The Internet is a powerful channel for sharing and accessing information. This characteristic has made the web a widely used tool for conducting research because it allows people to access a significant amount of information without geographic boundaries and time limits. Nevertheless reliability of the sources can be uncertain, timeliness unstable and a negligent use of the Internet can result in plagiarism.
The Internet has made significant progress since the concept of a ‘Galactic Network’ was first conceived in the early sixties (Leiner, Cerf, Clark, Kahn, Kleinrock, Lynch, Postel, Roberts and Wolff, n.d.). Its popularity has grown so much that it was proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize 2010, because of its capability to improve the sharing of information and the dialogue between different cultures (Internet for Peace, n.d.).
Surely, the possibility of sharing and accessing a significant amount of information regardless the existence of geographic barriers, is one of the key point of the Internet success as the world seems to be within range of a click.
This has important implications in workplaces and academic institutions, because the Internet has become a widely used channel through which conducting research. Therefore, understanding the Internet strengths and shortcomings when used as a research tool, is really important to achieve a good result.
Relevance and reliability of information
One of the Internet advantages as research tool is that we can have immediate access to a considerable amount of information with reference to a particular topic. Search engines, for example, are able to retrieve in a few seconds a list of websites ranked according to their relevance to that particular subject. But relevance is practically the only parameter considered by search engines (Brin and Page, n.d.). This means that selecting what information is useful and which not can be time-consuming and often non-productive without an attentive screening (Harris, 1997: 2).
The disadvantage of the information on the Internet is that its reliability can be really uncertain. Inexpert people might confuse an high relevance of a source with its reliability (Vedder and Wachbroit, 2003: 214-215). Actually ‘relevance is no more a mark of reliability than being a frequently borrowed book in a library is a mark of its reliability’ (Vedder and Wachbroit, 2003: 215). Judging reliability is crucial in order to take advantage of one of the strength of the Internet, which is the diversity of the information (Harris, 2007: 1).
We should also consider that institutional sites and libraries presence on the Internet is getting higher, giving the researcher the chance of accessing certified sources. (Vedder and Wachbroit, 2003: 212). Books are provided in a digital format and they are easy to search and download but people should not forget that many resources are still available only on paper, so the Internet can be a useful but not complete research tool (Empire State College, n.d.).
Geographic and time limits
Disposing of information digitally stored and accessible on the Internet, allows people to access sources in different parts of the world, regardless of geographic barriers, hence the cyberspace is a way for being exposed to other cultures’ knowledge and views on a subject (Unesco, 2003: 7). Pluralism of information is precious for a researcher, but when dealing with sources coming from different places, valuing the reliability of the source can be harder without a proper knowledge of that particular culture (Vedder and Wachbroit, 2003: 214).
With reference to geographic advantages, we must also consider the possibility of connecting to the Internet from any place at any time. This means that people can conduct their research without geographic and time limits, optimising the usage of their time during the day.
Time has an important value even when it is directly linked to information. In fact information continuously evolves (Harris, 2007: 7) and on the Internet is easier to find up-to-date information. Timeliness can also cause problems because information on the Internet is not very stable. For example a website might change its address in the future, disappear or do not display any date. Usually information on institutional sites is more stable (University of the Free State, n.d.).
Plagiarism and copyright on the Internet
Plagiarism and copyright issues are not only related to the Internet, but as Rowena Macaulay (n.d.) points out, ‘Internet has contributed to a significant rise in the incident of plagiarism’ because of ‘a related sense of anonymity and freedom from regulation’. The ease to ‘copy and paste’ as well as the temptation to recur to services such as essay banks, has contributed to raise the incidence of plagiarism (Loutzenhiser, Pita and Reed, 2006).
The Internet is a strong research tool widely used in the workplaces and by students. Through the Internet people can access a significant amount of information with reference to a topic in a short time and regardless of geographic barriers, allowing them to consult different point of views. The web is also flexible and easy to access, without geographic and time limits. Nevertheless the reliability of a source and its timeliness can be uncertain and unstable. Institutional sites certify the reliability of the information and its timeliness tend to be more stable. The use of Internet has been a cause for the rise in plagiarism, so avoid to copy-and-paste and knowing how to properly referencing Internet sources is fundamental.
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