February 18, 2003

Ease of Net Research Creates New Problems

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Online research has increased significantly over the past few years, but basic written requirements from professors might redirect students’ search for credible sources, according to the third part of a recent study by Philip M. Davis, life sciences librarian. The study is entitled “Effect of the Web on Undergraduate Citation Behavior: Guiding Student Scholarship in a Networked Age.”

According to his report, which appears in the latest edition of the library sciences journal Portal, the use of book citations by undergraduates has dropped rapidly from the 30-percent mark it held in 1996. Davis’s main concern focuses on student discretion when selecting reliable sources. His study states that the University has seen a 44-percent drop in the number of reference questions asked to librarians, which indicates decreasing library use. During the same time period, the use of web-based sources has increased.

“The study puts numbers to something that we knew was undeniably happening,” Davis said. “Numerical arguments tend to make strong arguments.”

For his five-year study, Davis used a Microeconomics 101 class taught by John M. Abowd, Edmund Ezra Day Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations. In 2000, Abowd and Davis told students about the use of scholarly sources and proper citation for a semester project. These verbal instructions had little effect on the work.

A year later, Abowd wrote basic requirements on assignment handouts, enforcing a minimum for scholarly source usage and proper citation. Failure to follow these requirements resulted in grade penalties. Davis said that students’ use of citations reflected these written guidelines.

Abowd stated that students have been “scrupulously honest” with citing web-based sources. However, he says that the main problem lies in distinguishing relevant material.

“We are trying to teach the students how to assess the credentials of the person whose opinion or results they are citing. The Internet makes it easy to find a lot of apparently relevant material. It doesn’t make it any easier to separate the good information from the bad,” Abowd stated.

Cited URLs that were still valid after six months increased from 55 percent in 1999 to 82 percent in 2001. Web citations also decreased to 13 percent in 2001 from a high of 22 percent in 2000.

“Setting minimum guidelines in assignments ensures that students will attempt to identify relevant scholarly literature in their subject field. There need to be expectations and punishments,” Davis said.

According to Abowd, TAs checked all of the sources referenced by students. Students were unaware that they were the subjects of the study. Abowd said the main point of the project was to encourage the use of reliable resources outside of the Internet.

“The main implication for the real-world assignment that I simulate is that bosses and supervisors need to stress the importance of using good research sources when they assess a work assignment,” Abowd stated.

Davis emphasizes that the Internet should not be phased out of research, but rather be used with discretion, since research can be harder than it seems.

“We can’t fool ourselves that a Google search is equal to scholarly research,” he said. “The Internet gives a false impression of the difficulty of what goes into research.”

In addition to the study, Abowd invited librarians to introduce his students to University library resources.

However, most students still feel that Internet research is faster and much more efficient.

“It’s time-consuming to go to the library to find and search for books. Staying in your dorm and using the Internet is a lot easier,” said Christine Gallati ’06.

Brett Owens ’03 believes that search engines such as Google are less time-consuming than researching in the library. He said that for one of his writing classes, “The only reason why I used print sources was because it was required.”

“I think it’s easier to go on the web for legitimate sources,” said Ann Zatsman ’05.

Even with the perceived advantages of online sources, Davis hopes his message catches on and that other faculty members will help emphasize the use of a variety of sources.

“We are privileged to have such a deep library collection. If students don’t take advantage of it, they are really missing out,” Davis said.

Archived article by Brian Tsao