Research Paper Basics

Refining Your Google Searches

For most of us (and I admit I'm part of the same club) "Looking something up" means "searching for it on Google" about 99% of the time. That's OK if you just want a quick fact. (When was the Leaning Tower of Pisa built? It was begun on August 9, 1173.) Google is also great if you want to buy things. (Where can I get Pelikan Brilliant Brown fountain pen ink? I got 12 sources immediately.)

Google is made to sell things, and their definition of a "good" website is pretty narrow. Is the HTML coding perfect? Did the website repeat key words ("fountain pen ink" and "brown") several times? Did the website put those key words in italics or boldface them? Are there subheads that say things like "Fountain Pen" and "Pelikan ink"? And—of course—did the vendor pay extra to get the Google hit up to the top of the list? Obviously, none of this has anything to do with whether the information is high quality.

If I am writing a university-level paper, I need something better. To illustrate my point, let's do a more scholarly paper, beginning with a question: What can we learn about depression among college athletes who have suffered a concussion?

Tightening things up

One major skill you need is thinking of good search terms. One truth about searches is that "more is not necessarily better." If you type in a search term and get millions of hits, you are not going to follow all of them (and many will be completely unrelated to the topic you are following). You will probably only read the top five or ten, so you want information that is really focused and precise.

Getting ready for that paper on college athletes who have suffered a concussion, I went to Google and tried several search terms:

The skill you want to cultivate is to come up with search terms which are narrow and precise enough to take you to information you can use without being so limited that you miss information. In the example above, every additional term knocked off items that might have been off-topic. Adding "concussion" to the mix pushed us away from athletes who got depressed because they lost the game, but perhaps I should have tried "Depression athletes head injury" too—there are some head injuries which are not concussions, but which might have a connection with depression.

Two million websites is still completely impossible. I need something better than plain old Google.

Something besides Google

Plain old Google is made to sell things and made for a very informal audience. You might get some quality information on a deep subject there, but you are more likely to get help from Google Scholar When I searched Google Scholar for "Depression college athletes concussion" I got 14,400 hits. That's an enormous improvement over two million, and even though I won't look at all of them, I suspect I just lost 2,195,600 pieces of dead wood.

Selling things or scholarly?

To see the difference, I typed "Depression in Athletes" into both search engines. Plain Google gives some tips for dealing with depression and a national helpline; the advice isn't too bad in this case, but it's not really focused on helping me write a research paper—it's aimed at self-help rather than scholarship. Typing the same search item into Google Scholar gave sports medicine articles, and a tighter focus. Scholar has articles about depression after an injury, after a concussion, after a failure, and there's a fascinating study (which might redirect my reading) concerning prevalence of depression among college age athletes versus non-athletes.

Who wrote this?

A huge problem with the Internet is that anyone can post anything they can type. There are no "internet police" who scan material for correctness, and companies like Facebook are just beginning to deal with all the outright lies that get posted there. To put up a site with a fancy-looking face (such as this one) all you need is a working credit card. Few of the hits from plain old Google were very research oriented; many were "this worked for me." The college writer needs to ask some probing questions about authorship.

One last rant

I have said this before—many times—but it needs repeating. Internet articles need full citations, whether you are doing an MLA paper for this course or an APA paper for another course. If I cite an article for that paper on head injury and depression, here is what the Works Cited page item would look like. (It's not a bare web address like That's just not enough.) Here's what a typical journal article from the Internet would get for a Works Cited entry:

Vargas, Gray, et al. "Predictors and Prevalence of Postconcussion Depression Symptoms in Collegiate Athletes." National Center for Biotechnology Information, Mar. 2015, articles/PMC4477919/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.

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Revised 9/7/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: