Can you imagine being a student before the Internet? The Internet has obviously changed scholarship dramatically. It presents a challenge for researchers and students because the content found on the Internet is often less reliable than information in books or articles, mostly due to the fact that online texts don't go through the same rigorous editing and fact checking procedures as traditional published texts. So, when you use the Internet, use it safely and wisely.
Here are some guidelines that will help you do that:
Think before you search
After receiving an assignment sheet, the first impulse of many students is to log on and see what Google has to say about the topics on the list. Aside from being inefficient, this approach can also lead to plagiarism because the student has begun researching before he or she had a good idea of what to write about. Students may end up finding a paper online that seems to say what they want to say and then they set about trying to change the argument to fit the assignment. Or, students may find themselves changing their mind with each new website they read.
The bottom line is that you should always think before you search. When you get an assignment, read each question carefully and ask your professor questions if you aren't sure how to proceed. Next, do some brainstorming and put some ideas down on paper. Then, write a research question or a statement of purpose, decide what kind of sources your need and how you will use them and then (and ONLY THEN) begin your search. Not only will you have a clear idea of what your topic is and why you're interested in it, you'll be able to do more specific keyword searches and, therefore, your research process will take less time.
Keep a record of your searches
The web is a big place, and it's very easy to lose track of where you are and how you got there. Your overall research process will be easier if you keep a record of your search, including dates, search engine used, search terms used, and general pathways you followed. This also helps if you need to explain the methodology you used in your paper.
Print off a page from the website you're using in your essay
If you find a website that you really want to cite, be sure to print off the first page. This will give you evidence of the website's existence (just in case it disappears or radically changes before your paper is handed back), and will give you a record of the date on which you accessed it.
Don't have website windows open when you're writing your essay
You've been working on your essay all week and are finally writing the draft. It's late at night. You're tired. You have four windows open on your desktop and are switching back and forth between original source material and your essay. Any guesses as to what could happen? Even if you don't copy material and paste it directly into your essay, you run the risk of “borrowing” or stealing the author's words. To avoid this problem, avoid the temptation by taking good notes in the first place. Keep your research and your writing processes separate!
Never cut and paste directly from a website
Sometimes, never means never. Don't cut and paste directly from the Internet, even if you know you're going to use a long quote. Taking notes on a separate sheet of paper is a step in the critical thinking process. Cutting and pasting directly from websites is lazy and puts you at risk of plagiarism. If it seems too easy, it probably is. Trust us on this one.