Let’s start a conversation: Context matters in research

Image by stevepb on Pixabay

Recently, I listened to an episode of the In Our Time podcast about Emily Noether, a brilliant mathematician who worked with Einstein. After listening to the episode, I was interested in learning more about her. So I looked her up on Wikipedia and read an article all about her life and work.

Was Wikipedia an appropriate source for me to consult in this case?

Many of my students would tell you no.

With all due respect to those students, they are wrong.

The reason my students would tell you that Wikipedia is not an appropriate source is because this has been drilled into them as far back as high school, if not earlier. Citing Wikipedia as a source of information in a research essay is a good way to get a failing grade, they tell me. You should only cite scholarly, peer-reviewed sources, they insist, proud that I have not managed to trick them into saying otherwise. Or possibly a bit smug that they have saved me from an embarrassing mistake in my thinking.

Here’s the thing.

It’s true that Wikipedia shouldn’t be cited as a source for an academic research paper. Despite what some professors will tell you, this has less to do with concerns about the quality of the content and more to do with the fact that the conventions of academic research are such that Wikipedia, fairly or not, is not considered an appropriate source for this type of research. Also Wikipedia is easy and academic research shouldn’t be easy.

But if you’re just looking to satisfy your curiosity? Wikipedia is fine. (Complicated, but fine.)

Conversely, seeking out a scholarly article isn’t appropriate in every context. Which is to say, it wouldn’t have been wrong for me to seek out scholarly works by Emily Noether or ones that cite her if I wanted to learn more about her work (assuming I have access to that information, which I generally do because I’m affiliated with a university). It just would have been overkill, like bring a bazooka to a knife fight. It also might not have been that helpful since my lack of expertise in physics and math would have limited my understanding of what I was reading.

All of this implies that research is contextual in nature. Meaning, the methods you use and the sources you look for (and where you look for them) are going to be different depending on the goals and motivations of the research you’re doing. The type of research you do for a college essay is not going to be the same as the type of research you do in a professional environment. And the type of research you do in one profession is not going to be the same as the type of research you do in another profession.

To be an effective researcher, you have to be able to successfully engage with the different expectations and conventions of research in different contexts. This means understanding that while scholarly articles are the gold standard for academic and scholarly research, they are not the gold standard for all types of research or information seeking.

Traditionally, information literacy instruction doesn’t teach this, even though at its most basic level information literacy is all about teaching learners how to effectively find, evaluate, and use information. While information literacy has aspirations toward transferability across contexts, the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, which shaped information literacy instruction for a long time, were such that the skills being taught (and assessed) were mostly only applicable to library-based academic research.

The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy has given information literacy instructors the opportunity to expand beyond these confines. I shared some initial ideas for how in my article “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” which I’ll also be talking about as part of a webcast for the ACRL 2019 Conference later this week. But my real hope is to turn this into a conversation with others who might be interested in these ideas and can help shape and refine them (and also challenge them).

This is especially important because so far my ability to test these ideas has been limited. I’m lucky to work somewhere where I have a lot of flexibility when it comes to the content of the information literacy courses I teach and I have found ways to introduce some of these concepts in those courses. But the larger changes I would like to make have been a little out of reach, at least so far.

I’m hoping this blog will become a space for that conversation. If you’re interested in starting that conversation, I’d love to hear from you.

Until then, I will continue to try to make fetch happen.


P.S. If you’re familiar with the In Our Time podcast, you know that each episode comes with a reading list. You might be wondering why I wouldn’t use that to learn more about Emily Noether instead of Wikipedia. I did look at the reading list in this case. All of the resources on it were books, a few of which I added to my “to be read” list, but mostly I just wanted a quick overview, so Wikipedia worked better. Also it’s more convenient for the point I’m trying to make if I skip that part of the story. So. Yeah.

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