A comment about the importance of convenience in academic research has been troubling me for almost a year. I first read about findings from the Visitors and Residents Project (V&R project) in this Educause article, “‘Always Stick With the First Thing That Comes Up on Google. . .’ Where People Go for Information, What They Use, and Why” (Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Donna M. Lanclos, and Erin M. Hood, EDUCAUSE Review, Dec. 6, 2013; educause.edu/ero/article/i-always-stick-first-thing-comes-google-where-people-go-information-what-they-use-and-why).
The V&R project, a collaboration between OCLC and the University of Oxford in partnership with the University of North Carolina–Charlotte, was set up to identify how and why individuals engage with technology when seeking information. It defines visitors as those viewing the web as a toolset and residents as those seeing the web as a social place where they have a digital identity. These are not mutually exclusive, as people move from one to the other depending on their motivation for information seeking.
The project investigated information seeking and use in higher education and covered the spectrum from beginning students to faculty members. Most of the findings were not surprising, but seeing them documented with evidence really spoke to me. The main findings: Information seekers don’t generally connect their task with the use of libraries. The web, social media sites, and Wikipedia were mentioned in participant responses far more often than library databases, even for graduate students and faculty. While participants saw information evaluation as important, the most important factors in determining what resources they used were the amount of weight given to an assignment and the time allocated to work on it.
Convenience as a Trump Card
What really struck me, though, was the emphasis of study respondents on the convenience factor. “Convenience trumps all other reasons for selecting and using a source.” The anticipated amount of trouble it would take to find what people wanted was the major determinant of what sort of search tool they would use.
I’m concerned, because, if I have anything resembling an information literacy philosophy, it is this: Dumbing down the research process in the interest of convenience is almost always a poor choice, especially when we have the option of educating researchers to excel. Search engines promote convenience. In fact, convenience is their main marketing tool. The resulting elephant in the room is the fact that convenience only breeds a desire for more convenience, not greater skill.
Web search engines promote increasing speed and superficiality—anything that is difficult to find probably won’t be. Information outside the view of easy tools is less valuable to the searcher than what you can find in a flash, or at least that seems to be the thinking behind web search. But in that case, quality and depth are bound to suffer. Karl Greenfeld commented on the result of informing yourself with the internet and social media: “It’s never been so easy to pretend t o know so much without actually knowing anything” (Karl Taro Greenfeld, “Faking Cultural Literacy,” The New York Times , May 24, 2014; nytimes.com/2014/05/25/opinion/sunday/faking-cultural-literacy.html?_r=0).
We have learned to find the easiest path, because the technology itself spreads the message that knowing has become simple and depth is passé. If you can find a close (or even not so close) approximation of valuable academic information with a Google search, but you then have to log into a proprietary database to find better information, Google is generally going to win. And that chops the legs out from under my philosophy of information literacy. Sure, we can educate users, but will it mean anything when Google is sitting at the top of every browser just waiting to be fed?