A pair of cyber librarians share lessons learned from a 3,000-person survey.
GUEST COLUMN | by Caity Selleck and Emily Gover
As the two information literacy librarians here at Imagine Easy Solutions, the company behind educational products like EasyBib and ResearchReady, we get a unique opportunity to learn a lot from our 40 million users about how students are doing research in the 21st century.
Earlier this year we ran a survey on our platform EasyBib.com, a citation and research management tool, asking our users about how they do research. The exact question we asked was, “What technologies do you need to be successful in research?” Because we didn’t want to limit students’ answers, we provided a free-text answer form. We gathered nearly 3,000 responses in a matter of weeks and started analyzing the data to see what trends we could find.
Sorting through thousands of free-text responses resulted in some amusing, offensive, but ultimately fascinating findings.
Sorting through thousands of free-text responses resulted in some amusing, offensive, but ultimately fascinating findings. After removing all the gibberish and expletive-ridden responses, we determined the following:
- Over a third of the students we surveyed mentioned computers as necessary to help them with research (not terribly surprising, by any means).
- 23% of the students said laptops.
- About 20% of the students mentioned the Internet.
- 250 students (or 8%) said that an iPad (or an “iProduct” of some sort) would help them.
- Only 39 students (a mere 1%) said that databases are necessary for successful research.
Search engines like Google and a list of various other tablets also made the list, as well as some atypical answers, such as Xbox (huh?).
We asked this very same question to the librarians and educators we work with — the people who know more about research than anyone! The answers from the more than 350 librarians and educators polled had some stark differences:
- The vast majority (60% of them!) said databases were necessary for successful research.
- Only 18% said computers.
- Another 18% said online resources.
- Around 10% of them said e-books.
What’s the big difference here? Overwhelmingly, the students’ answers had to do with hardware — physical items that provide access to information (and, of course, distractions). The responses from librarians and educators had to do with information, and more specifically, highly credible and authoritative information that comes from online resources like databases and online public access catalogs.
It got us thinking: what could explain this discrepancy? In many instances, our survey found that students don’t differentiate or critically evaluate online sources — they see the computer and the Internet as their one portal to accessing information, and they view all information as equal. To them, information from library databases is the same as information from the open web, simply because it’s all found online through their computer, laptop or mobile device.
We see this with our EasyBib users, as well. Out of the top 10 sources cited on EasyBib, JSTOR is the only database, and only a handful of news sources make the cut, like the New York Times and BBC News. What’s more, Wikipedia has been the number one source cited on EasyBib for two consecutive years, and 5 of the top ten are user-generated content websites like Answers.com.
These trends of students using a mix of credible and user-generated sources parallel what other studies have found, as well. After analyzing 9 million student papers earlier this year, Turnitin reported that students are just as likely to cite a credible and academic source as they are to cite a less-than-authoritative one.
So what can we do about this? Needless to say, restricting student access to technology and the Internet isn’t the answer. Rather, educating students about online source quality — and critically thinking about and evaluating these sources — must become an integral part of the curriculum.
With our new information literacy instructional and assessment platform, ResearchReady, educators can teach students all about the perils of information freely available on the open web (i.e., much of it can be poorly-researched or even false) and the benefits of knowing how to access information on the invisible web (i.e., information found on databases like ProQuest and Gale).
Have you ever asked your student where he or she found an online source, and their response was, “I found it through Google”? Or a student who equated research with “Googling”? Working with educators and librarians is a big part of our job, and many of them echoed this sentiment when we shared our findings with them. Students need to start equating research not just with their ability to connect to the Internet, but with using the quality digital resources available to them.
External sources: The Sources in Student Writing – Secondary Education. Rep. Turnitin, Jan. 2013. Web. 27 Jan. 2013. Photo above: Emily Gover (pictured left); Caity Selleck (right).
Caity Selleck and Emily Gover work on product and content development and are in-house librarians for EasyBib.com and ResearchReady.com, and they also work on marketing initiatives for their 40 million users. Emily Gover presents to fellow information professional nationwide via webinars and at conferences and continues to serve as a part-time reference librarian at Hendrick Hudson Free Library. ResearchReady is a cloud-based learning platform enabling librarians and educators to teach ethical research and information literacy skills. Write to: [email protected]