Research is an important part of university life. This reality is the reason that I’m writing this blog post, or at least it’s partially the reason. I’m also writing about research because I believe that many students have developed a dependence on technology that may sometimes stunt the process of discovery. Don’t get me wrong, technology is a great thing and it provides us with access to information in ways that previous generations couldn’t even fathom. My point is that relying exclusively on technology in the research process may prevent you from seeing a complete picture of your topic. It is important for you to know this because, without question, your ability to unearth and understand different types of resources will play a key role in how you learn things and how you are graded in university.
Clearly, electronic devices and the internet are everywhere in our society. But as I have told many of my students in the past, a search engine is a useful complement to other research methods, not a replacement. Although it may depend on the field you are studying, it is important to know that not everything you will need to write a paper or form an opinion is digitized. If you are starting to research a topic on a search engine, you may find valuable sources, but there is no guarantee that you will find all the resources you need to write a strong paper.
For example, if you are researching a topic that has competing academic opinions, the first page or two of search results (on the internet) may only highlight the most dominant one. This is important information, but again, it is not complete. In addition to making and supporting an argument, the best undergraduate essays will typically call attention to opposing scholarly camps and address their merits/shortcomings.
Try to be cognizant of the fact that search engines employ complex algorithms designed to deliver information in a way that it thinks will be most useful to you. It doesn’t necessarily try to deliver all information to you. If you are starting research from a neutral ground, which you ought to, you can see how this might be counterproductive.
Popular Versus Scholarly Debate
In addition to the above, you should always be mindful of the important distinction between popular/mainstream perspectives and scholarly work. Sometimes, mainstream media, blogs, influencers, and others, don’t talk about the things that are of interest to academics. If this is the case, you can demonstrate a deep understanding of your research area by reflecting on the public vs. scholarly debate. In fact, I think this would be an investigative approach that your professor may find very interesting. If the public and scholarly worlds are not speaking to one another on whatever topic you are researching and writing about, you may even consider making the case of why they should engage in a conversation.
On the topic of mainstream and scholarly perspectives, another thing you should note is that popular and academic key words sometimes differ. For example, the terms multiculturalism and globalization are used quite commonly to describe what some academic fields are evolving to call transnationalism. Unless you are studying this topic, there is probably no way for you to know this, which is why exclusively depending on a search engine is not ideal for research.
Search engines are powerful research tools that can help you write strong papers. However, you should also note that, while useful and convenient, search engines have limitations. They should be used in conjunction with the university library and consultation with professors and TAs (see my earlier post on the importance of attending office hours). Despite the fact that the vastness of digital content has done wonders for information accessibility, not every resource can be viewed on a tablet.