Adages, those short, pithy sentences that encapsulate an entire philosophy, home truth, or worldview, can be exceptionally enlightening. They can also be completely wrong and contradict each other. This is particularly true when we take a general adage and adopt it as a meme for online research.
When Google entered our information environment some 15 years ago, librarians did not exactly jump on the internet search engine bandwagon. They were skeptical about the quality of information. “You get what you pay for,” they said, disapprovingly. Implicit was the notion that free information was suspect. Of course, no one suggested that the free information delivered by governments or trade associations was lacking in quality, but the idea of “something for nothing” continued to cause mistrust. This led to intense discussions about information quality on the web, discussions which have proved to be extremely useful for the entire research community.
The rise of the open access movement, with its emphasis on freely available scholarly information, prompted another meme to surface. “All that glitters is not gold.” Predatory publishers, which purport to publish peer-reviewed articles but don’t actually do that, would seem to bear out that adage. We also have a reprise of the “You get what you pay for” maxim. Again, the ability to distinguish quality articles from those lacking it is a paramount concern.
Information professionals should be skeptical by nature. End-user searchers, whether they’re students, faculty, businesspeople, chemists, historians, physicians, government employees, or other types of serious researchers, are sometimes entirely too trusting. I don’t mean trust in the “Google knows best” way—anyone looking for information germane to completing a work project probably already realizes that the first five results of a Google search won’t cut it. They do, however, trust subscription sources to inject quality control into their products.
As information professionals have documented for years in printed publications such as this one, conference presentations, and librarian discussion lists, even high-priced databases can contain errors and omissions. Two conflicting adages come into play here. First there’s “What you see is what you get.” If you’re researching a scientific topic, you should turn to a source devoted to science rather than one about philosophy or art history. If you need an article from a specific journal, see if the list of journal titles includes the one you want. You need to make the effort to see what you want to get.
The opposite adage is, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” The first adage celebrates transparency, the second issues a warning that transparency can be deceptive. Can you believe what a company tells you about its product? You need to open that “book” to find out. Even established publishers can get things wrong.
Not exactly an adage, but a quote from Samuel Johnson remains pertinent for information professionals: “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” Those continue to be words to believe in.