Using the Internet in Preparing a Term Paper for a Physical Geology Course

Clayton DeWitt Harris
Middle Tennessee State University
Murfreesboro, TN 37132

Kevin McCartney
University of Maine at Presque Isle
Presque Isle, ME 04769


Preparation of a term paper requires thorough knowledge of a topic through a study of the existing literature, followed by a written summary in the student's own words. Although most reference materials for a term paper should be from published "hard-copy," the Internet provides abundant sources from which to select a topic and gather information. Due to the random distribution of information on the Internet, locating specific information can be very challenging, especially for novice users. Students should be cautious when using Internet sources for a term paper, as the Internet does not have the high content standards typical of professional journals. This paper is intended as a short guide to be presented to students as part of a term paper assignment. A style guide for the citation of Internet sources is also presented herein.

Keywords: Earth science - teaching and curriculum; education - computer assisted; geoscience; (by) writing and speaking; geology - literature and libraries.

Explanatory Note to the Instructor

This article serves as a continuation to one previously published in this journal titled "Preparing a Term Paper for a Physical Geology Course" (McCartney, 1992), which was written as a student guide for those assigned a term paper project. However, in the six years since the publication of the original, growing student usage of the Internet has created new questions that were not dealt with in that initial publication. This article explains basic Internet issues to the student and includes a more explicit discussion of plagiarism. It is intended to be given to students along with the original article. Instructors using this guide are encouraged to make whatever modifications are pertinent to their course and assignment. Copies of both articles can be obtained on 3-1/4 inch computer diskette by sending a self-addressed envelope to the authors; McCartney can provide Macintosh, Harris uses a PC. The articles can also be sent as file attachments to e-mail or downloaded from the World-Wide Web (WWW) at

Introduction to Term Paper Writing

A college-level term paper is the result of a research project in which you, the student, assimilate the literature available on a subject, and then review and evaluate this subject in your own words. A term paper is not a "research" paper in the strict sense, as you are not expected to produce new data or hypotheses. Instead, you should develop a thorough understanding of some topic through a study of the existing literature and then provide a written summary of this study with the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

Perhaps the most important step in producing a good term paper is the choice of an appropriate topic. The topic should not be so broad that the resulting paper simply summarizes general knowledge that you -- or your teacher -- already knows. It should, however, not be so narrowly focused that it uses too many technical terms to adequately define and discuss them within the page limits of the assignment. As a general rule, your paper must go well beyond the treatment provided by your textbook, but should probably cover a topic that is discussed or at least mentioned in your text.

Since the basis of a term paper is pre-existing knowledge, there will probably be very little information in your paper that didn't come from the work of other people. Scholastic ethics require that we give sufficient credit to the work of those who provide the foundation upon which we build. Therefore, information obtained from existing literature should be adequately cited within your text. This is not restricted to student term papers -- all scholarly publications require citations.

Similarly, credit should be given to sources that provide the ideas or phrases used in your term paper. However, while you utilize the work of many others, the collection of information that results in the term paper and its presentation is uniquely your own and thus entitles you to authorship of the resulting synthesis.

A previous article (McCartney, 1992) offers advice on preparing a geology term paper and you may wish to refer to that publication. It provides information on choosing and researching a geologic topic, writing the paper and citing references. That article, however, was written before the general availability of user-friendly Internet browsers. Although the Internet provides some new methods that ease the gathering of information, overuse of these methods frequently leads to a weak term paper. The purpose of this handout is to offer suggestions on the use of the Internet for writing a college-level term paper.

What is the Internet?

The Internet is the world's largest computer network. A computer network consists of two or more computers connected together for the purposes of sharing information -- text, graphics, or anything else that a computer can store. For a term paper, your primary interest will probably be text; however, you may also be interested in diagrams or photographs.

A variety of software, using many different methods of information storage and retrieval, permits sharing of information over the Internet. The side-bar "Internet Services" contains a brief summary of popular information search and retrieval software. It is not intended as a tutorial on how to use the required software, but rather as an introduction to the types of services that they provide. For more information on these services, contact a reference librarian at your school or read one of the many printed reference works on this subject; for example, Earth Online: An Internet guide for Earth Science (Ritter, 1997), The whole Internet: User's guide and catalog (Krol, 1994) or Online! A reference guide to using Internet sources (Harnack and Kleppinger, 1997). If you prefer online references, you might try Internet Tools Summary (December, 1997) or EFF's (Extended) Guide to the Internet (Anonymous, 1994). The bibliography lists Internet addresses for these sources.

To use the Internet, you need two things: an Internet-ready computer (including software) and an Internet connection. Most universities provide both somewhere on campus. For viewing and retrieving information on the Internet, you probably will want to use a computer with a graphical Internet browser, such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. All the services discussed in the side-bar "Internet Services" are accessible with these state-of-the-art, graphical browsers. This makes it possible to use just one consistent, graphical user-interface (sometimes abbreviated "gui"), which is both powerful and easy to learn, to "surf" the entire "net."

There are two basic types of connections to the Internet. Most large universities, government agencies, and corporations have direct, or "true" connections via dedicated telephone lines or microwave transmitters. Smaller organizations and private individuals typically have a dial-up connection using a modem and their regular voice telephone line. A true Internet connection usually provides very fast communication; dial-up connections are much slower and may provide only limited capabilities. Slow connections make working with large files, such as graphic images, rather frustrating. For example, using a modem, it can take several minutes to retrieve a screen-sized photographic image for viewing.

The volume of information now available on the Internet and the random manner in which it is stored makes Internet research quite different than library research using a card catalog. Fortunately, search tools (see the side-bar "Internet Services") can make surveying Internet content easy. However, the random nature of information storage on the Internet can also make finding specific information very challenging.

Search "engines" typically use keywords provided by the user to locate documents. Different engines (e.g. Veronica or Lycos) are designed to search different services (e.g. Gopher vs. the WWW) on the Internet and any two engines would probably turn up different documents using the same keywords in the same area of the Internet. Therefore, you should probably become familiar with several different search engines. Online references like Lui's "Understanding WWW search tools" (1998) discuss the different types of search engines and how they work. Other sites discuss the pro's and con's of the various search engines. One that is particularly user-friendly, teaches sound searching strategies, and actually helps you conduct your search is Nicholson's "Web Searching Tutorial" (1997). Very extensive sites often contain their own searchable indexes. This allows you to find every occurrence of a particular word or phrase at that site and saves time.

(Sidebar is located at end of bibliography.)

Liabilities of Internet Usage in Term Papers

The Internet is not the be-all and end-all of your research. A college-level term paper that uses only the Internet for information will probably not cover its subject adequately, and thus is unlikely to receive a high grade. There are several reasons for this. For one, the Internet tends to cover subjects more superficially than the printed literature, without the depth and context provided by a book. Most Internet sources also lack explicit citations to other sources for reference; such citation is an important part of articles found in professional journals and is one of the ways in which scholarly accountability is maintained.

Another important reason that the Internet should not be the primary information source for a term paper is the considerable variation in the quality of information available on the Internet. This variation is due to the Internet's lack of a standard for information quality. That is to say, anyone can put anything on the Internet, and by mere virtue of being "computerized" the information may seem authoritative to the novice (or gullible) reader. Printed, or "hardcopy," literature has a built-in safeguard to promote high quality information -- peer-review.

Peer-review means that the publisher of the article or book sent the manuscript to external reviewers, including authorities in the subject matter. These reviewers are commonly the writer's own peers, perhaps other college professors, for example. These reviewers evaluate the manuscript and reach a general consensus that the work meets some high standard. Reviewers cannot reject a manuscript simply because they might disagree with it, but can reject it if there are flaws in the way the subject was investigated, or if the manuscript does not adequately deal with important counter arguments. Reviewers also offer suggestions to the writer for improving the manuscript before publication, and peer-reviewed publications are usually professionally edited as well. For example, this article has been peer-reviewed.

Documents on the Internet typically are not peer-reviewed. Consequently, in gathering materials for a term paper, you might unintentionally include information that is plagiarized, factually or interpretationally flawed, overly biased in its viewpoint or presentation or lacking the more thorough analysis typical of the peer-reviewed literature. It is easy for the uninitiated to incorporate information into a term paper without appreciating its faults. This, of course, can result in an inaccurate, incomplete or fatally flawed term paper, and ultimately in a lower grade from your teacher.

Another criticism of the Internet as a source of information for term papers is its ephemeral nature. The printed literature provides a permanent accessible record stored in libraries. This is the knowledge base that scholars strive to improve and build upon, analogous to the foundation upon which a building is constructed.

Information on the Internet, however, has no permanency; by analogy, it is more like the shifting sands of a beach. What might be on a webpage today can easily be changed tomorrow. Information used to support an argument might not be there when someone later tries to verify it. In some cases, portions of the Internet are "archived" in order to preserve them for historical purposes; even so, this record probably has nothing like the permanence of published "hard-copy."

A final criticism of the Internet as a research tool concerns the sheer volume of randomly distributed material to be found there, and the difficulty of wading through it to locate specific information. In some ways, this is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Search engines might seem to solve this problem, but they have serious limitations in many ways. Search engines cannot, for example, help you choose an appropriate keyword for a search -- a crucial skill when doing Internet research. Considerable thought must go into picking words or phrases that are fairly unique to your subject, or you will find that a search brings up lots of "bad hits," or inappropriate references. For example, you might choose to do a search on back arc basins, a topic related to plate tectonics. Searching on the combined terms "back arc" and "sedimentation" would seem to be a good strategy, but along with documents on back arcs you might locate some on "arc welding" as well.

Occasionally, you may find that for some topics it is hard to find a word or phrase that helps eliminate or limit the number of bad hits you receive. Consequently, you may not locate any documents covering your topic due to the sheer volume of unrelated material that you must sift through. At that point, it may be necessary to change search engines or reconsider your search strategy.

Opportunities Provided by the Internet

Despite its shortcomings, the Internet provides many research opportunities, especially in the one aspect of a term paper students often find most difficult: choosing a viable topic. As a starting point for finding an interesting subject, the Internet is unparalleled. It is analogous to an electronic encyclopedia with millions of entries and nearly as many authors. Since a few key words can locate many sources, you can readily determine the availability of Internet source materials for that topic. An Internet search can also alert you to controversial issues and differing points of view, which frequently make for good term paper topics. This can be accomplished with remarkable ease at school or from home -- if a computer has access to the Internet.

For some types of information, the Internet is also unrivaled in its currency. Government agencies and universities, for example, post some kinds of data to the Internet as it is collected. Earthquake magnitudes, ocean tide levels, sea water salinity and temperature can all be acquired almost instantaneously. No printed reference can hope to achieve this degree of currency. However, this may not be all that useful for many term paper topics.

Throughout your search, no matter how successful you are at locating interesting topics, documents, and data on the Internet, always keep your ultimate goal in mind: finding enough readily accessible print sources to produce a quality term paper. Here again, the Internet can be helpful in a number of ways. Some Internet documents might include citations to the printed literature or perhaps even an annotated bibliography. Alternatively, you might find the names of important researchers in that field of study.

If you find the name and address of a researcher who is working in your field of interest, do not feel shy about contacting that person directly to ask for reprints of their published articles. Professional scholars are obliged to have copies of their articles and will mail these as a professional courtesy to colleagues who request them. Send a postcard or e-mail message describing your interests and asking for any reprints in that field. Provide the titles of specific articles if possible. Most scholars are very good about promptly putting reprints in the mail.

Assessing Internet Sources

By now you may be thinking "just how do I sort out the good Internet sources from the bad?" Several key traits should be used for evaluation purposes including currency, originality, accuracy, authority, purpose and objectivity (Kubly, 1997). These are discussed below. If you are skeptical about any of these traits after scrutinizing a source, the source should probably be discarded. As the old saying goes "if in doubt, leave it out."

Currency - Unless instructed otherwise, students should rely on Internet sources only for current, late-breaking information unavailable in peer-reviewed print sources. You must give print sources precedence over Internet material.

Originality - Once you establish that the document is current, check it for four essential elements: author's name, author's affiliation(s) or organization, page title, and page date. If one of these elements is missing you should probably assume that the author is not presenting original information, but rather is simply using information from another source. Most scholars want and deserve credit where credit is due.

If you are still uncertain about the source of the information, check the document for citations and a reference list. Although not foolproof, the presence of references in an Internet source hints that the author understands and appreciates the need for verification of online information. This not only suggests a source with above average intellectual integrity, it also provides the opportunity to research the topic using the source's references. As a last resort, you might e-mail the page's author and ask about the source of the information.

Accuracy - Does the text contain any obvious grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors? Do any statements or assertions in the document contradict other sources you have read? An individual or organization that does not concern itself with these types of errors cannot be trusted to provide reliable information.

Authority - Check the author's credentials if supplied. Does the author appear to be qualified to write on this subject? Does research on the Internet suggest that the author's sponsoring organization (university, corporation, etc.) participates in legitimate, scientific research? Does GeoRef (see the sidebar "GeoRef") contain references that illustrate the author's expertise in this subject area?

Purpose and objectivity - What is the intended purpose of the document -- to inform, explain, or persuade? If informative or explanatory, are any significant conclusions drawn? If persuasive, does the author appear to have a bias? Does the author appear to provide only one side of a controversial issue? Does the author's affiliation lead you to question their objectivity? What is the intended audience for the document -- the general public or the author's peers? In either case, are data supplied, and does the author indicate their source(s)? Is the methodology discussed so that the study can be replicated?

Ultimately, assessment of Internet sources requires critical thinking on the part of the reader. You, the student, must evaluate the quality of sources with respect to these criteria and decide for yourself whether or not to use a document.

Warning Against Plagiarism

One of the conveniences of the new Internet technologies is the cutting and pasting of text from one place to another. As a result, a sentence or paragraph from a webpage can be easily inserted into a term paper. This is wrong! The text of the term paper must be your own, and in your own words. To lift even a sentence -- word for word or paraphrased -- from another source constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism is an intellectual dishonesty that in the scholarly world is the same as lying, cheating and stealing.

Some students believe that sentences or paragraphs can be lifted entirely provided that the source is cited. This is not correct. In the science world, sources for ideas or information are cited, but word for word text is hardly ever used except for historical purposes. Even if the source is cited, it is improper to paraphrase a sentence while retaining the original structure, because that implies the words are your own.

Should you find a particularly elegant or useful phrase in the literature, it can be included in the term paper provided the phrase is within quotation marks and its source is cited. Larger textual passages should be indented, but this is very unusual in science articles (it is more common in the humanities and social sciences), and is generally discouraged in scientific writing.

Plagiarism can be avoided by reading the source material and taking notes and NEVER copying word for word. This must also apply to the Internet. Never cut and paste from a source into your term paper. As an added disincentive to cut and paste from the Internet, remember that, should your instructor suspect that a phrase is not your own, the Internet could be easily searched for that phrase. Plagiarism from the Internet is very easy for your instructor to catch!

Citation of Non-Internet Sources

General information on the citation of written sources can be obtained by referring to McCartney (1992) or simply by looking at the "References Cited" section of the articles in this journal. Basically, there are three citation formats for written sources: 1) journal or magazine articles, 2) books, and 3) articles or chapters in books that are edited by someone else. These formats can be summarized as follows:
    1) Author(s), year, Title: Journal, volume, pages.
    2) Author(s), year, Title (edition): Place, Publisher, total number of pages in book.
    3) Author(s), year, Title, in Editor(s), ed(s)., Title of sourcebook: Place, Publisher, pages.

There is no universal standard for these citations; every journal has its own particular style. Some might use commas where others use semicolons, some use abbreviations while others do not. You will need to conform to the style provided by your teacher. Some instructors will have you conform to widely used standards, such as those of the American Psychological Association (1994), Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago, 1993) or Modern Language Association (Gibaldi, 1995). Others might have you use the style of some particular scientific journal.

There is usually a separate format for personal communications, such as interviews or letters that have not been published. Although personal communications -- sometimes abbreviated as pers. comm. -- are unusual in scientific journals, they are frequently found in term papers, since students need to adequately acknowledge information that they get from their instructor or other professors. The general format for personal communications is as follows:

McCartney, Kevin, pers. comm.: address, date, (interview, letter, etc.).

Citation of Internet Sources

Citation of Internet sources differs from other citations in several ways. Because of the ephemeral nature of websites, and the frequency with which they are edited, two dates are needed. The date that the material was written or last modified should be included after the author's name. If the webpage has no publication or modification date (e.g. United States Naval Observatory, undated), then the term "undated" should be enclosed in parentheses in lieu of a date. A partial date is better than no date at all.

The date that you accessed the material is also important, as the webpage can literally change from day to day. This date is included in parentheses at the end of the citation.

Place the reference's Internet address, often called a URL (Universal Resource Locator), within pointed brackets, < >. Should the address spill over onto a second line, DO NOT insert a hyphen. The address should only be broken after existing forward slash (/) characters.

The design of the Internet reference styles proposed here follows the same approach currently used for print materials. There is a considerable number of possible permutations for Internet citations, the most common being WWW, FTP, and Gopher sites, Usenet newsgroup, e-mail and listserv messages. As a general rule, all citations must include whatever information is necessary for the reader to be able to access the reference material without undue difficulty. The general format is as follows:

Author, date, Title: <URL>, (date accessed). This should suffice for all WWW sites (e.g. Robb, 1997).

Gopher (e.g. University of Michigan, 1997) and FTP sites (e.g. Thoen, 1994) may require an explicit pathway in order to reach the information. For situations requiring additional information, such as a menu pathway that is not part of the URL, that information should be included within squared brackets, [ ], after the Internet address:

Author, date, Title: <URL> [path: ], (date accessed).

The Usenet news format (e.g. Harris, 1997) calls for the author's e-mail address and the newsgroup's name instead of a URL:

Author, date, Title: <e-mail address> newsgroup name, (date accessed).

If the information is stored in an archive, that should be indicated along with the archive's URL, at the end of the citation:

Author, date, Title: newsgroup name, (date accessed). Archived at: <URL>.

Citations of e-mail or listserv messages, which will probably appear only in your text, should follow the general style for personal communications:

Author, pers. comm., Subject line: <e-mail address>, date, (personal e-mail or listserv name).

For example:
Cassidy, Daniel, pers. comm., Geologic map of Bolivia: <>, 24 Sep. 1997, (personal e-mail).

However, permission should be gained from the message author before publishing any personal e-mail address.

Where the situation creates some question that does not fit well into this citation format, use common sense to develop a citation consistent with these formats, and present your materials and the citation to your instructor for a second opinion before the paper is due.


Writing a term paper is one of the best ways to learn about a topic. However, preparation of a quality term paper demands many hours of work to choose and research a topic, and then write, proofread, and rewrite the text. The Internet can save students considerable time during topic selection and research. However, the Internet should not be the sole or even the primary source for research materials. More importantly, the Internet should not serve as a direct source for the text in a term paper, as copying text is a type of academic dishonesty and plagiarism.

While the Internet offers new and exciting opportunities for learning, it also requires development of additional reference styles in order to cite the many data sources available online. The authors hope that the styles proposed herein will help to establish a uniform citation standard for the geosciences.

References Cited

American Psychological Association, 1994, Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, (4th edition): Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association, 368 p.

Anonymous, Sep. 1994, EFF's (extended) guide to the Internet: <>, (13 Sep. 1998).

December, J., 23 Dec., 1997, Internet tools summary: <>, (13 Sep. 1998).

Defelice, B., 1991, CD-ROM revolutionizes GeoRef: Geotimes, v. 36, p. 22-24.

Gibaldi, J., 1995, MLA handbook for writers of research papers (4th edition): New York, Modern Language Association of America, 293 p.

Harnack, A., and Kleppinger, E., 1997, Online! A reference guide to using Internet sources: New York, St. Martin's Press, 162 p.

Harris, C., 24 Sep. 1997, Need geologic map, Potosi area, Bolivia: <> sci.geo.geology, (25 Sep. 1997).

Krol, E., 1994, The whole Internet: User's guide and catalog (2nd edition): Sebastopol, California, O'Reilley and Associates, Inc., 538 p.

Kubly, K., 1997, Guiding students in using the World-Wide Web, in Proceedings, 1997 Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference: Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University, p. 117-126.

Lui, J., May 1998, Understanding WWW search tools: <>, (15 Sep., 1998).

McCartney, K., 1992, Preparing a term paper for a physical geology course: Journal of Geological Education, v. 40, p. 62-65.

Nicholson, S., 1997, Web searching tutorial: <>, (13 Sep. 1998).

Ritter, M., 1997, Earth Online: An Internet guide for Earth Science: Belmont, California, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 269 p.

Robb, J., 12 Aug. 1997, Links to Internet resources: <>, (23 Sep. 1997).

Thoen, B., 15 Jun. 1994, On-line resources for Earth Scientists (ORES): <>, (23 Sep. 1997).

United States Naval Observatory, (undated), Sunrise/Sunset/Twilight and Moonrise/Moonset/Phase: <>, (24 Sep. 1997).

University of Chicago, 1993, The Chicago manual of style (14th edition): Chicago, Illinois, University of Chicago Press, 921 p.

University of Michigan, 23 Sep. 1997, Weather conditions at 10PM EDT on 23 SEP 97 for Portland, ME: <gopher://>, (23 Sep. 1997).


We would like to acknowledge Ken Petress, Kate McCartney, and Patricia Domengeaux for constructive comments.

About the authors

Clay Harris is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Geology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. This is his third contribution to JGE. He has been using computers in and out of the classroom for about 15 years, but still prefers a good book to the World-Wide Web, and would rather talk to students one-on-one than "chat" via e-mail.

Kevin McCartney is an associate professor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. He has previously published five articles in JGE, on the Cretaceous/Tertiary extinctions, the preparation of term papers, and teaching by interactive television. He is also director of the Northern Maine Museum of Science. His research interests include micropaleontology.

======================= Internet Services (as a sidebar)

Internet Service - a standardized method for storing and/or retrieving information on the Internet that permits easy access using specially-designed software.

E-mail (electronic mail) - a service for sending text messages over the Internet.

Mailing list service (listserv) - an email-based, information subscription service initiated and controlled by the subscriber. Thousands of mailing list topics are available. Subscription requires sending an e-mail message to the listserv's Internet address. The listserv posts messages to your e-mail account automatically until you unsubscribe in a similar manner.

World-Wide Web (WWW or "the web") - a graphical, information browsing and retrieval service using hypertext links. Hypertext links allow the user to rapidly move from document* to document or site to site by merely choosing a highlighted keyword. Browsing is performed using either text-based or graphical software. Documents, also known as web pages, are posted to the web by individuals, small businesses, corporations, government agencies, etc.

Usenet newsgroups - a text-based, menu-driven service for discussion of thousands of different subjects. Messages are posted to the appropriate newsgroup by the user and others can then read the posting and respond in the same way. Some subjects are quite controversial and generate heated discussions. In a sense, Usenet is analogous to a call-in radio talk show, but the information remains available for research purposes. Some newsgroups are moderated (some would say censored) for inappropriate content or for violations of etiquette or rules.

Gopher - a text-based, menu-driven information retrieval service that predates the WWW. The information is provided by organizations that develop Gopher sites.

Telnet - a service that provides a connection to remote Internet computers, usually for retrieval of information in the form of text files.

FTP (file transfer protocol) - a service for transferring files to or from a remote Internet computer.

Search engine - a type of software that performs information searches on the Internet. Some engines are highly structured in their approach, others allow users to design their own type of search using different criteria or keywords.

Archie - a search engine for keyword and filename searches at FTP sites.

Veronica - a search engine for keyword searches at Gopher sites.

Jughead - a search engine for user-defined searches at Gopher sites.

WAIS (wide area information service) - a search engine for keyword searches of information databases located on the Internet.

Alta Vista, Lycos, and WebCrawler - examples of free, commercially-operated, search engines on the WWW. *In Internet jargon, a file containing text is called a document; a collection of documents is called a site.

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======================= GeoRef (as a sidebar)

Silver Platter Inc.'s GeoRef (Defelice, 1991) is an especially good tool for finding geology references. GeoRef is a database containing bibliographic information for most English language geology publications from the late 18th century to the present. It includes some foreign language publications as well. Many university libraries purchase the GeoRef CD-ROM collection or provide online access through commercial Internet services. If you are interested, contact a reference librarian at your school to determine GeoRef's availability.

(end of sidebar) ===========================