Scouring the Net
Finding the information you need is, obviously, the first step. If your learning institution has access to specialized information repositories, your job may be easier when it comes to citing sources and finding relevant articles. For the rest of us, sources such as Wikipedia and Google Scholar can, in most cases, be a great source of valid and verifiable information. The responsibility to verify sources and make sure the information collected has proper citations lies with the researcher.
You can, of course, do all of your online research in your favorite web browser. Some desktop tools, though, can provide faster and more intuitive means of navigating and collecting information.
Pathway is a free tool for navigating and collecting information from Wikipedia. It creates "webs" of pages, allowing you to map your trail through the wiki's articles. You start with a search, and the search result creates the center node of the map. Satellite links are created from the table of contents for the page, and following any of them creates a new node, linked to the originating page and with its own satellite links.
Your path can be traced and retraced with great ease. Each page you view is shown in a separate pane, with a linked table of contents in a side drawer and the ability to add notes, grab images and even attach files to each article. Pages and page webs can be saved or exported for later reference.
Selenium is an interesting tool. For $15US you get an all-in-one research tool. Much like the old TV/VCR combos, though, the all-in-one solution doesn't necessarily provide a top-quality solution for each of its included functions. Selenium combines a browser, a PDF manager (with annotation capabilities), an outliner, a Cocoa rich text editor, and bibliography manager. I wouldn't recommend it for writing a thesis, but for the average paper it can be a great way to bring all the necessary tools together in a single window (and for a reasonable price). I especially appreciate its ability to capture PDFs from web pages and annotate them. It also manages citations, and if you drag a quote from a web page in the integrated browser, it can automatically append a citation to your current document. Additionally, it interfaces fairly well with Google Docs, which provides document sharing and online storage possibilities. As a side note, I sometimes use Selenium for blogging, and have created a citation style for it which inserts Markdown links.
DEVONagent will cost you a little more, but provides some very impressive tools for mining the web. It retails at $49.95US, but there's a 25% educational discount available by request. DEVONagent is a whiz at scouring general and specialized online sources, providing intelligent summaries with multiple methods of viewing and navigation. You can see ranked keywords from the search results and a map which shows how they relate. AppleScript and Growl integration, as well as a System Service and Dashboard widget, allow it to integrate with your entire system. It works especially well with DEVONthink, which is available as a bundle with DevonAgent (student discount applies).
There are obviously more tools available for navigating the online information jungle. If you have a favorite, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.
Once you've found your information, you'll need to provide references. Citing sources is vital to any research paper at any level of education, and any software that can help collect and format online references as citations and bibliographies has the potential to be extremely helpful. The available options range from freeware to software which costs hundreds of dollars. Let's take a quick look at a few of the available applications.
Reference Tracker is in beta right now, and is free for the time being (Update: 1.0 hit today and Reference Tracker is available for $29.95US until September 30th). It stores all of the citations in your essay, paper or research project, allowing easy insertion of bibliographic information once the sources have been collected. It can automatically format the citations as Harvard or American Psychological Association (APA) references. With its built in publication search engine and ISBN lookup feature, it makes locating journal articles and books a cinch, automatically pulling the information necessary to cite your source. It can also reference the current page in Safari and Firefox with a single click (although I didn't get it working with Firefox 3, yet). It also provides a folder system which allows groups of references to be output separately, which is ideal for large, multi-chapter projects. Sticky notes can be appended to any citation.
Bookends is a popular reference manager with a full set of features. Its extensible collection of citation formats can output your references in just about any accepted style. It also provides built in internet search tools and does a great job of organizing and searching your reference collection as it builds. It provides automatic downloads of the original sources as well as file attachment and annotation capabilities, making the job of building a bibliography that much easier. With the available academic discount, you can pick up Bookends for $69US. Sonny Software, authors of Bookends, also provide a standalone version of just the search features of Bookends for free. It's called Reference Miner and is available at their website.
If you're familiar with the TeX typesetting system, or willing to learn, then BibDesk is an excellent (free) tool for searching, collecting, organizing and outputting bibliographic references. It uses the BibTeX file format, and integrates well with LaTeX. If you do a lot of research writing and aren't familiar with TeX, have a look. BibDesk makes the process easy and can output a large number of formats. BibDesk covers a large chunk of the functionality found in the commercial reference managers, including online search, file attachments, automatic citation generation and more. It's also AppleScriptable.
CiteInPages is a free set of AppleScripts which integrate BibDesk with Apple's Pages word processor. They replace BibDesk's working citations with numbered or author-date citations inline, and create an ordered bibliography which is appended to your Pages document. If you use BibDesk and Pages, it could be a real time-saver.
It's not Mac-specific, but I have to mention Zotero, a Firefox plugin which collects links, files, editable web archives, annotations, notes and more in a taggable, sortable and searchable database. It can automatically pull citations from certain sources, and can output a wide variety of citation formats. You can add additional formats, or even create your own. For a Firefox plugin, it's extremely impressive.
There are plenty of applications, widgets and, yes, websites which are designed to make online research and reference as simple as possible. I've covered a few here, but I'd love to hear about any standouts in the field which I may be overlooking. Happy researching, and hopefully, with the right tools, you won't dread your next 10-page assignment quite as much. We'll be taking a look at some great writing tools to accompany the research tools soon!