Wednesday, June 18, 2008

on research methods and expectations

It's always interesting to hear opinions about academic libraries from non-librarians. The Burnt-Out Adjunct has some interesting comments about a piece in Inside Higher Ed covering some initiatives aimed at improving undergraduate research methods.

One of the themes that he touches on is the fragmentation of library search systems in a Google/iTunes world.
Here is where the fault lines of generational expectations come into stark relief: Profs expect students to march into the library and acquaint themselves with the subject’s/discipline’s fiefdom. If not, then the student is lazy and lacks the necessary drive or will. The Natives don’t expect to have to navigate fiefdoms. For them, at least thus far, knowledge and data have been without borders. It does not occur to them that there would be a specific database for articles about Colonial literature that is not accessible through a quick key-word search from their dorm.

So, committees will form, grants will be given and studies will recommend that individual professors seek to imbue a research skill-set into their objectives. And without a standard (either a collective standard (MLA) or an organizational approach (ie Google)), the Natives and the Profs will continue to lament just how odd, lazy, out-of-touch, etc. the other is.

I think that one of the ideas that s/he's sort of putting out there is that if search systems for academic content were really good, we wouldn't need to worry about teaching students research methods. I just don't think that's the case.

First, things like Google Scholar, general academic research databases like Academic Search Premier, already provide an experience that is pretty much akin to Google. An undergrad can go to one of these places and find three scholarly articles on a topic very easily, arguably as easily as doing a Google Search.

In order to really do good research, however, students need to know the scholarly communication system. They need to understand the differences between the various types of things that come up in a Google/Scholar search. Arguably, the scholarly communication system is getting more complex, not less, with all sorts of preprints, gray literature, blog posts, etc. getting put out there by academics.

Expectations for the research that undergraduate students do should be rising with the proliferation of digital sources, search systems, and tools for analysis. Students should be expected to cite more sources now when writing a paper on a given topic. Given all of the primary material out there in digital archives of various types, they should be using more primary sources, and doing more sophisticated things with those sources.

This is only logical given the networked world that college graduates will work. I don't care what industry you go into: law, medicine, business, higher ed, things are getting more complex and globalized, and you need to be able to find, organize, analyze, and manage huge amounts of information to be successful.

Academic libraries will only survive and thrive with rising expectations about research. If students just need to submit those three articles, Google Scholar will replace us and we'll whither away.

Interestingly, the piece in Inside Higher Ed does not use the term "information literacy" anywhere. I think that it has gone out of style.

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