TWU logo

Advanced Research Skills Workshop for Graduate Students

Weird and Amazing

The expansion of the World Wide Web has transformed a fairly narrow information environment into a world of amazing complexity and strange contradictions. In our research we could simply ignore everything except strictly academic literature, but we have to reckon with the fact that we are swimming in a larger pool, with multiple sharks lurking. This module will look at the nature of our information environment and the specific role of scholarship in defining what we mean by "academic literature."

Information and scholarship

     

Part One: Understanding Information in the Information Age

Information in today's world is confusing.  When it comes to academic information, the kind you will be using in your graduate studies, we have less and less certainty about what kinds of information can be called "scholarly."  

The information landscape

Please view the following presentation to see some of the challenges (enlarge it to full screen in the lower right of the presentation and use the arrow keys to navigate): 

(Open to full screen)

Many of us have long immersed ourselves in Google culture.  It's now going to be difficult to accept the notion that Google in academic life will probably let us down, both by not being able to provide us with the resources we are looking for and by costing us a lot of time looking for information that is more easily available elsewhere. Most academic articles and books are not available through a Google search.

Understanding Scholarship in the Information Age

Let's start with a brief introduction to the "scholar" of today.  Scholars (professors, academic authors) are a different sort of breed from the rest of humanity. They know a great deal about, and have expertise in, a small part of the information landscape.  In that sense, they are high level specialists.  Because of this kind of specialization, the world of academic information is divided up into various disciplines like psychology, leadership, chemistry, and so on.  In fact, each discipline has numerous sub-disciplines.  Scholars for the most part find a niche in a discipline or sub-discipline and develop their expertise there.  A discipline is governed by three important factors:

1. The knowledge base - What scholars rely on for sources of information.  Scholars will determine which information they trust and find useful to them.  Certain authors will be regarded as more important than others.  In general, scholars are very protective of their knowledge base, using procedures like peer review (a quality control method) when publishing new books and articles in their field.

2. The culture - Just like there are national and local cultures, each discipline has a culture, a way of thinking and doing that may seem baffling to students.  Scholars are fascinated by things that others may find strange or boring, they use terminology that only other scholars in their field understand, and they have ways of conducting themselves as scholars that are unique to their discipline.  They also have beliefs about the importance of their discipline and what it takes to be considered a colleague in their work.

3. Method - Each discipline has a specific way of doing research.  This includes procedures, recognition of what sort of evidence is valid, and ways to making a case for something or arguing a point.  Even the structure of their writings may vary so that a history paper looks nothing like a paper in biochemistry.

Overall, however, there are a number of common understandings among scholars as to the nature of what we call "scholarship."  Let's explore what those are:

View the following presentation, "What is Scholarship?" [Open it to full screen]. 

(Open to full screen)

Starting with a Working Knowledge

 A lot of students flounder in their research because of a lack of basic understanding about the topic they are dealing with.  You need a working knowledge to begin navigating through a research project.  Working knowledge?  It's enough knowledge so you can speak about a topic for a minute.  Just the basics.  With that knowledge you can begin to consider possible problems, issues, gaps in understanding that could be addressed.

Where do you get a working knowledge? A common starting point these days is an online reference source like Wikipedia, though you need to use some caution with this tool.  You can also use a discipline-specific encyclopedia or dictionary through your library.

 

Watching for the Sharks


 

Google

You've already sensed that I'm not a big fan of Google for academic research. That is mostly true, but the reasons are more nuanced than you may think:

1. Only about 20% of all academic literature is available open access (without having to pay for it). This means that 80% of academic literature will not come up as freely available full text in a Google search.

2. Without any gatekeepers, Google results are not previously screened for quality. Something that may appear to be academic could have deep flaws in it that were not caught because there was no peer review.

3. Searching through a mass of Google results for the few gems that will meet your research goals is time-consuming and thus will not be the most effective way to build a bibliography.

Preprints

There is a very large movement toward posting scholarly articles online as preprints, that is, complete manuscripts that have not yet been peer reviewed (evaluated and revised as part of the publication process). The intent here is sometimes to get research results out quickly and sometimes to invite other scholars to evaluate them before they go through the formal peer review process.

The difficulty with preprints is that they end up in databases like Google Scholar and are often difficult to distinguish from formally peer reviewed literature.

It looked academic to me

Notes and a bibliography do not guarantee scholarly quality. Here are some things to watch for:

1. Qualifications of the author. Does the author have the academic credentials and professional reputation to be able to write well on this topic.

2. Evidence of lack of bias. Good scholarship is not slanted but considers multiple points of view, even if it ends up supporting one of them.

3. Tells the truth in the broadest sense. It is possible to have a great bibliography but misrepresent other scholars, slant evidence, and so on. You have to consider whether or not the information can be believed.

Today's Culture of Falsehood

We live in a time in which evidence and science are either under attack or being ignored. All of us must be ever vigilant to ensure that our beliefs are not caught up in a web of falsehood. On this, see my article: "Fake News, Confirmation Bias, the Search for Truth, and the Theology Student." Theological Librarianship 11, no. 2 (October 2018): 4-7. https://serials.atla.com/theolib/article/view/2589.

See also Appendix B in my Research Strategies book.

Activities

The following are tasks you can perform to build your skills. Try them on your own.

Task #1 - Read Research Strategies: Finding your Way through the Information Fog, Introduction and chapters 1 & 2, and Appendix B.

Task #2 - View the "What is Scholarship?" presentation and answer these questions:

1. Explain what is meant by the statement: "Authority depends on context." 
2. Why is it important to understand the process by which information was created?
3. What are four "dimensions of value" given to information?
4. In considering Research as Inquiry, what is true research, and what is it not?
5. What is meant by "Scholarship is a Conversation?"  Be sure to explain what is meant by the word "conversation."
6. In what ways is searching "strategic?"

Task #3 - Choose a topic that you want to research. State it and then find a reference source (Wikipedia or a dictionary/encyclopedia from your library) on the topic. Name your reference source and in 8-10 lines summarize the main features/facts of your topic without, at this point, presenting your own point of view.

Download the template below to do the tasks described above.