Bad news from a good undergraduate paper

Research using a laptop

Research using a laptop

Ever since I came across an online article claiming Benjamin Franklin as America’s first environmentalist, I have been looking for information that I can use in one of my other blogs.

I just took notes on another online article called “What Would Ben Franklin Do? Influences of America’s First Environmentalist “ by Lauren Siminauer and noticed that at the time of publication she was “finishing her bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology at the University of Virginia.

I have written quite a lot about research, sources, and using the library for writing term papers. Since Simenauer has essentially gotten one of her undergraduate papers published online, it makes a good opportunity for making specific comments about how how an undergraduate student did her research—and how she should have.

At the outset, I want to say that it is a better than usual undergraduate paper. I would guess it was written for some kind of honors program..

Simenaur’s attempt to make Franklin seem our contemporary is the weakest part of the paper. She even concludes by speculating that Franklin would oppose Republican environmental policies. I have not kept track of any of the links to current events.

Sources used

Here are domains she links to for her historical data: pbs.org, mit.edu, webexhibits.org, benfranklin300.org, oceanexplorer.noaa.gov, hubpages.com, radford.edu, wellhome.com, upenn.edu. As far as it goes, the list looks pretty good. Domains that end with .org or .edu are generally considered more trustworthy than domains with .com.

.com domains refer not only to corporate websites (which often have valuable information), but also blogs, article directories, and “content farms.” The quality is variable. I would like to think that my posts, at their best at least, contain valuable information, with adequate documentation, that’s not available elsewhere. There are lots of good blogs—and lots that are nothing more than opinionated rants.

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Sources neglected

There are glaring weaknesses in Simeaur’s research. She must have found all of her sources with a search engine. And that is not adequate for a historical paper at the college level. One of her sources, a blog post, is based entirely on Wikipedia articles.

It wouldn’t have been any more suitable if it had used a print encyclopedia instead. I learned to use encyclopedias in elementary school. By the time I got to high school, teachers would no longer accept them as source material.

Did Simenaur or any of the faculty she worked with even notice that the post has no adult-level research in it at all? But it bolsters her viewpoint.

She clearly did not use the library at all. Her sources do not include a single book or scholarly article, such as she could have found in the various library databases. She must have been required to take some kind of library orientation as a freshman. Did none of her faculty insist that she ever visit the library to learn how to use it?

If she knew about the databases, she would have known that she could find much more authoritative sources and likely as not read the full text on her computer as easily as she could find the web sources.

Why it matters

Here’s just one example of three or four I could point to of how the web failed her. In 1739, Franklin petitioned the government of Philadelphia to prohibit tanneries from dumping their wastes into a creek.

The source she sites, as it turns out, is the same article from HubPages that got me interested in the subject in the first place.  I looked all over the web and found a half a dozen or so sites that describe Franklin’s petition in a sentence or two, and not a single one gives a source.

I did find a few full-text articles in a library database that describe the petition and its immediate context in reasonable detail. I haven’t studied them yet, but I expect to find at least one reference to some primary source material. My eventual post will provide the first real research on some aspects of Franklin’s work ever to appear on the web.

There is no need for an undergraduate student, besides perhaps a history major, to hunt for primary sources, but an undergraduate honors student should certainly be expected—and shown how—to find information that is not available for free on the web.

As I said, apart from the attempt to align Franklin with modern political correctness, Simenaur’s paper is very good. It should have been even better. It would have been better if at some point in her studies she had learned that real research for that kind of assignment demands library resources, not just web pages.

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Photo credit. Some rights reserved by Nicola since 1972.


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