Once upon a time, there were buildings called ‘libraries’ that housed these large, leather-bound reams of paper known as ‘books’. Now you may have heard of books, but the books in libraries were nothing like the ones we have today. For starters, there were no such things as ‘vanity publishers’ or ‘self-publishing‘.
Back in the day, books underwent a rigorous proofreading process that was usually characterized by fact-checking and thorough editing before they were published. Once printed, they were then filed in the library according to an esoteric filing method known as the ‘Dewey Decimal Classification System‘. All of this made the act of research fairly time-consuming and incredibly inconvenient.
Contrast that to how research is often carried out today. With a couple clicks, users can have at least a cursory set of crowd-sourced facts at their disposal via Wikipedia or other similar sites. We have already pondered on the idea of the how the internet is making grammar obsolete. In fact, we have written several articles about writing good content to improve the user experience of your website. Similarly, the ease with which information can be published and retrieved raises a number of questions – the most salient being ‘Does the traditional research methodology still have a place, or is it becoming obsolete?’
Extreme Convenience or Cognitive Dissonance?
It is easy to become seduced by the convenience of the Internet. With ultra-fast connectivity, it sometimes seems like the whole world is at your fingertips. You can bring up one of the major search engines on your web browser and ask it any question you like. Then you can get the answer without having to go to the library or even get out of your chair. That kind of convenience can become a preferred research method in a hurry.
Indeed, the internet has brought knowledge sharing to unprecedented levels. People who do not have access to a good library can still obtain information if they have a device that is connected to the internet. And while this unprecedented amount of access is fundamentally egalitarian in nature, it also has created an unprecedented problem for researchers. Namely, the level of cognitive dissonance encountered on the Internet is staggering. Simply put – in a land of chat rooms, 4chan trolls and LOLcats, it is downright hard to find solid, unbiased, and fact-based sources.
This is partly because human beings have a tendency toward the psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. That is, we tend to seek out sources of information that confirm our own (often flawed) belief systems and worldviews. Subsequently, the Internet has become the perfect venue for this, because it allows us to completely insulate our own worldview and ignore contrary facts.
Mobile Devices: More Access or Increased Clutter?
One of the recent Internet developments that has people referring to the Web for their answers is the portability of the internet. Mobile devices allow people to constantly access info, no matter where they’re located. Instead of having to drive across town to the library to find the answer to a question, you can simply access the internet using your smart phone and get the answer instantly. This has sometimes been known as the ‘death of the barroom debate’.
But many academic and otherwise-authoritative sites are trailing behind other parts of the web significantly when it comes to optimizing for mobile devices. This means that smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices are at a general disadvantage when it comes to accessing reliable and meaningful information for research.
So while settling a barroom debate may be a perfectly acceptable use of your mobile device, it is unlikely that you will be able to source a serious research paper using this same method.
How Much Are You Willing to Spend?
One of the drawbacks to using the internet for research is that accessing the most solid, well-researched materials is likely to cost some cash. Unless you are working with a major academic institution that will foot the bill for you, websites like JSTOR, Questia, Project MUSE and others all either work on a pay-per-resource model, or they are entirely inaccessible to non-scholars. Many of the most authoritative periodicals gate their content behind pay-walls as well.
Contrast this to making a quick trip to your local library (i.e. doing traditional research). Not only can you plop down at a workstation for full access to these sites, but you also have the option of using the many books and even microfiche to further your research.
Is Your Information Complete or Correctly Attributed?
When you are looking at a printed resource, you are usually confident that you have all of the information within that book. But online, you never know if the information you are getting is complete. Some resource websites will post passages from books, but they will neglect to post the entire volume. When you are doing your research online, you never really know if you are getting all of the information that you need, or just part of it.
The biggest danger of using the internet for research, is that information often becomes decontextualized. You may find a good quote or an interesting fact, but they may mean something entirely different when placed into context. Even worse, the quote or fact could be completely misattributed. According to RealClearPolitics.com, for example, most quotes by Mark Twain found on the Internet are misattributed. The same principle applies to quotes by Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just imagine how damaging one of these quotes could be to an otherwise-stellar piece of research. Arianna Huffington (of Huffington Post Fame) discovered this the hard way when she repeatedly misquoted Twain in celebration of his birthday in November 2012.
Can You Stomach the Lack of Expert or Peer Review?
Before a reference book or scholarly article is published, it is thoroughly checked by editors and/or academic peers for accuracy. Similarly, some reputable online content publishers such as Smashing Magazine administer a clear and thorough publishing policy that is similar to offline publications. However, the same thing, of course cannot be said for the online reference material. Some of the largest online resources (like Wikipedia) are crowd-sourced from information contributed by readers.
While Wikipedia does have editors, the pages are still open to be edited by anyone, and (particularly with controversial entries) can give you incorrect information. In most cases, almost anyone can add information to an online resource without the need for citation or fact-checking. And while the American Physiological Journal did determine in a 2006 article titled “The Ups and Downs of Peer Review” that Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate, the margin for error still precludes it from being a reliable resource for research.
While the internet is a handy resource for locating quick information for day-to-day usage, it clearly has a ways to go before it can ever replace the standard research method. However, the web is always evolving by leaps and bounds, so it may one day be able to wholly replace traditional research method.
So I ask you, dear reader, do you think that the internet will ever evolve in a way that it can establish itself as an authoritative research source? And if yes, how do you think it will be able to do so?
(Lead image: Depositphotos)