Friday, December 30, 2011

Research Skills in the Age of Google: Process vs. Automation by Naomi Gold

I would begin library instruction sessions for undergraduates by emphasizing that locating research materials in the library is a process. By way of explanation, and hoping that the students were not too young to have watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” I would stress that locating and making use of library materials was not like standing on the desk of the Enterprise and addressing the on-board computer in conversational, natural language: "Computer: What are the names and coordinates of the closest planet supporting carbon-based life forms?” In that series, the on-board computer, understanding natural language, produced immediate and precise responses. Locating research materials, I would tell the students, is not like that. Rather, searches in library databases and the library catalog, especially in the initial stages of a project, usually produce a mix of results that are both useful and not-so-useful, or rather, that meet one’s needs and that don’t meet one’s needs. Even less immediate is the actual writing process, which often entails false starts, slow starts, changes of direction, and the non-linear incorporation of new, serendipitously-found materials.
I make this fact explicit because many students think of research as merely material-gathering. By contrast, research is comprised of identifying a problem or formulating a question or thesis, and then locating, evaluating, and applying appropriate materials to address the problem or support the thesis. Sometimes, of course, it is discovered that the thesis is not supported in the way the student originally envisioned, and this takes him or her off in another direction. This is a discouraging and difficult reality for many students, since the mechanics of searching and the mental process of research are often conflated in their minds. An article in the August 22, 2011 Inside Higher Ed titled “What Students Don’t Know” [1] described a reality with which many reference librarians are familiar: students make use of the Internet in the most rudimentary and superficial ways, and we need to get past the myth of the “digital native” toward whom, we have often been told, much effort must be addressed to satisfy their information-seeking habits and expectations. But their habits and expectations usually don’t encompass the necessity of process and the reality that the most important work in locating and making use of library materials remains time-consuming and reliant on the quality of the student’s thought process rather than the efficiency and omniscience of electronic resources.
Students’ Internet use has decisively formed their expectations of what library research ought to be. But databases and search engines don’t know what we’re thinking, and they produce diverse results based on the terms entered. In the search process, therefore, a variety of terms must be used in a variety of searches. In this way, the electronic medium can be seen as both giving and taking away. It has placed hundreds of thousands of items at the disposal of any member of our respective communities who have access to the Internet. And it has dissipated the reality of process, time, attention, and perseverance that remain and that always will be the basis of research and writing.
There is something inherently demanding about the electronic medium. It instills an expectation of immediacy in users. It carries an implied expectation of automation and speed. And on one level, the search process is automated, insofar as the medium by which materials are searched is electronic.  But even with all the speed and sometime-immediacy, and even in the best of all possible information-seeking platforms, research is often—especially at the higher levels—a zigzag process. It requires a series of actions. It is usually not instantaneous, nor even a linear process at times. This is to be expected, and students need to become reoriented to this reality of locating and making use of information as the process that it is. Learning how to negotiate this process, overcoming the tendency toward fragmented attention and developing sustained engagement through a series of steps that demand time and persistence, is part of the higher education experience.
Librarians have increasingly been working to provide search platforms that smooth out the clutter of our siloed resources, andthat simultaneously avoid flattening the distinctions among resources. This derives from a legitimate acknowledgement of the disparate, overlapping and confusing layers of resources. But in the main, it comes from a sense of obligation to “meet the students where they are,” or as the Dean of Academic of Cushing Academy stated in 2009, "...meet the students where they are most comfortable." [2] But no level of automation, however comprehensive and sophisticated, diminishes the need for students to be acclimated to the reality of a process that requires time to formulate a variety of search terms, and to sift, evaluate, rethink, reformulate, and consider how the results may be relevant to the proposed project.

Meeting students where they are most comfortable would entail the creation of electronic databases and library catalogs or “discovery tools” that would allow students to enter a few keywords, produce a list of relevant results, and be done. With this in mind, I persisted with the use of analogies in library orientation classes, working to engage the students and to find anchors and entry points based on their own information-seeking experiences. Seeking some element of their experience on which to pin this instruction, I would suggest that piecing together the elements of a database search, based on the database search features available, is a bit like ordering airline tickets online. I would ask them to think about what is required in that process: the use of pull-down menus, online calendars, and a myriad of other necessary features that allow them to make choices, change dates and times, and view a variety of fares as they exist for flights based in different airports. I would ask them to consider that process and then apply the experience to the process of locating and learning how to use library materials for a class. It requires siftingand piecing together and discarding and rethinking. Choices must be made and conveyed to the software. The results must be assessed and their quality and relevance considered. Students are in possession of other analogous experiences. In emphasizing that all important and potentially high-level work is the product of a process, any student who has been involved in the visual and performing arts, who has learned to play an instrument, compose music, write computer code, repair a car, compete in gymnastics or other sports, or who have engaged in or read about scientific research, has a basis for understanding that meaningful and important activities take place over time, accompanied by the building of skills and competencies. In time, students will learn that research does not consist in merely pulling up articles with promising titles, but also in evaluating those articles, rethinking and reworking ideas, examining and pursuing citations from relevant articles and books, and building a piece of writing over time. This is not accomplished in a single, or even several library sessions.
What then can we do to help habituate students to the process of university-level research? We can persistently emphasize that students should expect to perform database searches that produce a mix of relevant and irrelevant articles. We can stress that they will need to perform a variety of searches using different terms, to discover new, relevant vocabulary, and to refine their searches. We can emphasize that it is not unusual to change directions in the course of research, or to discover new elements that call for rethinking or revising a topic. We can encourage them to approach their writing as a process requiring a series of steps, including and especially evaluation and revision. Most importantly, we can work to create collaborations with faculty to embed reinforcement of the research process and accompanying library instruction throughout the undergraduate curriculum. This last item should be expanded on. Anyone involved in academia is accustomed to reading about or considering for their own institutions the integration of essential skill-sets “across the curriculum,” e.g. writing across the curriculum, critical thinking across the curriculum, and ethics across the curriculum. Learning to locate, evaluate, and skillfully make use of written materials, both academic and non-academic, electronic and non-electronic, is a skill that must be continuously practiced, reinforced, and strengthened in complexity and sophistication throughout the undergraduate curriculum. Ideally, library faculty and/or professional staff will work closely with other teaching faculty to ensure that these skills are integrated into coursework, and that accompanying library instruction constitutes an integral part of students’ academic experience. This objective will most certainly entail a process itself, a time-consuming one involving meetings between departments and library faculty, curriculum committees, and, no doubt, the formation of new committees to discuss how integrating research skills across the curriculum can be implemented.
Setting aside for a moment the benefits of the new discovery tools being introduced into libraries, the fact remains that the quality of research is only as sound as the thinking processes of the person carrying it out. And no matter how transparent and streamlined a library discovery tool may be—no matter how sophisticated the automation—the thinking and writing processes are human rather than automated, and require a process of deliberate, ongoing and explicit instruction and practice in the process of research.

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