More Discourse On The Pitfalls of On-Line Research

Something gained. Something lost. Marie S. Newman at Out of the Jungle reports on the results of an interesting study by Professor James Evans at the University of Chicago. The quick conclusion of the study, according to Newman, is that “the growth in online research has had a ‘narrowing’ effect on scholarship.” Evans reviewed 34 million articles across fields of study and found that while the amount of published research has increased, references sources within the articles has diminished and has tended to be more recent. According to the Boston Globe’s take on the study, “the Intenet’s influence is to tighten consensus, posing the risk that good ideas may be ignored and lost – the opposite of the Internet’s promise.”

Evans’ study has generated controversy and has invited dissenting opinion. Nonetheless, Newman highlights valid concerns raised by the study’s results. One concern is the effect of the on-line “winnowing process” and the possibility that academic research will turn into a “popularity contest.” Another concern mirrors the age-old complaint against on-line legal research: on-line research does not afford the same insight into context that book research provides. Without an index or table of contents, the researcher runs the risk of falling down the “rabbit hole” of hyperlink to hyperlink information-mining with no sense of the relative importance of the information and related areas of study.

I appreciate the concerns raised by the study. I believe it is important for teachers, researchers and practitioners to be mindful of these pitfalls. Once mindful, however, the burden is on the true scholar to ensure that context is not lost. While one might have to work that much harder in the on-line arena, context still can be established in the traditional pay legal databases through the use of various tools, such as the Table of Contents function. While I can’t speak to other areas of study, I imagine that a clever researcher may still be able to secure context in the journals and on-line authorities serving as supports.  The other concern has little bearing in the field of law, which relies on judicial and statutory precedent rather than “popular” academic sources.

The article and the study are thought-provoking. My take-away is that researchers must be mindful of the drawbacks while reaping the rewards of near-instant access to unlimited information at the fingertips.

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