Dear ACRL Framework: the expert researcher is a myth

Back when the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy was introduced, one of the key improvements between it and the Standards that had come before it (at least to my mind) was the way that it distinguished between the behaviors of novice researchers who are still developing their understanding of research practices and expert researchers. Rather than making it seem like there was some hard line between being information literate and not, the Framework shows that information literacy learning develops along a spectrum

I’ve never had a reason to question the Framework’s use of the word “expert” before. It never even occurred to me to do so. After all, if we’re talking about a spectrum of research experience, it makes sense that with “novice” at one end of that spectrum, “expert” would be at the other. But lately I’ve been doing some reading in the writing studies field that got me wondering a little bit.

First, I started to wonder how, exactly, we know how an expert researcher thinks about the research process or what their behaviors are. The Framework does not cite any sources that establish where these traits come from or what they’re based on. They seem to be things we as a profession just “know” about how experts do research.

So then I started wondering: is this really how experts do research? Personally, on the spectrum of “novice” to “expert,” I consider myself much closer to the “expert” end of things than the “novice” end, at least when it comes to the research contexts in which I work most often. I do find my own practices and ways of thinking reflected in some of the Framework’s descriptions. For example, from the Scholarship as Conversation frame: “Experts understand that, while some topics have established answers through this process, a query may not have a single uncontested answer. Experts are therefore inclined to seek out many perspectives, not merely the ones with which they are familiar.” I definitely recognize this from my own recent research projects, especially the one where I’m exploring why creative research often isn’t taught as formal part of creative writing programs in higher education. There’s no easy answer there and I’ve read some 70 sources to learn as much as I can about the different ways of thinking creative writing professors and other writing studies experts have about the role of pedagogy in their field. This isn’t something I would expect my undergraduate students, many of whom are closer to the “novice” end of the spectrum, to take the time to do, even if they had it.

Other “expert” practices the Framework describes are less applicable to my own work. For example, from the Searching as Strategic Exploration frame: “Experts realize that information searching is a contextualized, complex experience that affects, and is affected by, the cognitive, affective, and social dimensions of the searcher. Novice learners may search a limited set of resources, while experts may search more broadly and deeply to determine the most appropriate information within the project scope. Likewise, novice learners tend to use few search strategies, while experts select from various search strategies, depending on the sources, scope, and context of the information need.” As an expert researcher, I understand that there’s value in searching broadly and deeply and trying different search strategies. I believe I’m much more resilient in this respect than a novice researcher would be. But do I search broadly and deeply? Do I select from various strategies? Not really. As someone who’s been doing research in the same or similar areas for a long time, I know what works and I pretty much stick to that. This includes strategies students don’t always think to employ–like using the works cited list in a useful source to identify other possibly useful sources–but I don’t waste a lot of time selecting search strategies to get what I need. Mostly I feel like I don’t need to.

There are other behaviors and ways of thinking that we often teach students about that I frankly don’t do. For example, concept maps. Or coming up with elaborate search strategies. Or gathering all of your sources before you start writing. None of this is mentioned in the Framework but when we teach, we often present them as if doing research in this systematic and organized way is somehow the mark of an expert. Or at all realistic. (Which it isn’t.)

Now, obviously I’m basing all of this on my own experience and practices. But I’m willing to bet that there are many highly experienced researchers out there, especially ones outside the library field, who would look at the Framework’s description of an “expert researcher” and not recognize themselves in it.

This makes me want to know even more what the Framework is basing its ideas about an “expert researcher” on if it doesn’t come from any established model or, I suspect, real world behavior.

Personally, I think the expert researcher is a myth.

I think what the Framework describes isn’t so much an expert researcher as an ideal researcher.

This is similar to an idea I’ve run into in some of the sources I’ve been reading from the writing studies field: the sublime reader. The sublime reader is someone who is knowledgeable about and has appreciation for the use of craft in a written work. Students in writing workshops are ostensibly always writing in order to please the sublime reader.

Like the expert researcher, the sublime reader is a myth. The sublime reader is less a person than a rubric against which writing is evaluated to decide whether it meets certain standards when it comes to its use of craft and form. Those standards are not based on any sort of objective study (how could they be?) but instead on lore about what qualifies as “good” writing or what a “good” writer can do (or should be doing).(1)

I wonder if the expert researcher described in the Framework is, similar to the sublime reader, the product of lore based on what information literacy experts think “good” research looks like or what a “good” researcher should do or how they should think. It’s not based on reality. It’s based on an ideal.

What makes this interesting is that our field does have a lot of research on how different populations do research. It would be interesting, I think, to compare the findings of some of these studies, especially ones that take the practices of experienced researchers, to what the Framework describes. I suspect the Framework gets a lot right, especially when it comes to academic and scholarly researchers. But I’m guessing what’s present in the Framework is more of an ideal than a reality.


1. The problem with the sublime reader, if you couldn’t guess, is that the standards this idea reflects tend to emphasize the practices of white, male, or otherwise privileged writers. This puts students who are not themselves white, male, or otherwise privileged in the awkward position of having to either tailor their writing to these standards or have their writing considered “less than” because it doesn’t follow them.

2 thoughts on “Dear ACRL Framework: the expert researcher is a myth

  1. A general observation here…I think for a number of reasons we have corrupted the word “expert” in our society. Maybe a simpler way to put that is we’ve dumbed it down, or reset the bar lower. I have always been sarcastic when I hear someone is deemed an expert because I usually am given no specific criteria from which to base it on. If you tell me what they’ve actually worked on, achieved, etc. than I can decide for myself if they have knowledge “above and beyond.”


  2. Thanks for this interesting piece. There’s a lot here to chew on, but when we started to create frameworks for information literacy in the UK twenty years or so ago we were railroaded down the route of skills and expertise because that satisfied the political discourse at the time. What I tried to emphasise then was that this was not simply about skills, and that the pinnacle of information literacy would be a form of wisdom rather than mere expertise. Now I actually know a bit more about wisdom I would press this more strongly, and suggest that information literacy at the top end is a combination of attributes akin to phronetic wisdom. This also brings the ethical dimension much more strongly into play, and makes information literacy an excellence which does have a sense of what good is. This has considerable consequences for the way it is conceived and taught, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

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