February 6, 2001

Student Usage of Online Research Sources Assessed

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More and more stacks of books and periodicals are going unused in university libraries, as the Internet provides a new venue for students to attain sources for research purposes.

“Students are using the Internet because of one word: convenience. Students are often doing [research papers] the night before at two or three in the morning when the library isn’t open,” said Phillip Davis, life sciences librarian at Mann Library.

Cornell University librarians conducted a study of student tendencies to use Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) and World Wide Web addresses in undergraduate research papers in Prof. John M. Abowd’s Economics 101 class. The study, conducted from 1996 to 1999, found that URL references increased from nine to 21 percent, while book references dropped from 30 to 19 percent.

Abowd encourages students to use the Internet in their research papers, but with caution.

“I use the C.U. reference librarians to help teach the students how to distinguish good, long-term reliable URLs from ones that are either not reliable (not authoritative) or transient (not available after a short period of time),” Abowd said.

The downside to using the Internet as a source of information for academic purposes is its lack of consistent credibility. The Internet allows for reliable sources with academic integrity, as well as for popular and less intellectually respected sources. Davis believes the responsibility of discerning between the two lies with the instructor.

“I really think that the professors need to provide better guidelines for students,” Davis said. “If they want to see better research papers they are going to have to set more rehearsed guidelines for what is more respected material.”

A disturbing trend noted in the research pointed to the fact that up to 80 percent of the sources students used no longer existed by the time the paper was examined.

“Without a doubt students take advantage of the fact that professors might not check Internet sites,” said Allison Tarr ’03. “The searches are so much easier to do, you just type in a word and come up with so much more information. It compiles from everywhere,” Tarr added.

The students themselves can discern what a credible source can be, suggested Tarr, who will sooner go to a source she would normally look up in the library for a hard copy.

“I go to sites that I’ve used before in the library. I could just as easily go to the library and have the same information,” she said.

Another drawback to library research for some students is the amount of material a student has to go through to find information and the potentially confusing search engines of the library catalogue.

“I think students definitely need a lot more training at the library for using search engines. A lot of researching at the library is really intimidating,” said Elizabeth Goss ’03. Goss believes that students would rather work with a system they are more familiar with, such as the Internet, than search databases at the library.

However, Abowd still believes that the library is still the most credible and reliable source for good information, regardless of the medium.

“The Cornell library is a world leader in providing digital information. The question is less the medium (bound v. digital) and more the certification of authenticity and authority — two functions that libraries perform very well regardless of how they deliver the product,” Abowd said.

In this new digital age the question of academic integrity when citing sources is less clear with respect to the Internet. Often it is difficult to check on a site that may not exist or that may have changed over time.

“I try to teach my students in their projects to use reliable, authoritative URLs and I instruct TAs to take points off for URLs that do not deliver the indicated citation. I strongly urge students to become proficient in locating and using good web sources by providing specific training in doing economics research in collaboration with the CU reference librarians, who are very good at demonstrating this,” Abowd said.

The library continues to be the most reliable source for information, according to Davis, who urges students to continue to use what he considers to be a great asset.

“If students are not using the library then they’re really missing out on their education. If faculty aren’t able to guide their students to scholarly wealth then they’re both losing,” Davis said.

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata