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How to Do Online Research Well, from a Traveling Tutor

Ryan of "Travel & Graphs" himself. He explains: "I promise my right eye doesn't have terminator capabilities."
Ryan of “Travel & Graphs” himself. He explains: “I promise my right eye doesn’t have terminator capabilities.”

Teaching Traveling: Read on to learn top tips about online research from traveling tutor Ryan McCoy of!

Ryan, tell us about your background.

Ryan: I am a 22 year old guy who has taught people fitness as a personal trainer, reading as a tutor, and test preparation as a research assistant. I am one of a small number of people worldwide holding a nationally accredited Bachelors Degree that was attained entirely through correspondence and independent research.

After that, I studied for and passed the Ace Personal Fitness Exam through self study as well. I am not currently a teacher in an official fashion, but my reputation for knowing my way around e-resources (A.K.A. internet addiction) guarantees me a steady stream of friends, family, and extended community back in the Midwest looking for help. I am just finishing up a 5 month road trip of the American southwest, and will begin a four month job at Yellowstone National Park later this week.

TT: Great! Go ahead and give us your best advice about online research.

R: Thorough research is one of the quickest ways to establish yourself as a trustworthy and reliable professional. Given my modest successes conducting solo online research, here’s a quick rundown of the main strategies for anyone looking to gather information via internet resources:

Nonfiction neon sign, library
Ryan cautions us, “Not all libraries will have neon light up signs.”

First things first:

Why are you researching? Are you looking for material on a class you are teaching, or writing a paper for a website, publication, or other teachers? Has a student come to you looking for help on a project, and you want to give them the best sources possible? Just want to impress that cute TEFL coworker?

Different tasks will require different emphasis of the resources listed below. In general, the older and more formal your audience, the more you should consider journals and scholarly books. For a more general setting (like an introductory class lesson), organizational websites will usually be the best go-to resource for content that cuts right to the essential facts.

Google Scholar: This is the first and most important internet resource for conducting serious research. Heck, even finding the service is a quest in itself. You can click “More” at the top of the Google homepage, then click the “Even More” tab to take you to a directory that will list Scholar near the bottom.

Whoever runs Google must really hate reading academic jargon. Once there, the initial interface is much like regular Google, with a few key differences. The corner of the search bar will provide a drop down menu allowing you to manipulate the parameters of your search, and each article returned will list the journal published in, the date written, and the number of citations the article has accumulated.

One of the beautiful scenes Ryan saw on his five-months of travel through the American Southwest!
One of the beautiful scenes Ryan saw on his five-months of travel through the American Southwest!

*Citations are the ivory tower’s version of the re-tweet. The larger the number, the more articles have cited back saying this work provides valuable information. In your search, try to find articles with larger numbers of citations first as these will be the “conversation setting” works and will ensure the angle you present is current with professional thinking in the discipline in question.

Clicking on the number of citations in Google Scholar will show you all the articles that cited the original article; giving you a rundown of how subsequent researchers have interpreted the issue up to this very day.

*Tip: Sadly, about 85% of the articles on Scholar are locked behind a service like JSTOR, and full access in unavailable to anybody not affiliated with a big university. However, there will always be a quick abstract and summary written by the author, and in certain cases this summary will include all the relevant info you need and perhaps even enough for a usable quote.

*Tip #2: You know when you can get full access to an article if “PDF From” or “HTML From” appears off to the right hand side on the Google results page. If you are in a hurry, limit yourself to just those works showing the full text.

"If a link like this is present, there is full access to the article," Ryan explains. "Also, you're welcome for the free advertising Nomadic Samuel and Traveling Ted."
“If a link like this is present, there is full access to the article,” Ryan explains. “Also, you’re welcome for the free advertising Nomadic Samuel and Traveling Ted.”

Project Gutenberg: This is a collection of over 39,000 books available, free of charge. One of the best places to go to for classic works of fiction and literature.

California State San Marcos Primary Documents Directory: The most extensive link collection for primary documents on the internet. I frequently use the Avalon Project, Fordham University Project, and the Hanover Historical Texts Project. Young students especially will be much more interested in hearing history through the words of historical figures themselves than through secondary analysis.

SSRN: Much like Google Scholar, this is a search engine of sorts for scholarly articles (with a specific focus on social science subjects.) The two main benefits over Scholar are that all articles will be available in full, and participating professors update and rank a “Top Papers”” and “Top Authors” section for each subject.

In fact, I recommend staying in these sections as much as possible, as the rest of the site is significantly less user friendly. Papers can still be downloaded to your computer without the (completely free) registration, but registering will give you more ability to manipulate the search results.

The van that Ryan lived and traveled in for five months across the American Southwest!
The van that Ryan lived and traveled in for five months across the American Southwest!

Questia: The premier pay-for-content site on the internet. For a hundred bucks a year, you get access to lifetimes of material found in few libraries around the globe. And these are full length scholarly books (77,000 of them), not just articles.

Important note: A significant amount of the content you find will be painfully dry and a chore to read. If it is dry for you, it’s safe to assume that can be multiplied by 8754 for your audience. In order to have success teaching or presenting the information gathered, you must find a way to add some spice and humor.

Teaching Traveling: Ryan, thank you for this extremely helpful roundup! Now, tell us more about your travels. What has been the most memorable trip you have taken?

R: It would definitely be this last road trip. In order to cut costs on accommodation, I lived out of a 1992 Previa van for the duration, sleeping at Wal-Mart parking lots and the occasional rest stop.

You know, the romantic spots. I was brought face to face with the varieties of American life– from chatting up retail workers at 2AM to interacting with police about local life and the best area to park my van, to a back country Louisiana gun enthusiast who let me crash on his couch for a night.

The van Ryan lived out of while traveling, "Still spry in her old age."
The van Ryan lived out of while traveling, “Still spry in her old age.”

TT: Love it! How did you find this travel opportunity?

R: My first go at traditional college didn’t really “go” anywhere. One day in my dorm I stumbled over a community of van-dwellers talking about how they could travel for $500 a month. This seemed exciting, intriguing, and of supreme importance…cheap.

I didn’t pull the trigger then, and instead opted to work and tutor for a couple years…but the itch came back. Once I got hired at Yellowstone it was 6 months until I was due to show up for work, so I bought a van and an air mattress, and set off in a burst of rickety engine noises and duct tape.

TT: How did you find the money to fund this travel?

R: I saved up money from personal training. In the 5 months I spent traveling, I averaged around $520 a month on the expenses. For those willing to deal with some uncomfortable sleeping nights (and a few weary looks from those choosing not to live in parking lots), it is a remarkably easy and accessible way to set off on your first adventure. If travel in general ends up not being your thing, you can always turn around and be home in a matter of days.

TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly funny.

R: I work best when alone and in private… an issue since the only internet sources available to me are in public. What I usually do is park close enough to a Starbucks or McDonald’s so that I can get internet in the parking lot. The problem is I feel guilty about mooching services for free… so this rather bizarre scene plays itself out: First, parking the van and hoping in the back to check to see if I am close enough. It is almost a certainty I am not.

Hop back in front, start up the van and pull up closer. Check internet again. If successful, I go inside to buy a coffee or burger, then immediately slink back to the van to get some work done.

The worst is when people park next to me. I know they see me back there sometimes, but all I can do is shrug it off. If this trip were a movie the title would read “There Will Be Awkwardness.” If that doesn’t make you yearn for the glamorous life of a traveler, nothing will. In the end though, the new landscapes experienced and people met along the way are more than worth the price.

The awkwardness Ryan feels when mooching internet during his travels!
The awkwardness Ryan feels when mooching internet during his travels!

TT: How have your travels impacted you in your current career?

R: It made me appreciate the importance of the growing collection of digital resources. Most libraries are great, but there are some bad ones out there. In order to have the best research for the site, and to help out the friends who still come calling every once and a while for help on a test or paper, I have had to become familiar with every corner of the net.

TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?

R: I used to be very proud, often downright jerkish, about my St. Louis heritage. Being away for so long…I don’t really make that connection anymore. Arguments and shouting matches over sports allegiances have declined sharply as a result.

More importantly, this kind of emotional limbo really made me start examining where my spot in the world will eventually be. I always figured the answer was St.Louis, but travel really brakes down your sense of place in the world. That, and necessity forced me to eat more McChickens than I ever care to admit.

TT: Thanks so much, Ryan! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?


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Sunday 25th of May 2014

How and where did you get your BA through total correspondence???? That sounds like something I would like to do. Any tips would be appreciated

Whitney Zahar

Friday 7th of December 2012

Awesome, and very helpful to someone who is studying library and information science! Thanks, Ryan!


Sunday 4th of November 2012

Great tips! It's always good to know your way around the internet. I always feel the research methodologies I gained in doing my masters degree are valuable.


Tuesday 25th of September 2012

Such a great list! I'm a former (recovering) academic, and these are all solid, cite-worthy :) resources. Awesome job.

wandering educators

Monday 24th of September 2012

LOVE this!! digital research is the only way to go now - everything is online. Thanks for the great tips!

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