Rethinking research in the Google era

As the internet replaces library databases as students’ primary research option, a new discussion is emerging in academic circles: Is the vast amount of information at students’ fingertips changing the way they gather and process information for the better–or for worse?

In a recent Atlantic Monthly article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” author Nicholas Carr asserts that technology has changed the way we think, making our minds a “high-speed data-processing” machine under the influence of internet search engines. But he questions whether this development has led to a focus on surface-level skimming at the expense of deeper reading.

Carr believes his extensive use of online search engines has caused him to become bored with traditional reading, saying that his concentration “often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. … The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

He refers to a study, called “Information Behavior of the Researchers of the Future,” commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, which seeks to identify how students are likely to access and interact with digital resources in from five to 10 years.

Like Carr, the study says people who use the internet for research have very specific and identifiable habits. For example, they tend to seek information horizontally–meaning they skim, or bounce from page to page, without reading in depth and rarely return to a previous source. About 60 percent of electronic journal users view no more than three pages, the study found, and 65 percent never return.

Web researchers also exhibit “squirreling” behavior, or the tendency to squirrel away content in the form of downloads–especially when there are free offers. However, there is no evidence of the extent to which these downloads are actually read.

Perhaps the best description of this new web habit is “power browsing,” or scanning, flipping, and flicking a path through digital content to get to the information a person is seeking.

The study also reveals statistics about students’ preference for web researching.

For instance, 89 percent of college students use search engines to begin an information search, the study found–while only 2 percent start from a library web site.

Meris Stansbury

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