Increased broadband access causes people to morph into a different type of internet researcher. It also encourages them to create content and changes them from consumers into information nodes. Or so Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, told his audience at the 2014 AIIP (Association of Independent Information Professionals) annual conference during his Roger Summit Award lecture.
I think the effect of widespread internet access on the research process is more profound than even Rainie believes. How it affects information professionals’ relationships with end users was, and continues to be, stunning. For one thing, everybody thinks of themselves as researchers. For another, what they’re researching is frequently trivial. They are researching airfares, shoe prices, and refrigerator brands. These may not be trivial issues to them, but from the information professional perspective, they’re far from rocket science.
Has the word “research” become devalued? Are we seeing a renaissance in research, or are we retreating from serious research? In the scholarly community, research was held to rigorous standards and had a well-defined methodology. In the corporate world, scientific research, say in a pharmaceutical company, was akin to the scholarly world, but business research was different, concerned more with financial data, marketing campaigns, strategic planning, and competitive intelligence. Standards were still high, however.
When someone today says she “researched” something, that very likely means a Google search. And it was a ready reference question being asked. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, it’s just that research methodologies and outcomes are fuzzier than they were before broadband access.
We’d like to think that increasing the amount and variety of information results in more knowledge and less ignorance. But when everyone’s a researcher, misinformation and disinformation coexist with solid information in search results. The concept of agnotology, the study of culturally produced ignorance, comes to mind. Superstitions, conspiracy theories, and junk science turn up in search results and can appear legitimate if packaged properly and repeated often.
Trust is in short supply. As journalists strive to provide both sides of a story, even when one side is weakly supported by fact, and as academics publish to establish a reputation rather than move scholarship forward, information professionals have a problem. We must distinguish between trusted sources and untrusted ones. Perhaps more importantly, we must convince our users not to use untrustworthy sources, recognizing that even the most trustworthy source can make mistakes.
We want to embrace the research renaissance. We want to believe the truth is out there. Yet there’s a nagging suspicion that research is in retreat. Pseudo-scholarly journals that claim to be indexed in well-known aggregators such as EBSCO or ProQuest when this is not the case are the bane of our existence. Yellow journalism has been around for more than 100 years but is harder to recognize in its web incarnation. If casual researchers are now information nodes, let’s work on ensuring that the information they transmit does not spring from agnotological induced information.