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Web Research tool


The Web as a Research tool

There are some sensational research resources for writers on the web. The search engines and other directories have made these accessible. But it helps to understand a little about how they work.

Searching the web

  • Some special search engines
    • Comparitech guide to search engines for academic research
    • Dogpile and Clusty aggregate the other search engine and add a little processing to the results.
    • Wayback Machine – Maybe the page you’re looking for no longer exists? You have to give it an exact URL to find the entire history for the domain.
    • Alternative RSS readers from 


Try The Open Directory Project (, which is providing an independent organisation of web sites. It lists over 3.8 million sites with volunteer editors. The idea is that each site will be checked and listed in one of the categories. Sadly this noble project has been overtaken by the sophisticated search technologies that have been developed.

"Subject categories, devised by English graduates, do not always suit scientists. Why are computer books stacked next religion in many public libraries? The ODP rules also limit the real value of this Project. A site on Roman history might have excellent material on eating habits. Buried in a site about hospital engineering you might find a really good section about the bad habits of pathogens. You would have to guess this using the directory system while a word-based search engine might locate these gems." Editor


Starting in 2003, Google began to digitise book content to allow the wisdom within to become searchable. This project continues to make steady progress. Meanwhile Microsoft and Amazon have joined with book projects of their own. Five years on, writers and publishers are still agonising about this online access even though it is just a digital version of browsing the bookshelves or going to a library to do research.


Wikipedia has carved out a niche for itself as an open source of information. The quality of the content is open to the criticism that it is not assembled by a team of professional editors. But making it open and allowing peer review makes this an excellent starting point for any subject research especially as the pages have links to other relevant sites. 

Younger users might need reminding that the web is not the only place to conduct research. Books are still a great source of material. Some, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, are now web-based, although you can still pay to subscribe (normally there is a free trial period). But if you need a book for constant reference, use a site like Amazon to search the site for your topic. They employ some intelligent software that learns from the links created by others, so follow the trail. You might find exactly the book you need because other people who liked the book you are planning to buy have also bought another title. Before you invest you can check the reader reviews and even look for a second-hand edition. You could ‘recycle’ your book when the research is finished.

I always try to find 2 reputable sources for any fact.

So back to the web ...

On balance, a good word-search engine is the way to track down what you are looking for but you need to choose your words and their order with care:

carrot origin orange - produces a lot of recipes for strange soups (I was researching the carrots origin in Afghanistan) while;

original carrot – plunges you back into the world of recipe but this time for cakes.

origin carrot – starts to throw up some information about the history of the vegetable and

origin orange carrot – throws up a number of sites that yield the information about the development of the purple root crop discovered in Middle Asia.

A few more tips when researching the web

Not everybody spell checks their pages

So try a misspelled word and you might be pleasantly amused with the results. 

To help people find literary agents we embed the words literary, littery and littary in the pages out of sight as we discover from our web search log that these are common words that people search for. If you remind yourself that many web users are not native English speakers, nor expert typists, this is not patronising but respectful of the global diversity represented by the web. If you turn that logic round, some useful information might be lost to view because they spelt a key word wrong.

A word of warning.

Many sites seem to clone their content from others. The problem is to identify the original source. If for example you are dealing with medical matters it is very important that you base what you are saying on reputable science. One good way to do this to see which other sites link to them. Type the "info:" operator before a URL in Google's search box will discover links to and from that page. Use the main/home URL rather than a remote page on the site if you want good results. If a site has some links to organisations that you respect this provides a confidence check on the status of the information provided.

You will quickly spot those who have copied chunks of text from sites that originate material and now represented them as their original. There is no effective quality control except your own judgement.

So treat information with caution. There is no ‘peer review’ of nutty ideas or blatant prejudice published on the web. Caveat user!

You are not confined to English language sites.

Search engines will offer to translate pieces from other languages. Once you think you find what you want, the problem of translation arises. Be amused but also be grateful that the world's information is not stopped at by language barrier. Try Babelfish.

Fair use and Copyright

The idea that you can take large chunks of text and edit them to save some typing time probably won’t work even for non-fiction writers. It seldom works like that. You will probably discover that it is much quicker to set it out in your own words. The work will flow faster if you master the research, plan it then write it. Using the words of others breaches their copyright. 

Useful web research resources for writers

This list is aimed at fiction writers who need to check some facts or work up a background for a character. Complete essays and college papers are still available but this is not research! As at Feb 08





The American Childhood Cancer Society

Mesolthelioma Fund

Mesolthelioma Resources

Mesothelioma Treatment

Private UK site offering employers information on alcohol & drug rehab

Map showing US addiction centers



Most areas have a site with local names and origins allowing you to put together an appropriate one of your own and avoid civic wrath and lawsuits.


The web has been taken over by people doing genealogical research, the results of which they often publish on the web making this an improving resource. So it is easy to track down suitable names for your places and characters.

The Mormon Church is doing an excellent job mapping our family database.

Facts and Figures

The list is not exhaustive, just designed to promote some ideas.

Remember, your readers can use the net to check up on you. So make sure you are getting your facts right.

We also have some links to some excellent sites in our Web resources links page.  These are especially useful for researching online.

Storing what you want

There are several ways to capture the research information.

The trusty notebook – If you treat the web just like a library and jot down the key items of information you have your record ready for your plotting or writing. The great advantage of this is it avoids any risk that you will end up with another voice speaking through your work, as they are all your own words. But this keeps you online for a long time and where do you balance the notebook? If an address you store comes up as a ‘404’ –can’t find the page error, trim the URL you are using, starting from the right until you have trimmed back to the .com or equivalent, and that should lead you to the homepage where you can search for the page you have lost.
Web History – Most browsers store the pages you have visited on your computer. So, in theory, you can go back and study them. But many of the research site generate their pages so they will not be visible when you go back.
Bookmarks/Favourites– It pays to take a moment to set up a new folder or category so that you can find the page again. Topical pages often move but all is not lost. If a site is really important to you it is worth recording the home page as well as the specific page.  

Printing – This is slow, expensive and ultimately frustrating. Web pages are not designed to be printed and the output can be surprising. You might find the border is there and the content is missing. So this is not recommended.

Try copying and pasting the material into a text document. When I save research the word 'research', 'source' or 'data' is the first word of the file name so that I know the work is not mine and the material is easier to find when I need it.
Copy and paste is my preferred approach – Scan through the piece and highlight the section you want (hold down the shift key and move the cursor with mouse or arrow keys) then copy it (control + C). Try to remember to open a new document in your word processor before you start your research and save it with a meaningful name (e.g. history research) in a logical place (e.g. the directory where you are writing your book). Move to the document and paste (control + V), and after a few moments the text should appear. (Most wordprocessors provide an option to paste without formatting.) Then copy and paste the sections of the web page that you need.

When you paste text from the web into a document, it does not always appear. If the text in the web was white it does not show up well on a white sheet of paper. But don’t worry, it is very easy to change the format and colour of text. Almost all word processors let you set the font, point size and colour as well as applying effects such as bold and underline. However, there is another option which you will often see alongside these font functions. It normally says ‘normal’ or is blank. This is a box of delights which is best avoided by humble wordsmiths. Select normal and all of the imported layout will vanish and your page will look like a normal document.

Another technique to reformatting is to highlight the whole document (control + A) and select the font, size and colour. With the text still highlighted, you can apply a uniform paragraph format as all of the fragments you have imported will have different settings.


Quality v Quantity     The invisible web  Dark web  Research   Advance search  'auto google' Google Print

Chas jones 2002 (revised 2010)