Despite the fact that using the Internet for research has become an obvious choice, the Internet, like any tool, has unique characteristics that create both benefits and drawbacks.
On the plus side, the Internet provides the following:
– Access to new and valuable sources of information made possible by the Internet. Electronic journals (e-journals) and Internet discussion groups are examples of these.
– A more efficient method of gaining access to certain standard information sources, such as newspapers, particularly those published in foreign countries, and electronic versions of existing print journals.
– Access to a massive amount of information. It is currently estimated that there are approximately 800 million pages of information on the Internet.
– Access to non-mainstream perspectives. Fringe groups and those who do not have access to the media or a printing press can now express themselves on the Internet.
– Access to esoteric and arcane knowledge. Because there are so many people on the Internet with such diverse interests, a search can frequently turn up the most unusual and difficult-to-locate nugget of information.
– Access to primary source digitized versions. Some libraries digitize (create electronic versions of) primary research sources such as personal letters, official government documents, treaties, photographs, and so on and make them available for viewing on the Internet. The same can be said of audio and, in some cases, video.
– Use of searchable databases and datasets. There are numerous websites on the Internet where you can search for statistical data, such as demographic or social science data. Some databases on the Internet are paid, while others are free.
– Obtaining access to government information. The United States federal government is one of the world’s largest publishers, and the Internet is its preferred method of disseminating much of its information. International information is available. You can not only easily find official data from other countries by connecting to embassies, consulates, and foreign governmental sites, but you can also search other countries’ newspapers, discuss issues with citizens from all over the world on newsgroups, and locate Web sites established by individuals from other countries.
Other significant advantages that the Internet provides to researchers include:
– Quickness. A search on the Internet can be completed in a matter of seconds.
– Reliability. You can find information that was only made available a few minutes ago on the Internet.
– Digital media. The Internet provides not only text but also graphics, audio, and video.
– The use of hyperlinks. The ability to navigate between Web pages can facilitate associative research and make viewing citations and supporting data from a text easier.
On the other hand, despite its real and seemingly growing benefits to researchers, the Internet still has some drawbacks. Among the most important are:
– A diverse collection of data. The Internet is a veritable melting pot of information, which is both one of its strengths and one of its weaknesses. On the Internet, you can find everything from a scholarly paper published on particle physics to a 14-year-summer old’s vacation essay; newswire feeds from respected press organizations like the AP and Reuters, as well as misinformation from a Holocaust denial group; commercials and advertisements, and scientific reports from the US Department of Energy. With so much variety, it can be difficult to separate out and pinpoint exactly the type of information you seek.
– It is difficult to conduct an effective search. A traditional electronic database, such as one found in a library, may require some learning and practice, but once you’ve mastered it, you can become an effective searcher. However, even if you know everything there is to know about searching, you will only be able to search a small percentage of what is on the Internet due to the built-in limitations of Internet search engines and the way Web pages are created. You won’t be able to tell the difference between valuable and trivial pages, and the results may be unpredictable.
– Focus on new information. Because the World Wide Web was created in the early 1990s, the majority of the information available on the Internet predates that date. This is changing, however, as some website owners are loading older, archival content.
– There is a lack of context. Because search engines will only return a single page from a multipage document, you may overlook the larger context from which that information was derived.
– The absence of permanence. Web pages are notorious for being unstable. They appear, move, and vanish on a regular basis. This is especially concerning for academic researchers who need to cite a consistent page for reference purposes.
– Coverage selectivity. Despite the Internet’s size, the vast majority of the world’s knowledge remains in print. As a result, a search for information on the Internet is not a comprehensive search of the world’s literature or knowledge.
Similarly, much of what is on the Internet is “off-limits” to search engines and cannot be retrieved. These restricted sites include those that require registration, a password, or payment of a subscription fee. Most of the major commercial fee-based databases and online services with a Web presence fall into this category (e.g., Dialog, LexisNexis).
Newspapers that require subscriptions or registration, professional association member-only sites, and so on are examples of “off-limit” sites.
Overall, it is clear that researching on the internet can either be a boon or a curse for good research results. However, doing some internet research can at the very least provide a good foundation for your research endeavors.