by Rod Hague and Martin Harrop

Guide to Comparative Politics on the Internet

1. Introduction

Especially for such a wide-ranging subject as comparative politics, the internet offers an invaluable source of information. Its range and accessibility is unequalled in human history. But making effective use of the material still requires good research skills, especially in searching thoroughly and interpreting wisely. This guide offers a few pointers.

One point concerns the internet itself. As of 2012, two out of three people in the world did not use the web and internet access remained greatest in Western liberal democracies (internetworldstats). In parts of the developing world, access is still uncommon, with effective use constrained by illiteracy. The difficulty of censoring the flow of electronic information means that the internet, and especially social media, can be politically important even in countries where internet penetration is low. Even so, our understanding of politics would be distorted if we imagined a world where web use is universal.

Just as the highest proportions of internet users are in the developed world, so too are most websites. This gives rise to the selection bias discussed in our book: the tendency to study topics for which information is readily available. It is easier for us all - professors as well as students - to write about internet-rich topics such as the American presidency and British government than about internet-poor areas such as the politics of remote regions in low-income countries.

As a result of selection bias (as discussed in chapter 19 of our book), the known becomes ever clearer but the unknown remains opaque, thus contradicting the underlying spirit of academic enquiry. A case can even be made that a greater total contribution to knowledge would emerge if, for a period, we all agreed to research website-free topics! At the end of your internet research on a given topic, ask yourself what else you might have been able to discover had you conducted research in the field rather than just from the screen.


2. Types Of Internet Source

The internet gives access to various sources of information relevant to comparative politics, including (with example):


3. Assessing Internet Sources

Making sense of internet sources requires the same skills as interpreting non-internet information, plus additional ruthlessness in disposing of irrelevant, low-grade and out-of-date material. How can we judge the accuracy, objectivity and comprehensiveness of internet material?
Sources do not need to be perfect to be useful. Sometimes, we are just interested in finding a particular fact or statistic, a task for which a simple query through a search engine is ideal. Encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia are also helpful here though Wikipedia entries, being based on contributions from users, should be checked for accuracy (if you use user-generated resources like Wikipedia, you should play fair by improving existing entries or adding new ones). Confirmation through multiple sources does not ensure accuracy since information, whether accurate or inaccurate, is often simply copied. For this reason, slight differences in facts and statistics can add to rather than detract from confidence in the underlying point.

Often, we are interested in what a government, interest group or political party has to say in and of itself. What an organization says - on its website or elsewhere - is significant, whether or not it accurately reflects the views of individuals within the organization. In general, information supplied by an organization about itself is a form of marketing; it is unlikely to be false but will certainly be selective. It is your job to add a fuller, more balanced perspective. But, provided you always ask what is left unsaid, a trawl through relevant sites is likely to be helpful.

There is no magic formula for judging validity but here are some guidelines (most of which also apply to hard-copy documents):

  • is the site produced by a named person or organization (‘the author’)?
  • does the author have an interest in giving a selective account?
  • does the reputation of the author depend on the accuracy of its information?
  • what expertise does the author possess and demonstrate?
  • how well do the author’s views chime with other sources?
  • does the site appear long on opinion and short on fact?
  • does the information seem to be edited and subject to quality control?
  • is the information current? (often a website is the last medium to be updated)

4. Search Engines

Search engines such as Google, Yahoo, Bing and the Chinese-language Baidu provide a convenient way of trawling the web for a particular topic though bear in mind that some engines permit organizations to pay to appear near the top of a results page. Results vary from one engine to another so it is worth trying at least two for any topic. Also vary the phrase for which you search.

Such trawls will deliver a variable catch and the results will lack the authority and depth needed for academic purposes. Still, we have to start somewhere.

An intelligent search aims to produce a manageable set of results so explore the advanced search facilities of your preferred engines. These enable you, for example, to limit your results to those:

  • of a particular type (e.g. Adobe PDF files, which are often substantial reports)
  • in a particular language (e.g. English)
  • from a specific (but still overlapping) top-level domain, e.g.
    • .biz (business)
    • .com (commercial)
    • .coop (cooperative)
    • .edu (education, US only)
      .gov (government, US only)
    • .info (information)
    • .int (international)
    • .mil (military, US only)
    • .museum
    • .net (portal)
    • .org (organization, particularly non-profit)
    • .pro (profession)
  • from a specific country such as .dk, .no, .se, .uk
  • which have been updated since a particular date (e.g. 11 September 2001)
  • which have been accessed by many other users
  • which have links to the page you specify
  • which meet logical conditions such as:
    • OR – contains either keyword
    • e.g. ‘comparative government’ OR ‘Hague and Harrop’
    • AND – contains all keywords
    • e.g. ‘comparative government’ AND ‘Hague and Harrop’
    • AND NOT – exclude some keywords
    • e.g. ‘comparative government’ AND NOT ‘Hague and Harrop’
    • NEAR – contains all keywords and they are close to each other
    • e.g. ‘comparative government’ NEAR ‘Hague and Harrop’

Many websites themselves contain internal search engines; if you search the United Nations site for ‘literacy’ you are likely to discover documents there that would not be included in the results of a more general search.


5. Searching For Academic Articles

Your reading list will probably include key articles from academic journals which you can access in physical or electronic form through your university library. Nonetheless, you may be able to find additional, and in particular more recent, academic papers which you can include in your work. Indeed, this will be essential for projects and dissertations.

How do you go about a search of this kind? The most effective way is to find articles that are referenced in the papers you are assigned to read. As you become more familiar with a topic, you will find the same references appearing over and over again – and these are the ones to read. Such frequently-cited papers, plus a few current ones, will usually suffice. This method is in effect a form of quality control which eliminates the large amount of minor material thrown up by an electronic search.

If you do want to engage in an electronic search, you will need to use a bibliographic database such as Web of Knowledge. Libraries subscribe to these databases, often at considerable expense, but their use is usually free to current students. They enable you to search through academic journals seeking all articles on a particular topic (catalogued by title or topic). Google Scholar is a free to use database performing a similar function but its coverage is more uneven, and its cataloguing less advanced, than most subscription databases.

Currently, many electronic databases return only a list of titles or abstracts, not the full text, but your library may well subscribe to a particular journal in hard copy or electronic form or have a scheme whereby it can order items from other libraries on request.

The main drawback of a database search is too many results, many of marginal relevance and quality. You will need to be able to search precisely and scan lists of results quickly, relying in part on the quality of the journal and the reputation of the author. In general, it is better to engage in detail with the major articles than to attempt the impossible task of reading everything that seems relevant. Researching a topic, as opposed to writing an essay from the select works on a reading list, is much about deciding what not to read.

If you are unable to obtain access to the text of academic papers, you can usually consult abstracts (summaries) at no charge on the websites of journal publishers. Listed below are links to some of the major academic politics journals cited in our book.


6. Searching For Books

In principle, all books could be accessed electronically but we are not there yet. In fact, this is one area where the hard-copy holdings of your university’s library are likely to be most useful. Given that library holdings are arranged by topic, physical browsing of the shelves remains an effective way of identifying a quality-controlled selection of books on particular aspects of comparative politics.

You may find that your library has electronic access to some books. In addition, sites such as Coursesmart offer online textbooks, without needing a dedicated reader. If you need to search further for books, library catalogues such as the Library of Congress and the British Library are good starting points. Amazon and Google Books are also helpful.

Publishers’ websites also allow you to search for details of relevant books, including those on comparative politics specifically. The publishers of books included in the references section of our book are likely to be particularly relevant.

As with articles, so too with books: electronic searches will result in lists that are less discriminating than those on course reading lists. Before any purchase, consult the table of contents and reader reviews and check whether your library can obtain a copy on your behalf. Avoid placing all your eggs in one basket: if you are relying on a particular book to answer questions you have been unable to answer elsewhere, you would be well-advised to avoid such a risky bet by modifying your questions.


7. Searching The News

Selective use of current newspapers, periodicals and blogs can add currency and vitality to your work but overuse may detract from academic depth. In comparative politics, you are more likely to be asked to focus on the framework of institutions and ideas within which current politics takes place, rather than the contemporary politics and personalities which form the focus of most media coverage.

Again, your library will be the best route to online newspapers and periodicals. Its subscriptions will probably allow you to access and search back issues. For current news, use either the news section of your search engine or media websites such as the BBC, the Guardian, New York Times or Financial Times. The Economist offers punchy analysis.

Many of the weblinks listed by chapter on this site also contain recent information.


8. Referencing Websites And Avoiding Plagiarism

Whenever you incorporate material of any kind from a website into your own work, you are expected to reference your source. If you fail to do this, you are guilty of plagiarism – passing off the work of others as if it were your own.

So how should websites be referenced? The essential point is to give all the information needed for the reader to find your source. Compared to books and articles in paper form, websites change rapidly and are accessed through a specific internet address. Accordingly, references to websites should include both the date of access and the full internet address, in addition to the source and where possible a title (Stein, 2003, p. 22).

Recommended MLA format:

Surname, first name, ‘full title’, date of document (if available). Full web address (date accessed).

Example:

Norris, Pippa, ‘Electoral Engineering: Voting Rules and Political Behaviour’. Spring 2004. Pippa Norris website. (April 4, 2007)
An alternative format:

Author (year) ‘full title’ (full web address). Date accessed.

Example:

Supreme Court of Canada (2004) ‘The Role of the Court’ (http://www.scc-csc.gc.ca/court-cour/role/index-eng.asp). Accessed April 28, 2010.

If you are submitting your work electronically, you can if permitted use the ‘insert hyperlink’ command to add a link.


9. Further Reading

  • Buckler, S., Eynon, R. and Howard, H. (2004) Politics on the Internet: A Student Guide (London: Routledge).
  • Chadwick, A. (2006) Internet Politics: States, Citizens and New Communication Technologies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Dolowitz, P., Buckler, S. and Sweeney, F. (2008) Researching Online (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).
  • Goldsmith, J. and Wu, T. (2006) Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World (New York: Oxford University Press).
  • Hewson, C. et al. (2002) Internet Research Methods: A Practical Guide for the Social and Behavioural Sciences (London: Sage).
  • Karmack, E. and Nye, J. (2002) (eds) governance.com: Democracy in the Information Age (Washington, DC: Brookings).
  • Margolis, M. and Resnick D. (2000) Politics as Usual: The Cyberspace ‘Revolution’ (London: Sage).
  • Mueller, M. (2013) Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Stein, S. (2003) Politics on the Web: A Student Guide (Harlow: Pearson).
  • Sunstein, C. (2001) Republic.com (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
  • Tewksbury, D. and Rittenberg, J. (2012) News on the Internet: Information and Citizenship in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press).
  • Zelnick, R. and E. (2013) The Illusion of Net Neutrality: Radical Politics, Regulatory Creep, and the Real Threat to Internet Freedom (Washington, DC: Hoover Institution Press).
  • See also: Oxford Studies in Digital Politics