Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Impossible Assignment, and the Research Question

Librarians and academics in recent years have been working together to help students to develop information literacy skills, that is, the kind of skills that are likely to be particularly essential in the information age. Basically, these are the skills that help us to recognize a need for information, find the right information, evaluate it, and effectively use it.

Occasionally, a curious phenomenon arises out of these endeavours: the impossible assignment - impossible, at any rate, for the average undergraduate student.

That is, a faculty member would like to assign a topic, and encourage students to find particular resources - but the resources simply do not exist.

One poignant example of this is the faculty member who would like students to find scholarly critiques of the work of a local author, particularly if the original work was published fairly recently. Thanks are due to the members of BCLA's Academic Librarians in Public Service (ALPS), who talked about their mutual experiences with this phenomenon at a meeting last Friday. [Disclosure: I am the Chair-Elect of ALPS].

Which makes me wonder: do the forces in academia - the need to publish or perish - discourage us from pursuing questions we really think are important, and sharing information in the way that makes the most sense to us, when we think about it?

To take the example of the local author: academics need to publish - or they will perish. The best thing for one's career is to publish in the most prestigious journals; the ones that are read and cited by the most other academics. Will our local authors - or local politics, social structure, culture or ecosystem - ever be the top priority for these kinds of journals?

The essential problem here, in my opinion, is that we are placing the procedure - the method - ahead of what is truly important - the research question. We want an easy, objective way to measure the quality of the research our faculty are doing. In the sciences, the impact factor of a journal provides a quick means to achieve this; in other areas, less numeric but still similar kinds of judgements are likely to apply.

To illustrate the approach to research, here is how this works: we know, and are comfortable with, a particular method - surveys, citation analysis, experimental methodology. We start with the method. We know how to count, therefore, what will we count? It is very, very easy to do this instead of considering the more complex - but more important question: what do we need to learn about?

It would be interesting to know whether academics are beginning to talk about these kinds of questions; no doubt, some are. In the area of english literature, the situation is particularly ironic, as the scholars are, in some cases, also the writers whose works end up being neglected; or, they are friends of these authors, and care deeply about the writing process and encouraging the writer. That's probably why they assigned the impossible assignment in the first place.

As librarians begin to move into evidence-based practice, here is a challenge that I am hoping my fellow professionals will take up: start by focusing on the research question, not the method. We have, and are developing, some fancy new tools that will give us interesting numbers to look at: database usage statistics, surveys, story-gathering and pattern-recognition software, among others. Rather than focusing on learning the tools and asking: what can we do with these? - why not ask ourselves the really important questions.

In this case, why is this assignment impossible? Why are researchers not researching and publishing on what they truly think is important? What can - or should librarians do this in situation? We could do pilot studies to encourage assignment-checking and eliminating those impossible assignments - but, is this a disservice to our academic colleagues? Should we not, instead, alert them to the fact that the research they expect someone is doing, is in fact not being done at all?

I would like to acknowledge my professor of research methodology and general LIS studies advisor, Dr. Alvin Schrader of the University of Alberta, for his contributions to my thinking here. If he reads this blogpost, he might be thinking: someone was listenting to those lectures!

As for the timely sharing of information, if professors would like to see students working on more timely research assignments, there is a simple and immediate solution: self-archive those preprints!

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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