Magazine On-line [spring 2007]
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Sara Biliter in libraryResearch in the digital age


By Lori-Lyn Hurley

Sarah Billiter, a junior majoring in economics and political science, uses on-line resources roughly 80 percent of the time when researching to write a paper, while Elizabeth Combs, a junior psychology major, uses the Internet 100 percent of the time. “I’ve not used a book for research since coming to Transy,” Combs said.

The fact that students are conducting research on-line doesn’t necessarily mean they are using unsubstantiated sources, but with the Internet wide open to anyone who feels like posting, how do students and professors evaluate the information they find?

The answer to that question involves at least one familiar standby—guidance from the college library—along with evaluation of a source’s credibility by looking at its affiliation with known and trusted organizations as well as its overall reputation within the academic community.

“For validation purposes, I always begin with searches on the databases provided by the University, usually Jstore or Ebsco Host,” Billiter said. “When I get stuck, I reach out to Google. If I find a Web site that seems to be supported by a university, government agency, or trusted news network, I usually trust the information.”

Martha Gehringer, director of the Writing Center and instructor in writing, rhetoric, and communication, said that her task when reading students’ papers that have been written with the aid of on-line research is to decide what’s of value. “I ask myself, ‘What did this student employ in writing this paper that I should take seriously?’,” she said.

It’s an issue that chemistry professor Gerald Seebach addresses with his students, as well. “Much of the research our students take part in is based in a search engine sponsored by the American Chemical Society, which is designed for the science field,” he said. “In our area, we have to be certain that facts have been checked. We tell our students, ‘Yes, you can get some basic information from a general Internet search, but if you’re going to trust it, it has to come from the ACS database.’”

Transylvania’s library holdings include over 15,000 journal titles available on-line and more than 60 on-line databases that cover multiple disciplines.
“Our on-line search records are through the roof,” Library Director Susan Brown said. “Over the past several years, we’ve seen exponential increases—20 percent, 30 percent year to year—in how many searches are being done on our databases.”

“It’s so convenient to log on to a database,” Billiter said. “The greatest drawback to referencing books is that you have to find out the location, find the book, then search the book for relevant information. If you’re working on a project for a long period of time, books are more difficult to carry around and keep up with than documents saved on your hard drive.”

While Billiter references books and periodicals less frequently than on-line sources, she said she feels it’s important to give attention to other sources. Not everything she needs is available on-line.

“On a database like Academic Search Premier,” Brown said, “about 60 percent of the entries are full text. Students are likely to find a record that we don’t have full text for, but that we do have paper for. In that case, they’ll go to the paper.”

“I’ve rarely had trouble finding what I need through the databases in the library,” Combs said. She pointed out that she steers clear of other sorts of Internet searches. “It’s just too hard to know if an on-line source is legitimate.”

Brown said that while it may be more difficult to determine the relevance of Web sources, that doesn’t mean they’re bad sources. “There’s a lot of good information on the Internet,” she said, “but you do need to work harder at the evaluation part. When you’re looking at articles and books that have gone through a publication process, there is at least an initial level of control there. Anyone can put anything out on the Internet, so you do need to ask when looking—who’s published this?”

The possible pitfalls

Often found at the top of Google search results is the collaborative, on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia. The encyclopedia is edited by anonymous contributors, which puts it in stark contrast to the standards of expertise and credentials embraced by academia.

Barbar Fister, in an article titled “Wikipedia and the Challenge of Read/Write Culture” that appeared in Vol. 27, No. 3 of Library Issues, cited a study conducted by the prestigious science journal Nature that concluded Wikipedia’s science articles contain, on average, four errors—only slightly more than those in Encyclopædia Britannica, but Encyclopædia Britannica refutes this claim.

Gehringer said that, in a way, Wikipedia is a good thing because it’s so democratic. She pointed out that using encyclopedia as a source for writing isn’t ideal, whether the book is on-line or on the shelf. “You don’t want your college students to use encyclopedia material; you want them to go past that. You want them to have the encyclopedia as a base, then go beyond it, not rely on it,” she said.

“I do think students are tempted to misuse on-line materials more than they would be if they were handling actual paperwork,” she said.

Gehringer believes there’s an obligation on the part of professors to teach students how to tell what they’re looking at, and to teach them what they have a right to and what they don’t have a right to.

“I think you can teach students how to tell the difference between something that is shallow or not very credible material,” she said. “At first, I wondered how we would ever know what they were finding, but now I see there are ways of sorting this material.

“We who are reading these papers have figured out how to differentiate, so that the ‘.com’ stands out like neon, and we tell students, ‘Unless that’s a primary source, unless that’s something you’re looking at to analyze or comment on, be aware that I’m going to see that ‘.com’ and know this isn’t scholarly material’.”

Something gained, something lost

If the idea of on-line research conjures images of isolated students in front of their computer screens, it’s important to note that Transylvania has not seen a decrease in the number of students who use the library.

“The library is a lot more than a container for information; it’s a place where ideas can be discussed,” Brown said. “There’s an intellectual conversation being recorded in the publications, and that same conversation can be echoed by the students sitting at a library table.”

Transy’s library circulation records haven’t waned, either, but total circulation numbers reflect reserves. There has been a move from holding reserves behind the desk to placing them on Blackboard, a computer program used by professors as a chat room with students and a place to post tests, lectures, and additional course materials. When professors use Blackboard for reserves, the basic content is the same—articles, books, book chapters—but the information is easily accessed on-line.

There are obvious advantages to this migration toward digital information. “We’ve added about 20,000 books to the catalog,” said Brown. “I wouldn’t have room to add 20,000 books physically, but I can add them virtually and allow students to have access to things they would not otherwise have.”

And, at least for the length of a course, an on-line source is more stable than paper. “If we hand an article across the desk, copies are made, pages get out of order, or it goes missing,” Brown said. “If it’s on-line, it’s not going to get lost.”

Billiter said, “Another advantage to on-line research is that you can have a few resources up at a time and can easily compare information by flipping from one document to another.”

Not all of the changes that have come about as a result of Internet usage are positive, however. Gehringer said she can see how the sources she had to work with as a student were limited compared with what students have now, but much of what she remembers as vital to her as a learner and a reader had to do with the act of physically finding and sitting down with materials.

“There was so much joy in that way of acquiring information,” she said, “and I wonder what it feels like to be only accessing information on-line. Sometimes when I’m researching on-line, I wonder what it would be like to have never touched books.”

With the lines blurred between self-proclaimed experts and somehow ordained experts, writing born of the Internet can sometimes assert a validity that isn’t based on actual valid information. “As a teacher of writing, I’ve observed a difference in how students write since the Internet,” Gehringer said. “There’s a difference in the level of formality, a certain authority that is really not in the writing but that is presumed.”

She added, however, that many of her initial fears about the switch to on-line research were unfounded. “It’s a different world,” she said, “but a better one.”

While some believe we may be moving in the direction of a bookless world, Brown said she thinks paper will be around for a while, in one form or another. “A book often makes a linear argument,” she said, “and it’s formatted as a book because you are meant to read it from beginning to end. In that case, I think the paper book is still the best way to read the document.”

Brown said the Internet is great for “now” information and recent news, as opposed to the information in books, which is about two-to-five years out. “Sometimes the appropriateness of the format depends on the time issue,” she said.

Today’s students have immediate access to much more information than has been available in the past. As technology progresses, it’s anyone’s guess what the world of research will be like in 10 or 20 years. As we look forward, however, it’s important not to forget what was valuable about the past.

“Think about all those wonderful reference books in the library,” Gehringer said. “You cannot duplicate that turning of the pages. There’s something lost to the human spirit in all that. I love books, the feel of them, the smell of them, and I wonder what it’s like if you don’t even know the Oxford English Dictionary is all those volumes. Something’s lost, and we have to figure out how to get it somewhere else.”

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