Online Research Guide

students can use research techniques that increase the likelihood that they find material directly related to their ideas.

The internet revolutionized the way students conduct research. Most schools offer access to online databases that house primary sources and digital materials for research use. Additionally, many local public libraries offer similar access to digital information in addition to their physical texts. Using the internet makes research easier and faster, as it offers students new and effective methods to filter results and organize material.

However, with the abundance of new information available quickly and easily online, students should carefully consider the viability of each source. Plenty of unreliable and outright false information exists online, so students must use discretion when evaluating material. This guide walks students through social work online research and provides tips and tricks to ensure that they maximize their research efforts.

Using Google for Online Research

More than likely, you’ve used Google to search online. Type your query into the search bar, and you instantly receive millions of results. However, students can use research techniques that increase the likelihood that they find material directly related to their ideas. Altering search engine settings can help filter out unreliable sources and provide you with search results relevant to your topic. These examples specifically utilize Google, as it serves as the most commonly and widely used search engine.

Refining Your Search Results

Students can use things like symbols and search shortcuts to narrow down results. If you want to search within a specific website, you can use the site search feature on Google. Simply type “‘site:”‘ followed by the domain you want to search within — without any spaces between the colon and the domain. For example, if you want to search within the Council on Social Work Education website, you type “‘”‘ Those looking for something specific within a website can add a search keyword before this shortcut. For example, if you wanted to find more information on the accreditation of social work programs within the Council on Social Work Education website, you type “program accreditation”‘ You can also use this site function to filter a particular class of website, such as .edu, .gov, or .org.

You can refine your Google search results without any search shortcuts, as well. Google offers an advanced search option that allows you to input additional information to generate your preferred results. For example, in addition to a simple keyword or search phrase, you can also specify which languages you want and the timeframe of your results — say, 2010-2018.

Google Scholar

When looking up social work research topics, especially for academic purposes, students should choose peer-reviewed, scholarly sources.

Many post-secondary institutions offer students access to otherwise expensive academic databases. Thanks to Google Scholar, however, even students without access to these databases can still find quality sources. Google Scholar searches most of the popular academic databases and often allows you to access and read entire articles. Many list Google Scholar’s ease of use as its most attractive feature. On the main search page, simply type in your query and select whether you want to search articles or case law. Google then produces immediate results.

Additionally, using your Google Scholar Preferences dashboard, you can set up your account to automatically access any resources available through your college or university, save links and documents to a personal library, and link any public library access accounts you may hold. Google Scholar also offers a support page with search tips and details on getting the most out of the service.

Beyond Google

Now that you know more about the tools available through Google, you can also explore alternative search engines and databases. As previously mentioned, students can often access these databases free of charge. The list below contains some of the more commonly used resources for general academic research, as well as a few specific to students conducting social work online research.


AMiner AMiner uses a “‘researcher social network”‘ to provide students with articles and scholarly sources.
BASE BASE offers access to millions of full-text academic resources, of which students can access more than 60% as Open Access documents.
CGP The Catalog of U.S. Government Publications offers access to both historical and current government publications, as well as information on finding local assistance for help with using these resources.
CIA World Factbook The CIA World Factbook provides a range of information, including on topics like history, government, people, economy, and military.
ERIC ERIC, or the Educational Resource Information Center, provides peer-reviewed texts online, many of which it makes available for free.
iSeek Education This search engine features “‘safe”‘ and non-commercial search results intended for students and teachers alike. Users can also create and curate a web-based personal library.
National Archives The National Archives Catalog serves as an online portal for accessing the Electronic Records Archives, a database of more than two million digital records.
OCLC The Online Computer Library Center hosts the OAlster database, which houses more than 50 million records mined from open access sources from all over the world.
CORE Aiming to foster free and open research, CORE provides access to millions of open access research articles and documents.

For Social Work students

EBSCO Sociology & Social Work This arm of the EBSCO database giant features databases of scholarly work and articles on sociology and social work.
EBSCO Social Work Abstracts For students looking for social work research journals, this feature in the EBSCO database provides short abstracts from journals in the field.
EBSCO Family & Society Studies Worldwide This bibliographical database offers work from a wide range of areas, including human development and social welfare.
PsycINFO Associated with the American Psychological Association, this database emphasizes research in the behavioral and social sciences ideal for students interested in social work research topics.
Child Welfare Information Gateway This government website provides a search engine feature that allows access to documents and resources related to child welfare — a common subject of interest for students doing social work online research.
EBSCO SocINDEX This full-text archive and database provides articles related to sociology, a great resource for students looking for social work research journals and articles.

Evaluating Sources

When conducting any kind of research on the web, students need to ensure that they can trust their resources. While going through every resource to determine its legitimacy might seem daunting, source legitimacy should take priority in research-oriented writing. The list below reflects the tips gathered from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago Press.

  • Who is the author?

    Make sure you can easily identify the author of the source. After identifying them, find out more about their background. They should hold a graduate degree or at least boast other publications dedicated to the field in question. The more qualitative credentials they possess the higher their authoritative voice.

  • What is its purpose?

    Ask yourself about the article’s purpose and determine how it meets the concerns of the field as a whole. Does the author show bias or provide research, and to what audience does the author write?

  • Does it look professional?

    Look over the article or website. Can you find several spelling and grammar errors? Does the content appear organized and formatted? The more professional the source appears, the higher the chance that a professional, in fact, created the source. A website littered with profanities, for example, probably does not count as a legitimate source.

  • Is it objective?

    Look for any bias within the article. Students familiar with the given research can spot an article with clear bias through the content and purpose of the article — not to mention the organizational affiliations of the author. Consider whether the author interprets the given information in a fair and unbiased manner, or whether they betray a degree of bias.

  • Is it current?

    Check for a date of publication. Work older than 10 years typically serves as poor research material — especially in the sciences and social science. When using search engines and databases, adjust your search to only show recent results.

  • What sites does it link to?

    Sometimes evaluating a source means evaluating the sources within that source. Look at the external resources or links used by your author. If those sources seem reliable, students can probably expect the work in question to be reliable. This may take a little extra digging, but it adds an important layer of understanding concerning your source.

Organizing Your Research

Students should ensure that they remain organized throughout the research process. With so much information, organizing what you find decreases your level of stress. The tips below can help you establish an organization system.

Identify your keywords

Students should keep a list of useful keywords for their search. The more variety, the better overall results students will encounter. Typing the same keywords into different databases will probably not result in better material. Consider the use of synonyms to increase your odds of qualitative results.

Choose your databases

Decide which databases and search engines you want to use before you begin. Afterward, choose which one to start with and which one to end with. Not only does this set a unique timeline for your research, it helps you stay on track and remember the databases already searched.

Keep lists

Keep a list of researched places, keywords, and results. Any new research ideas should also get written down.

Keep a working bibliography

As you choose sources, cite them according to the appropriate style guidelines and place the citations in alphabetical order in a document. This will make creating your references page that much easier.

Use online tools

Students can use any number of digital tools and online resources to help them organize their research. The list below outlines a few of these and their unique interfaces and options.

Online Tools to Manage Your Research

  • EasyBib This bibliography generator pulls citation information from your sources, generates citations, and creates a working bibliography.
  • Endnote Endnote serves as a powerful organizing tool for students who want to keep digital copies of the sources alongside their citation information.
  • Mendeley Mendeley offers both a unique method for organizing your sources and research and a social network for you and other researchers working in the same area.
  • RefWorks This web-based tool allows you to generate citations, link to the source, and organize sources into folders and topics.
  • Zotero With Zotero, you can organize your research and sources, as well as share work and information with others through forums.

Citing Online Resources for Social Work Students

Students will likely encounter several citation formats, including APA, MLA, and Chicago Style. Most programs require students engaged with social work research topics to adopt APA style to document and cite their work. Science and social science disciplines commonly use APA style. Students use APA to format their references, citations, research papers, and presentations.

Learners enjoy access to a an APA manual that they can purchase or rent from their school’s library. Alternatively, they can use the Purdue Online Writing Lab’s APA guide to help answer any style questions. The list below includes citation examples of common sources used in APA.

Articles From Online Periodicals

What is a DOI?

Originally, when citing sources from online databases, you would use the URL of the source. However, these sources now change too often to use the URL. The Digital Object Identifier (DOI) exists in place of a URL as a stable method of linking to the source.