The Shallows, Part II: Research in the Digital Age

Perhaps the biggest change I’ve noticed in writing—both in my own work and in my teaching of writing—has been in the area of research. When I taught my first technical composition class in 1989, students still used big green volumes of The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature to find articles, were limited by both time and scope to the hours when the library was open and the contents of their particular library, and had to photocopy articles (or take meticulous notes) for later reference and citations.

For someone of my generation, the plethora of high-quality digital content and online databases (especially those available through university and large metropolitan libraries), the ability to do research 24/7, and the ease of cut-and-paste citations seem just short of miraculous. Truly. I do not take for granted how much easier it is to research a subject not just more widely, but more deeply.

However, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. “Back in the day” (as my son’s generation likes to say), if students were so inclined to plagiarize, they at least had to go to the trouble of retyping the stolen passages. While it has always been tempting to put off writing until the last minute, procrastinated research was much harder to do well when we needed physical library access to read the articles. Also, although there were fewer sources to find and choose from, it was easier to discern what was reliable and credible from what was not.

Cover of The ShallowsIn the The Shallows, Nicholas Carr suggests two more dangers: if we’re not careful, our research may become narrower and less thorough. He cites an extensive study of academic journals:

“As more journals moved online, scholars actually cited fewer articles than they had before. And as old issues of printed journals were digitized and uploaded to the Web, scholars cited more recent articles with increasing frequency.” p. 217

When we do a database search for a specific topic, the articles are often delivered in order of publication, with the most recent at the top of the list. It takes discipline and patience to scroll through five or ten or even fifty pages of results to be sure that we’re finding not just the most recent or the requisite number of sources, but the best ones.

Another potential problem is that we will quote from and base arguments on sources that we haven’t read. Carr writes of a Rhodes Scholar who “doesn’t see any reason to plow through chapters of text when it takes but a minute or two to cherry-pick the pertinent passages using Google Book Search” (p. 8). The danger of cherry-picking is that we can easily misrepresent an author’s intention or even seem to recommend a book, based on “pertinent passages,” that contains other passages with which we might strongly disagree or find objectionable, or that even might counteract our own argument.

For example, parts of my book The Homeschooling Option are available on Google Books. If someone were doing a word search, this passage may come up: ‘homeschools are considered to be private schools. with homeschooling requirements falling under private school regulations,” and the writer may quote the passage without knowing that the first part of the sentence is “In some states…” A minor mistake, perhaps, but one that is easier and easier to make when we don’t have the entire text in front of us.

In no way do I want to give up the advantages of digital research. I love being able to read the latest articles and essays on a variety of topics. But we can also be careful to research wisely. Here are a few guidelines for using electronic databases that I tell my students and that I try to follow in my own work:

  • Take the time to familiarize yourself with the databases you use: what publications they contain, their particular search term guidelines and quirks, and how results are delivered.
  • When you find a database article you think you might use, immediately email it to yourself or save it (on your computer or a flash drive), so that you don’t need to hunt for it later.
  • While reading sources, be careful to distinguish between direct quotations you plan to use and paraphrases. Purdue’s Online Writing Lab has an excellent explanation of the differences between quotations, paraphrases, and summaries (and they all need to be cited).
  • While I know it uses paper, I still suggest that students print (double-sided) their most important research articles so that they can refer to them easily while they are writing their paper, without having to move between tabs.
  • Finally, don’t quote substantially from a source or use it as part of your argument unless you are familiar with and have read the entire work (this includes books). Time-consuming? Yes, but this kind of thoroughness and diligence will set you apart from the cherry-pickers and may even save some embarrassment.

Other posts in The Shallows book review series: