Academic research is one of those realities at odds with the consumer-oriented mentality of the digital native. As a scholarly information professional, I am personally invested in making sure students get the most out of the library. Research is a process comprised of several distinct phases which include: definition of a topic, narrowing down research questions, acquisition of field-specific terminology, identification of sources and analysis of results. Both lower-order (remembering, understanding), and higher-order (evaluation, synthesis) thinking skills are required to become a proficient researcher. Research takes time. Understanding what is at stake in the research process is the first step towards success.

As a trained information manager, the librarian is the person who can help you wade through the tsunami of information available by directing you to the scholarly resource(s) best suited to your needs. Yet many digital natives think of librarians as little more than building custodians, and their services remain greatly underutilized. In her report, “How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College,” Alison Head notes that students are not aware of the vast array of digital services provided by the library. The immediate access to massive amount of information made available by Internet giants has created the perception that “information” is an expendable good, and that all information can be retrieved effortlessly and free of charge.

Think again. Open web searches may produce an abundance of results, but that does not mean those results are usable, credible or reliable. As useful as they may be for everyday searches, the most commonly used Internet search engines are data-driven commercial platforms whose main focus is advertising, not scholarly research.  In fact, web search engines have been at the center of several controversies as more studies have been scrutinizing the biases in algorithmic formulas and prediction results (if you have not seen it, take a peek at Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism).

Open web searches may produce an abundance of results, but that does not mean those results are usable, credible or reliable.

It is not that researchers do not understand how these data-driven platforms operate. They do. And there are studies to prove it. But the complexities of the digital information landscape, coupled with copyright laws in an ever-morphing scholarly publishing universe, have helped foster an “information rummaging” behavior that favors convenience over accuracy, and immediate results over process.

What’s the bottom line? Not everything that has been written is available for free on the web, and not everything that shows up in open web search results is going to be relevant to your search. In fact, the most relevant publications in your area of research are going to be accessible through a scholarly database in your library.

Keep these three principles in mind when doing academic research:

  •  Not all information is created equal — One of the most important steps in the research process is evaluating and assessing the reliability of your sources. Using a specialized database for research will take much of the burden off that task, as the material included will have been selected for pertinence and evaluated for inclusion.
  • Refined searching — A specialized database will allow you to set specific search parameters by date, publication and topic. It will introduce you to the language used by specialists in the discipline and will thus produce only results that are highly relevant and pertinent to your research questions.
  •  Context is everything — Every field has its history, hot topics and main actors. Understanding what the scholarly conversation is about is an important step in the research process. A specialized database can help locate gaps in research and define your research topic.

Information literacy is a topic of great urgency in the digital age. Educating information consumers to understand their results and evaluate their sources is a burden mostly put on librarians, who are the real unsung heroes of the digital revolution. A great resource to learn more about the information-seeking behavior of college students is the longitudinal study conducted by  Alison J. Head and Michael Eisenberg of Project Information Literacy.