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Just ‘Cause it’s Scholarly Don’t Make it Right

Choices by Flickr user Caleb Roenigk

Choices by Flickr user Caleb Roenigk

Last week at work looked a little something like this: Teaching, EndNote battle round 1, Reference Desk, EndNote battle round 2, Research Consultation with mildly concerned student, Lunch? Lunch! Research Consultation with deer-in-headlights-looking student, Teaching, Reference Desk with messed up printer (repeat).

The highlights of my week? Definitely the research consultations. I always feel most like a librarian when I’m meeting with a student or faculty member puzzling out the best ways to approach their literature review and research. I met with several psychology students working on their senior thesis projects (called St. Mary’s Projects or SMPs for short). Each student was at a different point in his/her research but they were all doing the exact same thing: Searching PsycINFO.

On the surface, the librarian in me should be proud. Students are consulting a library database for scholarly, peer-reviewed material instead of visiting http://www.psychologyresearchforyou.com for sources of questionable content (note: not a real site…yet). But the librarian in me is not proud. In fact, the librarian in me is cringing inside. After years of teaching the mechanics and benefits of using PsycINFO to students in psychology research methods classes I have come to realize that PsycINFO is all they know.

One of the SMP students I met with was clearly at the beginning of her research, trying to explore opportunities for research within a broad subject area. She would have GREATLY benefited from consulting a handbook or similar physical volumes that would have given her a better sense of the scope of research being done within her area of interest. Instead she was frantically plugging keywords into PsycINFO, trying to make sense of the very specific and not very helpful articles in her results list.

Another student was conducting a fascinating study about international students’ acculturation processes on our campus, but was again consulting PsycINFO for statistics on international students in the U.S. higher education system and coming up short.

Then there were the students whose research required resources with a different focus (like Pubmed, ERIC, or Business Source Complete). Half of them had never even heard of these databases.

As my week progressed I saw that this method of research was not (surprise!) a psychology isolated incident. Several political science SMP students needed a wide variety of information to start answering some of their research questions: statistics/data, policy papers, topic overviews, government reports, etc. But where were they starting their research? In JSTOR.

So here’s where I take a step back, stare at them in poorly hidden surprise, quickly recover my professional face and show them the magic of the internet and other library resources. All the while I can’t help but think: Librarians and college professors, is this our fault?

Our intentions were good. We wanted our students to know about the world of scholarly publishing. We wanted them to read and analyze peer-reviewed material that had a solid theoretical foundation and excellent research. We wanted them to know that using these kinds of sources in their own papers and presentations added credibility to their arguments and made their own research stronger.

But that’s not what they got from us. What they got from us was this:

SCHOLARY = GOOD. USE JSTOR.

NOT SCHOLARLY = BAD. STAY AWAY FROM THE INTERNET AND THINGS THAT DON’T COME FROM SCHOLARLY JOURNALS.

It’s simplistic, but I see it in the political science student who really needs to read the NY Times or Washington Post to get a better handle on the world event she’s analyzing, but instead downloads an esoteric article from JSTOR that s/he won’t understand very well and probably won’t read. I see it in the psychology student who doesn’t want to look at an online reference entry on her psychological concept because she can’t cite it in her paper, even though she can’t clearly articulate what this concept means. When I teach students about resources like PsycINFO or JSTOR I know that these are just two tools in a vast information toolkit, but do they?

Are Students Just Lazy?

If we wanted to shift the blame completely to our students–and let’s be honest, we all wish we could do that sometimes–we could view this monomaniacal searching behavior as an expression of laziness. They’ve traded in one easy search practice (plug it into Google) for another (plug it into JSTOR/PsycINFO/etc.). Their professors only want scholarly sources and they can find those sources in a library database, so why look anywhere else? I have heard students say they use only JSTOR because it contains the full-text of articles. They don’t seem to know or mind that the latest 5 years of research is often not included in their search results. They just know that they can access and download a scholarly article to meet whatever requirements their professor has set for a research paper or presentation. It’s an easy fix for a research need.

But What Does That Say About Us?

Even if we assume laziness on the part of our students, we do have to concede that we are, in some ways laying the groundwork for this laziness. Somewhere, at this very minute,  an instruction librarian is teaching a group of students how to distinguish between popular and scholarly sources. This librarian may have brought in a few copies of print journals and magazines to illustrate a few key differences in the material, but really the whole point of the lesson was to set the stage for where students would be going to find such authoritative research: a library database.

Last fall I attended a workshop hosted by the Maryland Information Literacy Exchange (MILEX) which was mostly about practical in-class instruction models (i.e. This is how I teach website evaluation). Only one presentation dipped into the murky waters of WHY we teach research sources to students the way we do. As librarians we often fall prey to the scholarly/not scholarly dichotomy, urging our students to consult sources that are “authoritative” and “credible.” In their MILEX presentation, Joel Burkholder and Laura Wukovitz presented an alternative approach to teaching source evaluation. They used rhetorical analysis to examine any source (websites, articles, books, etc.), focusing on its author, audience, purpose, and the greater context in which it exists. (They have a libguide with assignment examples and activities if you’re interested.)

This approach to teaching students resource evaluation leads to fundamental shift in the way students think about “sources.” According to Burkholder (who’s also written a great article on this topic), there are no “good sources” and “bad sources;” only helpful and unhelpful sources (I paraphrase because I can’t find my notes. Sorry, Joel!).

Let’s think about that again shall we? There are only helpful and unhelpful sources.

By freeing ourselves from the scholarly/popular sources dichotomy (which inevitable sets students up to look for “good” sources and stay away from the “bad”) we open our teaching, and as a result, our students, up to an amazing variety of resources. We don’t just have to focus on the scholarly articles that live in PsycINFO and similar databases. Our students are free to choose sources that best suit their information needs, instead of trying to find a scholarly article–any scholarly article–that tangentially mentions their research topic.

This does of course, mean more work for professors and librarians. I had a colleague admit that sending students to JSTOR was the easiest way to ensure that they were looking at quality research. This is true, but in taking this easy way out we’re not arming students with the skills necessary to find and evaluate the kind of information that lives outside of academic research databases. It is a lot more work to teach students why they would want to use a reference book or a Wikipedia article to get a better handle on their research topic or why it’s ok to include information from a website with a clear bias as long as you acknowledge their agenda in your writing. It’s not easy to teach the messy process of looking for reliable statistical information online or introduce the vast arena of policy institute research that may or may not lean left or right.

This kind of teaching also takes time, specifically time in a classroom, something that librarians often find themselves struggling to obtain from teaching faculty. There is no way to work through the nuances of the vast array of information available to students in a particular discipline in a one-shot class, or even in multiple sessions for one course. This kind of instruction requires a fully integrated information literacy curriculum across the discipline, where students have the opportunity to read and analyze different types of information, not just create the standard plug and chug term paper and call it research.
Check out the always thought-provoking Barbara Fister for her thoughts on the dreaded research paper and alternatives to it.

I have quite a few classes left to teach this semester and although many of the instructors I’m working with have very standard goals for their library sessions (find books in the library, find articles in databases) I’m trying to think of ways in which might be able to work in some of the critical thinking skills that will take students away from thinking that “scholarly” is always best.

3 Comments

  1. mirandabennett

    This is terrific, Veronica! I’ve thought a lot about the “there are no bad sources or good sources” thing and am glad to hear it is being discussed. It has always struck me as strange that there’s not more talk about it, given that composition classes–usually all about rhetoric–are the bread and butter of most library instruction programs. I’ve also thought that another interesting way to approach this issue is to consider scenarios in which using scholarly sources could actually harm your argument–not everyone in your audience may see college professors as the most reliable sources of unbiased information, after all!

  2. Miranda, your last suggestion–considering scenarios in which using scholarly sources could actually harm your argument–reminds me of a class I taught earlier this month. The students read an older opinion piece from the Chronicle of Higher Ed about using the place of Wikipedia in college research and writing, and although the author (an academic, of course) was very pro Wikipedia, the students had a really negative reaction to her writing. They thought that by laying all of her academic credentials on the table in the article she came across as “snooty” and they were less likely to be convinced by her argument even though it was one they agreed with before reading her opinion piece!

    I also am surprised that comp classes haven’t approached teaching research sources in this way.

  3. Pingback: What Good is This Source? | The Formerly Freelance Librarian

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