Einstein once said, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”
The same could be said of intelligence. What they don’t tell you is that the “smart” people of the world are, in most cases, just better at researching and learning things than everyone else.
But researching is a learned skill, not something you’re born with.
And while some people might be predisposed to learn things more easily than others, it’s generally not enough to make a measurable difference.
By learning how to research, you can quickly and fairly easily become knowledgeable about just about anything. And with the Internet, almost anything you could ever want to know is at your fingertips. You just have to learn how to access it.
It’s all there, online, for free. Here are the techniques I’ve used to find pretty much anything online.
Start with Wikipedia
Whenever you try to learn something new on the Internet, start with Wikipedia. A wealth of information is there, covering practically every subject in an easy-to-use, easy-to-understand format.
The main reason to start with Wikipedia is that it gives a good overview of most topics.
Sure, any given page is bound to have some inaccuracies (as is the case on most user-generated websites), but most of the content is generally reliable. And when the accuracy of certain information is questionable, it’s usually tagged as such.
The key to using Wikipedia as a source, though, is in how you make use of the information. You have to pay attention to a number of things on a Wikipedia page aside from the main content.
First of all, read the introduction to the page. This is where you’ll usually find a quick description of the topic, along with alternate and related terms.
Skim the content to find the parts of the article that you need to know about most. Some articles are short and don’t have a list of contents. Others are several thousand words long. Reading the entire thing is usually unnecessary. Just skip to the sections that are relevant to you.
Next, check the references and related resources. The references is a great place to get in-depth information on your topic. These links often include scholarly journals and articles and other respected sources.
The related sources section includes external links to in-depth information. These websites often include professional associations and organizations devoted to the topic as well as general websites with good topical information.
Move on to Google
Once you’ve built a good foundation through Wikipedia, move on to a Google search (or whatever search engine you prefer).
Having read a bit on Wikipedia, you should know the main terms and keywords associated with the subject you’re researching. Start your general search with these terms.
When researching something, I always open a new window in Firefox. For each link I visit in a Google search, I open a new tab so that I can keep my original search results page open.
And if I click on additional links on pages that I have opened, I don’t have to go back through 10 or more pages to return to my original search.
Text isn’t the only educational content on the web. Video, podcasts and slideshows are out there to explain pretty much anything you can imagine.
The advantage of so much multimedia content being available is that it caters to people with different learning styles.
Some people learn well by reading. Others learn better by hearing an explanation or seeing a demonstration. And still others learn by doing (which is where step-by-step tutorials—either video, audio or text—come in handy).
If you learn best by watching demonstrations, then head on over to YouTube, Odeo, Vimeo or any of the many other video websites and start typing the keywords that you found on Wikipedia.
Make sure, though, whenever you deal with user-generated content to verify the information against reputable sources.
One often-overlooked resource for videos is the archive from the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences.
TED videos are available for free on the official website and cover (as you might expect) technology, entertainment and design.
While many of the videos focus on broad concepts rather than the nitty-gritty, they’re still a great resource to expand your horizon. And the lectures are given by leaders in their fields, so the information is generally reliable.
Check Out Free Educational Resources
MIT offers its entire catalog as open courseware, with lecture notes, resources and syllabi. Other two- and four-year colleges are following suit.
You’ll also find purely web-based open education initiatives that cover subjects you might not find at a traditional college. These free courses offer a ton of organized information on any given subject.
Some colleges offer their lectures in audio and video format. Princeton, for example, offers some of its lectures through iTunes, as does the University of Virginia, Duke, Emory, Yale and Stanford.
In fact, iTunes has an entire section devoted to educational podcasts called iTunes U. Non-educational organizations are also represented, including the Library of Congress and Wall Street Journal.
The educational podcast market isn’t monopolized by iTunes, though. Odeo has an education category with 466 channels and more than 67,000 episodes. Participating colleges and universities include Oxford University, the University of Melbourne and MIT.
Look for Tutorials
Depending on your topic, you may be able to find tutorials. For pretty much any practical skill (and a whole lot of unpractical ones), you can find an online tutorial that teaches you how to do it.
You can find tutorials through search engines (just add “tutorial” or “instructions” to the end of your keyword search). You can also find them on these websites:
Instructables is a general tutorial website that offers step-by-step instructions on projects in categories such as arts, crafts, food, kids, music, outdoors and pets. Every tutorial has photos and/or diagrams to illustrate the process.
eHow offers categorized instructions and tutorials created by users. They include both text and video tutorials on a variety of topics, including law, health, food and drink, electronics and computers.
WikiHow is a user-editable how-to manual that covers a ton of different topics. Because of its wiki format, tutorials and instructions are constantly being improved.
The Tuts+ Network offers tutorials on a variety of tech topics, including Photoshop, web design, Flash and photography. Its tutorials are split into separate blogs based on topic and are written by experts.
Tutorialized offers tech tutorials for a variety of software programs, including Photoshop, GIMP, Flash, Blender and Illustrator.
Good-Tutorials offers up tech-related tutorials, covering CSS, Flash, HTML, Photoshop, PHP and more. Tutorials are categorized and searchable.
Use Tools Available to You
A ton of tools are out there to make online research a bit (or a lot) easier.
Some help by organizing your sources, others let you save snippets of pages for later reference, and others do pretty much everything you could ask for from a research app. They make tracking your research and organizing it for later reference a much easier process.
Zotero is a Firefox add-on that acts like a research assistant. It lets you collect links and whole pages, organize them into folders and tag them. It even generates a “Works cited” list from them. You can jot down notes on anything you save, which makes it much easier to remember why you included it in the first place or to remind yourself later how you ended up using it.
Zotero has a ton of features. It automatically captures citations; it cites from within MS Word and OpenOffice; it accesses your library from anywhere; it searches PDFs and notes instantly; and it lets you create group libraries.
It’s also compatible with thousands of bibliographic styles, so when it comes time to create a “Works cited” list, you don’t have to spend hours reformatting the whole thing. The best part is that Zotero is free and open source, so you can extend and modify it to meet your needs (or find others who have already done the work).
Wired-Marker is a permanent highlighting tool for Firefox. You can highlight sections of a web page to refer to later on. It’s a great app if you want to be able to easily refer to a specific section of a website that you’ve bookmarked. Wired-Marker is itself also a bookmark organizer.
iCyte is a note-taking and bookmarking app that works with Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 and 8. It saves any pages that you highlight or bookmark, so that even if the page changes or is deleted, you still have the original version. You can save sections of a website or the whole thing. You can also invite others to join your projects, share information and access information that others have shared.
Similar Web is a great Firefox extension for finding websites related to the one you’re on. There’s also a web-based version for people who don’t use Firefox. The add-on is particularly useful if you’re on, say, Odeo and want to see other websites that offer podcasts.
Notefish is an online note-taking app that lets you custom-save content from any pages on the web. You can organize and share pages based on a specific subject. The app has many customizable features, including ones that let you annotate and color your notes. The downloadable Firefox add-on helps you use Notefish more efficiently.
Diigo lets you highlight and share pages all over the web. You can add sticky notes to pages for later reference and can access notes from your computer or iPhone. Saved pages can be organized with tags or lists. You can create groups to share resources for a project, and you can even enforce tagging rules among group members to keep things organized. Free and premium accounts are available (educators get a free premium account).
Concierge is a Safari plug-in that replaces the browser’s bookmark management scheme with an easier-to-use bookmark and information management tool. You can bookmark links and save links from email, Address Book cards, and folder and file links from Finder. It puts all of your relevant information in one place.
Information overload is a common problem when researching a new subject online. Great Summary helps combat the problem by summarizing the content of a web page, document or section of text for you. It identifies key topics on a page and presents relevant information without duplicating content.
EagleFiler is an information management app for Mac OS X that lets you archive and search PDF files, word-processing documents, images, web pages, mail and more. It has a three-pane interface similar to that of most email programs. Files are stored in a universal format, so they’re accessible from any application. Files can be encrypted, and you can add notes, tags, labels and meta data to them.
When you download something in Safari, no record is kept of where it came from. This can be a problem if you need to refer to it in a “Works cited” list or just want to know where to get similar content. DownloadComment adds a note in the file’s Spotlight Comments field with the URL of the original file.
HistoryHound lets you search the content of every web page and RSS feed that you’ve visited recently in Safari, as well as any bookmarked page. It ranks results by relevance. It’s a great way to track down information in resources that you’ve already discovered.
Reference Tracker is an app for Mac OS X that lets you store documents in one place for later reference and citation. It automatically creates a “Works cited” list in Harvard, APA, MLA or Chicago/Turabian format. It has built-in search and one-click referencing of web pages (in Safari or Firefox) and email (from Apple Mail).
Selenium is a research application for Mac OS X that combines a browser, PDF manager, word processor, bibliography manager and outliner in a single window. Research is much simpler because you don’t have to switch back and forth between different applications.
Evernote is an online note-taking application that lets you save just about anything, from notes to images to web pages. And it stores everything online, so you can access your notes from anywhere. There’s even an iPhone app.
Springnote is a free wiki-based online notepad. You can create personal or group notebooks and access them either online or through the iPhone app.
Google Notebook is a free online note-taking app that lets you create an unlimited number of notebooks and save notes, web pages and other information in a single place, accessible from anywhere. You can organize your notes by adding tags to them, as you would with Google Bookmarks.
Specialized online libraries exist for a ton of different subjects. Anything from language to science to technology to history has its own dedicated resource library somewhere on the Internet.
These collections can speed up your research, and they sometimes include only reliable websites. Here are some to get you started.
If you’re looking for information on art, whether museums, individual artists or art movements, Art Cyclopedia is the place to go. It lists 9,200 artists and has 140,000 links from 2,600 different art websites.
IMDb is a database of movies and television programs, dating as far back as film itself. You can search by cast member or title. Individual listings include all previous and upcoming roles. Movie results include cast and production crew, plot synopsis and other production information (often photos).
Medical and Scientific
BioMed Central publishes 200 open-access peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals. And you can search all 200 of them on the website.
History and Humanities
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project collects public domain and copy-permitted historical texts in one place. The collection includes ancient, medieval and modern texts, as well as ones of specific groups, regions and religions.
Digital History offers historical texts and resources from American history. It is run through a partnership with a variety of educational and historical organizations, including the University of Houston, the Chicago Historical Society and the National Park Service. It has resources for researchers and teachers, including multimedia resources.
The Perseus Digital Library is a resource of mostly historical texts from Tufts University. The digital collection includes material from Greek and Roman, Renaissance and 19th-century American history.
Project Gutenberg offers public domain books and written material for free. The collection includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry and is both searchable and browsable. Most of the content dates to the 19th century and earlier.
General and Scholarly
Intute helps individuals find the best websites on which to conduct their research. You can search or browse by category. It even offers free training on using the web for research and education.
Infomine is a search engine for scholarly resources. The categories, which are browsable, include the following: bio, agricultural and medical sciences; business and economics; cultural diversity; e-journals; government info; maps and GIS; physical sciences, engineering, computer science and math; social sciences and humanities; and visual and performing arts. It also includes general reference and advanced search functionality.
The Librarians’ Internet Index is a searchable directory of content from all over the Internet, broken down by category. It includes only reputable websites, making it easier to trust the information you find.
The IPL is another collection of resources from all over the web, broken down by category. The collections are targeted at children, teens, adults and educators. The collection covers art and the humanities, social science, law and government, computers and much more.
Find Articles from BNET lets you search articles from a wide range of consumer and trade magazines and newspapers. The articles are searchable and browsable by category.
The Library of Congress offers a ton of information, including digital collections. Its online collection includes history, performing arts, legislative information and international resources. It’s a particularly good source of government information, because its THOMAS system lets you search the full text of congressional records, bills and more.
You can learn just about anything with the resources and techniques mentioned here. As you research more topics and become accustomed to learning in this manner, learning new things will become easier.
Pretty soon, you’ll be able to gain a working knowledge of practically any subject after just a couple of hours of research.
Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.
How do you find information online? Are there any other great resources that we missed? Please add them below…