Thursday, June 28, 2007

Research and the internet

In the Guardian today, novelist Ben Myers asks "is the internet killing proper research?" Once upon a time, researching for a novel required would-be authors to spend weeks or months in libraries going through books. Now, they just go to Wikipedia:

Wikipedia means no more hours spent in dimly-lit library backrooms, shoulder deep in dusty books. Research has now been boiled down to a few hours on a laptop at a crumb-flecked table in an overpriced coffee shop.

This may not necessarily be a good thing.

For starters, Wikipedia is an ever-changing and resource reliant on the accuracy of its contributors (who, for all we know, cut and paste their facts from other websites) and the moderators who police the site. It has made for some amusingly false and libellous accounts.

Against which can be said that Wikipedia has been found to be about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. So it's not the accuracy of the sources that has changed; rather its the amount of research that people do. In the past, someone who started and finished their "research" with the Britannica would be considered to be a poor researcher. Now, apparently, the equivalent (done online) is both commonplace and acceptable, at least outside academia.

Why has this occurred? Partly I think its true that the internet has produced a narrowing of focus - it's portrayed as containing everything that's worth knowing, and therefore it follows that material which isn't online is not worth knowing. But beyond that, I think there's another culprit: Google. Google gives researchers the illusion of completeness - it can find everything the internet knows about a subject. Unfortunately, it ranks it in order of popularity rather than relevance, and the signal to noise ratio can be rather low. Even if its not, people are faced with a flood of information of unknown relevance, with the result that most don't go beyond the first three pages of search results.

(Whereas in the old days, they'd just sit there staring at the card catalogue. Which would at least spare us from the results...)

Despite all that, you can do good research over the internet. You can learn an awful lot about New Zealand climate change policy, for example, without having to go near a library (though that helps too, becuse not all of the key documents are online). But you need to know what you're doing, where to look, and above all keep in mind that the net does not know everything yet, and that it is just one information source among many.