[This post was originally published on March 9, 2012.]
It’s research paper time in high schools and colleges across the country. I know about the high schools because my younger son is writing a research paper as part of his senior project. I’m reminded once again how easy it is these days to write a bad research paper. Students at least used to have to type up the words and ideas they got from print sources. Now they can electronically cut and paste together a bad paper in no time at all. With the freedom of the Internet comes so much online junk that they don’t have to be discriminating users of search engines. Maybe they don’t really believe the first source listed on Google is the best. It may just be the easiest. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they have grown up as Googlers, but they may not have been taught how to find the good sources among all the chaff. (The first step is to teach them that Wikipedia may provide some quick information, but it is hardly an authoritative source.)
[Photo: Research Papers on Flickr]
My son’s school tries to limit the sources the students access by introducing them to DISCUS: South Carolina’s Virtual Library! I found trying to help him locate sources via DISCUS too limiting. A search based on what seemed very logical search terms would produce no sources, where a Google search of the same terms would produce thousands. It’s not easy teaching students how to locate the happy medium in between.
They need to learn that there are databases like LexisNexis Academic and Academic Online that do much of the discriminating for them. They need to learn what databases their campus library subscribes to and how to access them–and why they are better for some course projects than more general databases. For information on the very most up-to-date news, however, they need to know which of these databases are updated daily. Journals may be wonderful sources for most academic research, but the time lag before they appear in print prevents their being the timeliest. Databases that include newspapers and weekly magazines will be more useful for researching this week’s headlines. Students can use a general search engine like Google if they develop an eye for legitimate sources. Is it a reputable publication, available online? Is it recognized as being biased politically? Is it even clear whose site it is? Is it a government site? How does that affect its usefulness as a source?
We may have to educate ourselves about the types of sources our students use or should use. After all, many of us did our college research papers back in the days when the process still required going to the library.