Going back to school or college? Starting a new business? Needing to understand the background to a particular situation or decision? Trying to come to terms with medical problems or medications you only know a little bit about?
In any of these situations, you're going to need to do some Internet research, maybe for the first time, maybe for the thousandth. But the Internet is awash with information and, more seriously, disinformation and information that can be downright cranky or wrong - so what can you rely on to help you distinguish the worthwhile from the worthless?
Here are some very useful pointers to help you get on, and stay on, the right track with your research needs.
1) The purpose of most research is to aid decision-making or to provide comfort, background and inspiration.
Which do you need to do? Setting your goals within the correct context will allow you to decide whether you need to look for hard factual information or more "soft" data - information about people in similar situations who are sharing their experiences, beliefs and opinions.
It's very important to remember that these are NOT the same thing. The main difference lies in the degree to which the information can be verified by people other than the ones providing the information, or the degree to which it's subject to objective and agreed standards.
When you need information about, say, the speed of light, it's important to cross check your facts - to verify whether the information has been correctly recorded. Resources like Wikipedia are wonderful but even there one must take care to ensure that the article you're reading has been correctly cited and independently verified. A good source must cite source material which is in the public domain such as research papers from well-known public bodies or national newspapers... and even these can be incorrect. "Verify or die" is good advice.
In short, if you need hard information, information that asks the questions: How many? How much? Who? When? Where? How often? you'll be needing information that's more statistically based: quantitative research. If you need to ask How? Why? What's it's like/ was it like to experience X? you may need "soft" or qualitative research. And both types may involve primary source material (from the horse's mouth or originated in the project cited) or secondary (complied from various sources) or a mixture of the two.
2) Set clear objectives. Give yourself the best chance to think around the problem - to set out, as best as you can, what you think you need to know. But remember to leave a little space for the unexpected: in research, one only ever gets answers to the questions one actually asks.
3) Be very careful, ALWAYS, to understand the basis on which the information has been gathered and what it refers back to. Who were the researchers? To whom did they talk? Do they belong to recognized professional associations or academic institutions? Information about the side - effects of a certain drug on a pharma-company website may be very different from that provided by academic research.
And a little knowledge of statistics can be a dangerous thing: make sure you understand how something has been calculated before you broadcast your understanding of the conclusions. Statistical arguments can be tricky.
None of this means that you should ignore your gut feelings if one single comment or statistic you've read strikes a particular chord. A response like this has meaning of some kind, and many wonderful things have been discovered because of inspirations or 'eureka' moments - just be careful to make sure you convey, when writing a paper or talking to others, that it's your considered conclusion that this point is interesting, rather than The Whole Truth.
4) Beware plagiarism. Nothing will undermine the value of your hard work like failing to give credit for using somebody else's work. It's illegal; and being found out will be a stain on your professional career you may never erase. It can get you barred from professions, leave you liable for lawsuits, get you expelled from school, and disgrace you... even when unintentional.
So cite your sources carefully, use quotation marks - even in your own notes and late at night when you're cramming - and most of all, give credit where credit is due. You'd want someone, down the line, to do that for you, wouldn't you?
Research can be, and frequently is, great fun to do. If you follow these few guidelines you'll have a far greater chance of using it to best effect and for the right reasons. Best of luck to you: see you online.