How not to do research

Here are some posts from a thread on an email list I follow. I am deleting anything that could identify the particular libraries where the posters work, although they are clearly all academic libraries.


A scenario reported by one of my colleagues:  student sitting at a computer not 5 feet from the reference desk where said colleague is stationed. He’s been there for quite a while.  As his friends walk by, he asks them how to find something, how to do something.  Colleague asks repeatedly if he needs any help and is rejected every time.  Then he starts phoning friends IN THE LIBRARY to come over and help him.  One of these friends suggests he search the ever-popular JSTOR.  Colleague reminds him that JSTOR is an archive and there are no current articles contained therein.  The student says, that’s ok, I’m researching something that happened in the ’70’s.  [Bang forehead on desk here.]


I was helping somebody on IM who noted he knew nothing about libraries and he needed articles for his topic.  After quite a few exchanges with some ground gained, I suggested that if he continued to have problems, he was welcome to telephone me as well and I provided my number.  His answer came back shortly, he noted that he was in class.


[Unfortuantely, ignorance of libraries is not restricted to undergrads:]

In the past week I have had a master’s student and a doctoral student who both did not know they could look up books in our library in an [our] online catalog (the master’s student, first year, had a paper due and had not set foot in the library other than orientation — the doctoral student is at the writing stage with a
deadline approaching).

Needless to say, a lot of time was spent with them in person and on the phone for the catalog and databases.


So sadly true. I’m auditing a class in [university name deleted] SILS [= School of Information and Library Science] this semester, and one day a SILS Ph.D. student (3rd year, no less) in the class asked me about how to approach a particular assignment. I suggested going either to the local public library catalog or our library catalog in order to grab the data she would need (a call #). She asked if she did that by searching Google. As I showed her how to use our catalog, it became obvious that she had NEVER used the library’s online catalog. Now, this is a very bright woman, who happens to come from a corporate background and is on the IS track. But being on the IS track should not mean one is an LS idiot. I have to wonder what quality of research is being done by Ph.D. students (in lib/info sci!!!) who don’t know how to find information! (I also wonder what it says about IS education.)

As I wrote in an earlier post, everyone does research, not just college students. By research, I mean gathering and analyzing information in order to take some action. Writing a paper is but one possible action. Buying a car or a house or any other big expensive item also requires research. So does trying to understand more of a news story than the sound bites on TV.

These four stories exhibit people who should know better making some common research errors. Here are three big ones:

  1. Not paying attention to opportunities to learn about research tools. Surely every college requires some kind of library orientation. Graduate departments typically require courses in how to perform research in their disciplines. Of course, even before starting college, all of these people had to write papers even as early as elementary school that required finding information first. However people start doing research in third grade, they ought to develop more sophisticated competence as their education continues. Many otherwise bright and successful students obviously don’t bother. Perhaps they don’t pay any more attention elsewhere, either.
  2. Not seeking help early in the process. Internet search engines have made it very easy to find information, but researchers have to know whether they have found the right kind of information or enough information. This is not a new problem in the Internet era. Elementary students used to learn to gather information from encyclopedias. It was a shock to many to get to junior high school and be told not to get everything from the encyclopedia any more. Eventually, with a deadline approaching, people will recognize whether they have found what they need. If they have not found it, the sooner they recognize that fact, the more time they have to get help before desperation sets in.
  3. Not seeking or accepting help from appropriate people.  The kid in the first email astounds me, as it astounded at least two librarians at his institution. Not five feet from a person both willing and very well qualified to help him–the librarian stationed at the reference desk–he preferred to stop friends passing by or phone other friends. Did he seriously think he could get better help from them?

Here are some things to keep in mind in order to perform your research efficiently and productively:

  • Search engines, online databases (including the library catalog), and various print sources all require a somewhat different method of seeking information from them.
  • Your search engine results can be no better than the keywords you think of. Perform several different searches in order not to miss some important sites.
  • Database searching is less intuitive, but yields narrower and more useful results.
  • Information available through a database might not be available through a search engine at all (and vice versa).
  • Even with so much information available online, something in print may better for some purposes.
  • Librarians majored in looking it up. You do not bother them when you ask a question; you give them a chance to do their job by helping you search and find information more efficiently than you can on your own.
  • The job of a librarian includes helping you refine your question. With a well focused question, you actually have less information to hunt for. A narrow focus divides the necessary from the  irrelevant.
  • Librarians ask other librarians for help all the time.

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