Lost in Cyberspace
Homework Online
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz

Back to school means back to homework, including that most odious chore, the term paper. It's tempting to use the Internet for term papers because it seems so convenient. All that online information downloadable to your hard drive, making plagiarism, er, note-taking, as easy as copy and paste. Of course, the Internet can't write papers for you (unless one counts websites touting "papers for sale"), so the websites below offer other kinds of help. But beware: You can spin your wheels in cyberspace just as easily as you can at the library.

One of the best places to get started on a term paper may be "Best Information on the Net" <www.sau.edu>. Created by librarians at unheralded St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, "Best Information" has a section called Hot Paper Topics, which does not mean that the papers are stolen, just researchable.

Students often waste gobs of time seeking the perfect topic when there is no perfect topic. The best topics are not necessarily the most interesting, only the most researchable, that is, the easiest to look up information on. With such subjects as drugs, sexual harassment, the death penalty, bilingual education, gambling, gangs and paranormal phenomena, Hot Topics' topics are, well, topical, as well as researchable, and some are even interesting.

One nice thing about the hot topics is that there aren't too many of them. Another is that each topic has links to information about the topic, often primary sources such as government documents, research studies and legal papers.

"StudyWEB" <www.studyweb.com>, on the other hand, simulates some of the more frustrating library experiences, like not finding what you are looking for, only with advertising. While comprehensive, the site has links to indexes that lead to more links that lead to more indexes, with ads on every page. Eventually the trail peters out at a single website or dead link.

Another website with links linking to links is "Homework Heaven" <www.homeworkheaven.com>, which categorizes and reviews thousands of educational and reference websites, which are further classified by appropriateness for grade school, high school and college students.

"ResearchPaper.com" <www.researchpaper.com> (AOL keyword: Homework), has some good topics for research papers, plus solid articles from academic journals. The problem is that the articles are stashed at something called "eLibrary," which charges $60 a year for access.

Why pay when many basic reference books are free? "OneLook Dictionaries" <www.onelook.com> lets you search for word definitions through nearly 300 general and specialized dictionaries and glossaries. "Roget's Internet Thesaurus" is at www.thesaurus.com, and "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations" can be found at www.columbia.edu/acis/bartleby/bartlett. And "Encyclopedia.com" <www.encyclopedia.com> has more than 17,000 cross-linked articles from the Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.

If you do find information in cyberspace worth using in a term paper, an indispensable site is "MLA Bibliographic Format Interactive Forms" <www.nueva.pvt.k12.ca.us/~debbie/library/research/research.html>. Created by The Nueva School, an independent day school for gifted pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students in the San Francisco area, the site makes it easy to write a bibliography of Internet sources in MLA style by providing fill-in-the-blank forms for online books and magazines, email messages, newsgroups, CD-ROMs, personal websites and other cyber citations.

One more worthwhile resource is "The Internet Public Library" <www.ipl.org>. Based at the University of Michigan, the website evaluates and categorizes Internet resources, and is staffed by reference librarians who will respond by email to research questions. Like most of the other homework helper websites, it also has tips on researching and writing papers.

One more thing this site has is a practical guide to information found -- and not found -- on the Web.  "What's not on the Web -- at least not for free," it notes, "are most of the comprehensive reference works you'd find in a library reference room and nonfiction collection. Why? It costs publishers a lot of money to put together that information and they're in business to sell it -- they have nothing else to sell."

The essay says things seldom found on the Web for free include encyclopedias (the CD-ROM versions are selling too well), books still under copyright, full-text nonfiction books on scholarly topics, indexes and abstracts for academic journal articles and the articles themselves.

What's not on the Web, it concludes, "covers about 90 percent of the contents of a college library's collection, both the reference and the circulating collection. It's apparent that researchers still have to spend a good portion of their research time in the library rather than on the Web."

Oh well.

© 1998 By H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.