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The Internet and Academic Research: A Happy Symbiosis?

Can MA and PhD graduates do without the Internet? No they can’t. Neither can academics, for that matter. What, then, has changed from 20 years ago, when academic research still involved a compulsory trip to the library? Certainly not the library, nor the basic services it provides. We have, though.

Senior faculty members seem to enjoy repeating it: graduate students don’t need to work as hard ‘as we once did’. Students, to them, have become overly comfortable and idle. Truth or myth?

Let’s assume this to be true for a moment. Then the Internet would be to blame, surely? But how exactly do we justify such allegation?

And how could the greatest information tool be responsible for a shift in attitudes to research writing?

Prospective graduates have asked me: “Johan, I plan to do an MA in Linguistics. Can you give me some ideas on good topics?” On the surface, nothing seems amiss with such request. And yet, I know that this question comes from a student who, unfortunately, holds an incorrect or even plain wrong view of doing research. Not because s/he should necessarily think of a topic by him/herself. But the message seems clear: s/he has not (yet) taken the time to sit down and contemplate the matter.

Some students state to have ‘consulted’ online sources, but that they are overwhelmed by the sheer number of topics they find there.

Today’s graduate students prefer to have instant answers. Google provides them. But professors are still a kind of safety mechanism they can fall back on. The modern student wants to do an MA or PhD and ‘needs a topic’. Much like the way we approach an online Q&A session.

Some graduate students fail to understand that the comfort of the Internet doesn’t absolve them from the responsibility to think and make decisions by themselves.

I admit that, at times, the same goes for me: I get sidetracked to that online comfort zone. More than I care for, at least. While reading a blog post, I click on a link to a photography site. From the photography site, I do some online shopping for camera equipment. All this while I am supposed to research a topic for an upcoming article. The Internet is changing our attitudes to research writing. And it does so big time.

We have wide, easy and continuous access to research material. But the pitfall of that online comfort zone looms large.

The Web has conditioned us in expecting to find the information we need really quick. If we don’t find what we’re looking for, we can always find a secondary source with less relevant and reliable information.

We often resemble armchair screen-gazing researchers with an acquired lack of patience, falling victim to often useless information.

We take shortcuts to needed information rather than assessing it, constantly plugged in to social networks – rendering our work both more diverting and more stressful.

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly don’t complain about the fact that I can research articles from the comfort of my home. Long live Google Scholar and my library’s free access to online journals!

But online research has negative effects we all need to heed. Academic luxury only goes that far.

If I work on my literature review through Google, I am collecting isolated fragments that still need to connect to secondary information and consequently put in a larger framework. If not, I might fail to correctly place my research in the larger research context.

Isolating specific keywords on a page while ignoring some relevant similar research does not help me in the long term to understand the bigger picture of what I’m doing research on.

Unsuspecting students and academics are besieged by an overdose of online information that may or may not be reliable or relevant.

Although patience is required in such case, it often feels like a waste of time to dig deeper for that much needed needle in the haystack.

We might choose to move on and settle for an easier-to-find but less reliable source ranked on Google’s first two pages.

Google gives us instant access to loads & loads of information. But what we need in researching an academic topic is mostly not at the top of its list. It’s hidden away on page 42 of a paper that is ranked on Google’s page 7. Patience and persistence is what’s called for when reviewing literature review online. A lot of patience, actually.

Then there’s freely available software like SPSS to ‘simplify’ things for us. Analysis of numerical research data is hardly feasible without it. And it saves you a huge amount of time. At least, that’s the message we professors are supposed to give our students.

But even this apparent blessing comes at a price.

When using SPSS, do you really understand what it’s telling you? And do you, by any chance, feel pressured to use it because ‘other researchers state they did so’?

A statistical software program might spit out numbers you fail to grasp fully. What exactly represents a p-value? What is standard deviation? And standard error? How many of us, academics, have never put anything in a table or figure without understanding its full scope? Very few, I reckon.

Analyzing online material poses an increasing challenge to young researchers. It’s up to educators to inform them on the disadvantages and pitfalls of these research methods.

A first step in doing so could be to advise graduate students on how to search for academic information online. The basic question to address here: why don’t search engines give us what we need?

A second step will be to demonstrate that if you have the patience to look at data, you will be rewarded – as you would be after a safe investment you did years ago. Shouldn’t research be about patient and persistent problem solving, after all? The Internet and statistical software go a long way in helping us, but they also place us in a kind of fake comfort zone. A zone in which we need not linger too long.