Online Research Guide

Over the past few decades, the internet revolutionized how students conduct academic research. 30 years ago, students had no choice but to trek to the library and pull out physical books and journal articles from dusty shelves. Now, students need only to pick up their laptops, open their internet browsers, and type a few words into Google. But academic research is far more rigorous than your typical internet search. Students must know how to navigate search engines to find trustworthy, peer-reviewed publications as well as know how to vet sources. Additionally, students should be able to organize sources and information when conducting research to maximize their efforts and minimize frustration.

With so much information at your fingertips, it can be difficult to know where and how to start your research. This page is your online research guide. It will help you understand citations and references within the medical field as well as help you locate the best search engines, find academic documents, discover medical assistant research paper topics, and discern credible sources.

Using Google for Online Research

Search engines are an accessible way to conduct research online, but not every search result or article is accurate or reliable. Researchers should understand how to use the search engine’s settings to filter noisy results and find trustworthy sources. This guide explains how to adjust Google’s search engine settings, which is the most commonly-used search engine on the Internet.

Refining Your Search Results

Google allows users to use several search shortcuts to refine their searches. These shortcuts let researchers search by hashtag, social media, domain, and several other criteria.

One of the most useful Google functions for research is searching within a domain. If you want to search for results within one specific site, use the “site:” shortcut. For instance, imagine you want to search for information on certifications through the American Medical Association website. Simply type certification followed by “site:” then the domain name. This would look like certification Note that there’s no space between “site:” and the domain name.

Use the same shortcut if you want results from a specific type of website. For instance, if you only want government sources, you can search web domains that end in .gov by entering site:gov into the search bar. Similarly, if you search site:edu, your search results will only come from colleges and universities.

Students should also understand how to use Google’s advanced search function. Advanced search allows users to refine their searches without memorizing all of the shortcuts. Users can search for an exact match of a phrase, websites in specific languages, and sites that were updated within a certain time period. They can even search for a type of document, like a PDF or an Excel spreadsheet. This may help students find publications that are difficult to track down.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a search engine specifically for academic resources. It’s a free tool students can use to find journal articles, book chapters, and other peer-reviewed publications. Sometimes Google Scholar includes the entire document in the search engine. Other times, it links to other websites which may or may not require a fee to access. Students can also save resources to an online library connected to their Google accounts, which is a good way to keep track of articles and easily return to them.

Students may set up their Google Scholar preferences to access resources specifically provided by their college or university library, making some documents accessible for free that otherwise wouldn’t be. For more information, students should check out the Google Scholar search tips page. Here, students can read advice on how to find recently published papers, where to locate the full text of publications, and how to obtain off-campus access to articles. Additionally, students can learn how to search by author, date, and other criteria, as well as how to set up email alerts for a certain document.

Beyond Google

Although Google is the most popular search engine, the internet hosts several other helpful search engines for researchers as well. Some of these engines are specific to academic research, allowing users to discover databases and catalogs of documents, journal articles, news articles, and book chapters. Several of these resources are free. If they require users to pay, they often provide discounts to students. Below are some examples of search engines for general academic research, as well as resources particularly helpful for medical assistant students.


  • AMiner: AMiner is a social network for researchers. Academic researchers upload their articles to a database and other users can find and use those articles for their research.
  • Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE): BASE is a search engine for academic resources and houses more than 120 million documents. BASE offers about 60% of those documents for free.
  • Catalog of U.S. Government Publications (CGP): The Catalog of U.S. Government Publications posts a selection of federal documents and publications online. The CGP provides both historical and current publications.
  • CIA World Factbook: The CIA World Factbook offers reference materials about the globe. Its catalog includes information about governments, economies, geography, militaries, and transnational organizations.
  • Education Resources Information Center (ERIC): ERIC organizes journal articles, conference papers, and reports into a searchable index. When users search a topic, they find links to materials, including some full-text PDFs.
  • Internet Public Library: Run by volunteers, the Internet Public Library maintains a collection of materials and resources. The collection includes everything from health and medical sciences to the arts and humanities.
  • iSeek Education: A search engine specifically for educational materials, iSeek allows users to find news articles, lesson plans, and other materials on a given topic.
  • National Archives: The National Archives hosts an online searchable catalog with two million electronic documents relating to the National Archives’ collection.
  • Online Computer Library Center (OCLC): The OAIster database provides researchers with an open-access inventory of documents. Users can search the database’s 50 million records as well as upload their own materials.
  • CORE: Another open-access catalog for published research, CORE allows users to search journal articles. The website aims to make academic documents public and free.

For Medical Assistant Students

  • PubMed: An initiative by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, PubMed is a search engine for medical research. It provides access to 28 million entries, either as full-text documents or links to other websites.
  • ScienceDirect: ScienceDirect allows users to search its open-access database for peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters within the fields of life sciences and health sciences.
  • Scopus: Scopus is a search engine where users can find citations and abstracts for scientific journals and other publications. Users must register, but they can use the search engine for free.
  • Cochrane Library: The Cochrane Library hosts six searchable databases on healthcare-related publications. It also includes a database for the results of controlled medical trials.
  • Omni Medical Search: Omni Medical Search partnered with and Google to create a search engine for medical associations, patient forums, medical journals, and medical images.
  • Hardin MD: Run by the University of Iowa, Hardin MD allows users to search for information on diseases. It also includes an image search, which may help medical assistant students identify various diseases.

Evaluating Sources

The internet is full of inaccurate information disguised as serious research. When conducting research, professors expect students to understand the difference between unreliable and reliable sources. Therefore, students should learn how to become a discerning researcher with the ability to distinguish trustworthy sources.

When evaluating resources, students must scrutinize several aspects, including where the resources originated from and whether they have a political agenda. The following questions are based on tips from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago Press. If students ask themselves these questions, they can usually determine the reliability of the sources.

Who is the Author?

First, examine the author. What are the author’s credentials? Check out the author’s LinkedIn page to see where where they were educated and what they have studied. If the author is associated with a university or another organization, make sure the organization is legitimate as well.

What is its Purpose?

Ask yourself about the document’s intended audience. Was it written for a scholarly audience or for the general public? Then look at the author’s motive — is it to inform the audience? Or could it be a veiled attempt to sell a product? If it’s the latter, you can bet the resource is not reliable.

Does it Look Professional?

The resource should be well-organized and clean, without spelling and grammar errors. If you find multiple errors or profanity, this should raise a red flag. Reliable sources are typically edited and revised to avoid careless errors and offensive language.

Is it Objective?

Medical research should be objective, with conclusions or arguments based on scientific evidence. If the resource includes heavily opinionated sections without fact-based evidence, you should not use the source in your research. Similarly, if the author is affiliated with a politically partisan organization, you should be skeptical.

Is it Current?

Scientific research evolves as new findings are published, so students should make sure that the information is current. Be sure to check when the last time the webpage or resource was updated, especially if the research covers a topic that has appeared in the news,

What Sites Does it Link To?

If the resource links to a website, check to see where those links lead. Are the links active, or are they dead ends? Do they take you to untrustworthy websites that may have sponsored the research? Do they lead to partisan websites that put out the research with a political objective? If so, you should skip using the source.

Organizing Your Research

Especially with long-term projects, research can get messy. You might find a great source one day but completely lose track of it the following week. Or, you might make progress in searching for a difficult-to-find source, but when your computer crashes, you lose that progress altogether. Plus, what happens when it comes time to put together your references page but you haven’t kept track of any of your resources? Proper organization will help you avoid these pitfalls.

  • List Each Source You Find in a Spreadsheet: Use Excel or Google Sheets to create a spreadsheet of every source. Include the name of the document, the author’s name, and the link to the publication.
  • Highlight What You Read, and What You Need to Read: When building your spreadsheet, keep track of what you already read by highlighting those rows in one color and highlight the sources you still need to read in another color.
  • Organize Your Notes with Multiple Documents and Folders: Write your notes for each source in a different document. Then — using your hard drive, Google drive, or an organizational app — save those documents in folders labeled by topic.
  • Write a Summary of the Most Important Information from Every Source: After you jot down your notes from one resource, write a brief summary of the most important information at the top of the page.
  • Use Online Tools and Apps to Help You Annotate: There are many apps and online tools to help you create citations for your sources. Below, you’ll find five examples of these tools.

Online Tools to Manage Your Research

  • EasyBib: EasyBib is an application to help students create citations. The app generates both in-text and full citations after a student enters relevant information into the app. The app also provides guides for different research writing formats.
  • Endnote: Endnote is a program that helps students store information and organize citations and resources. It also helps teams work collaboratively and provides access to a reference library.
  • Mendeley: Mendeley is a reference manager and social network for academia where users can annotate and organize citations. Mendeley also provides a portal for jobs in science and technology.
  • RefWorks: RefWorks helps users manage their references by building a database of citations. RefWorks is also collaborative, so users can find references added to the database by other researchers.
  • Zotero: Zotero markets itself as a personal research assistant. It provides a consolidated way to collect research materials, organize resources, and create citations.

Citing Online Resources for Medical Assistant Students

When students in the medical field conduct research, they commonly cite sources using the American Medical Association (AMA) style. A common industry citation format helps researchers cite their sources so that their research is easily understandable and shareable across the industry. Citing sources also helps students avoid unintentional plagiarism, which can have significant consequences for medical assistant students.

When writing research papers using AMA style, students should keep in mind that it differs from some of the most common reference styles, like APA and MLA. For instance, students should always add a list of references at the end, but should not list those resources alphabetically. Instead, the student must list the sources numerically and in the order that they appear in the research paper. Students can learn more by reading the AMA Manual of Style.

AMA Style

Below, you’ll find several examples of AMA style to help you create citations. These examples come from the Arizona Health Sciences Library website and the USciences website.

Articles From Online Periodicals

What is a DOI?

Students should use DOIs, or Digital Object Identifiers, in citations when using online sources. A DOI is similar to a URL in that it links to a particular webpage; however, unlike URLs, which often change over time, DOIs remain constant. Therefore, many professors and researchers prefer using a DOI to a URL when citing sources.

No Author Name Provided

Name of organization. Title of specific item cited. URL. Accessed date.

International Society for Infectious Diseases. ProMED-mail Website. Accessed April 29, 2004.

Author Name Provided

Author A. Title. Name of website. URL. Updated date. Accessed date.

Sullivan D. Major search engines and directories. SearchEngineWatch Website. Updated April 28, 2004. Accessed December 6, 2005.

Online Journal Article With Six or Fewer Authors; DOI Included

Florez H, Martinez R, Chakra W, Strickman-Stein M, Levis S. Outdoor exercise reduces the risk of hypovitaminosis D in the obese. J Steroid Biochem Mol Bio. 2007;103(3-5):679-681. doi:10.1016 /j.jsbmb.2006.12.032.

Online Journal Article With Six or More Authors; DOI Not Included

Siris ES, Miller PD, Barrett-Connor E, et al. Identification and fracture outcomes of undiagnosed low bone mineral density in postmenopausal women: results from the National Osteoporosis Risk Assessment. JAMA. 2001;286(22):2815-2822. /2815. Accessed April 4, 2007.