic research, the CGP offers links to full-text documents and access to information from federal depository libraries.
- CIA World Factbook: This government resource provides information and data related to the history, government, demographics, economy, transportation, and communications of 267 countries and global entities.
- The Education Resources Information Center: Students and researchers can use ERIC to search a database of journal articles, reports, and conference papers, with options to filter for peer-reviewed and full-text content.
- iSEEK Education: Created specifically for students and teachers, iSEEK offers filtering options to display only authoritative web results.
- The National Archives Catalog: The catalog search from the National Archives supports advanced search shortcuts that help expedite a user’s ability to locate relevant historical and government records.
- The Online Computer Library Center: OCLC offers a variety of research services, including free access to millions of scholarly records through its OAlster database.
- CORE: CORE — an open-access research paper database — boasts an aggregation of more than 130 million academic works.
For Nursing Students
- CINAHL Plus: Full-text materials available from the CINAHL Plus database include nursing and health journals, evidence-based care sheets, and continuing-education modules. Many university libraries provide students access to this database.
- Ovid Nursing Journals: Accessible to many university library users, topics in the 400 peer-reviewed nursing journals found in the Ovid database include general nursing, emergency care, and other specializations.
- ProQuest Nursing and Allied Health Database: Your university library may provide access to ProQuest databases, including a comprehensive database of full-text nursing publications and clinical training videos.
- PubMed: Maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and with full-text articles available to many university students, PubMed boasts more than 20 million biomedical literature citations from various sources.
- BioMedCentral: Part of Springer Nature, BioMedCentral indexes about 300 peer-reviewed academic journals related to the fields of biology and clinical medicine.
- MedlinePlus: Although not an academic database, MedlinePlus offers free, authoritative information about health and wellness issues for the benefit of consumers and professionals.
Evaluating Online Sources
Just about anyone with an internet connection can write and post content online, making it important to evaluate the scholarly merit of online sources before you use them in an academic assignment. Researchers can often determine a source’s credibility by looking at an author’s background, the appearance of a website, and/or the nature of the content itself. As you investigate the origins of an online source, ask yourself the questions listed below, which were gathered from larger research guides available from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago Press.
|Who Is the Author?||Something as simple as checking an author’s education credentials and work history may give you an idea of their authority on a subject.|
|What Is Its Purpose?||When evaluating a source, consider the author’s motive in writing it as well as their intended audience. While a persuasive writing assignment might benefit from quotes from slanted pieces, you should confirm that the author’s stance on an issue does not come at the expense of factual integrity.|
|Does It Look Professional?||Relying solely on a site’s basic appearance to determine credibility presents potential problems because webpage designs vary widely and anyone can create a professional-looking site. However, some signs that may indicate a lack of true professionalism include spelling and grammatical errors, disorganized and messy content, and/or profanity.|
|Is It Objective?||Not all online resources need to maintain complete objectivity to hold credibility. However, whether a source is argumentative or informative, you should always determine its level (or lack) of objectivity and decide if it fits the nature of your assignment.|
|Is It Current?||Information and data, especially in the fields of healthcare and medical research, change and develop frequently. Even articles published in peer-reviewed journals can lose authority as time passes. Before you decide to use a source in your assignment, identify its age and current relevance to avoid citing outdated material.|
|What Sites Does It Link to?||The types of sites you pull quotes from or link to matter. Citations from .gov, .org, or .edu domains tend to be more authoritative than information obtained from non-professional entertainment websites.|
Organizing Your Research
The quality of the research material you find online can lose its value if you fail to properly organize your sources. Consider using some of the tips mentioned below to avoid having a great quote but missing its attribution or being unable to complete a reference page citation due to a lack of saved information.
|Bookmark Pages||Using your browser, bookmark helpful sites you might want to use as research sources for your assignment. You can also copy/paste links into a spreadsheet and provide a quick description to remind you why you saved a link.|
|Make Printouts||Making a physical printout of a page provides a copy you can access without your computer. This can also make it easier to take notes as needed.|
|Mark Key Quotations||Always keep track of quotes and attributions you might cite. This can be done by writing them out by hand, copy/pasting them into a document, or highlighting them on a printout.|
|Keep and Maintain Outlines||Don’t limit yourself to an early draft of an outline. As you find new and compelling research materials, write a new outline or update an existing one.|
|Consider Organization Software||Free and paid software tools, such as those listed in the section below, take browser bookmarking a step further by providing organization features such annotations, citation guides, and device syncing.|
Online Tools to Manage Your Research
- EasyBib: The smartphone app EasyBib is an online citation generator. Along with common features, users can scan barcodes of books to instantly generate citations.
- EndNote: EndNote offers a free 30-day trial. The program includes collaborative tools, a function that searches for full-text PDFs, and unlimited reference storage.
- Mendeley: Mendeley’s reference manager — available in free and premium versions — allows users to organize a personal library of resources, annotate documents, and cite sources.
- RefWorks: Requiring no software downloads, a paid site subscription to RefWorks allows you to create a database of references by importing your own files and searching for new content.
- Zotero: After downloading Zotero’s free software, you can collect online research citations by simply clicking a button in your browser. You can organize, tag, and sort these resources.
Citing Online Resources for Nursing Students
In science and social science disciplines — including nursing — most written assignments and presentations adhere to American Psychological Association (APA) style guidelines. Alternatively, your nursing college courses may require you to adhere to style guidelines provided by the American Medical Association (AMA). For each style guide, certain rules apply to the general formatting of material (e.g., rules for spacing, margins, typefaces, headers, and required components like abstracts, title pages, or reference pages) and how you need to insert and cite sources. Adhering to the formatting guidelines of APA or AMA often means making a few simple setting adjustments to your word processor. Creating correct citations without a generator, however, may require more time. Fortunately, many online resources exist to help writers master the format of APA and AMA citations. The section below contains some citation examples and helpful links with more detailed information.
The list below provides sample citations made using APA format. For additional information on these examples, as well as other APA style guidelines, visit the website of the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
Articles From Online Periodicals
Made up of a unique string of code that serves as a link, many scholarly articles include a digital object identifier (DOI). These identifiers remain the same, even if a website’s URL changes, providing a more reliable way to access sources. APA style recommends including a source’s DOI in citations whenever possible.
No Author Name Provided
Name of organization. Title of specific item cited. URL. Accessed date.
International Society for Infectious Diseases. ProMED-mail Website. http://www.promedmail.org. Accessed April 29, 2004.
Author Name Provided
Author A. Title. Name of website. URL. Updated date. Accessed date.
Sullivan D. Major search engines and directories. SearchEngineWatch Website. http://www.searchenginewatch.com/links/article.php/2156221. Updated April 28, 2004. Accessed December 6, 2005.
Online Journal Article With Six or Fewer Authors; DOI Included
Florez H, Martinez R, Chakra W, Strickman-Stein M, Levis S. Outdoor exercise reduces the risk of hypovitaminosis D in the obese. J Steroid Biochem Mol Bio. 2007;103(3-5):679-681. doi:10.1016 /j.jsbmb.2006.12.032.
Online Journal Article With Six or More Authors; DOI Not Included
Siris ES, Miller PD, Barrett-Connor E, et al. Identification and fracture outcomes of undiagnosed low bone mineral density in postmenopausal women: results from the National Osteoporosis Risk Assessment. JAMA. 2001;286(22):2815-2822. http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/reprint/286/22 /2815. Accessed April 4, 2007.