Online Information Resources: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Cedar Falls Supper Club
September 16, 2014
As of 5:00 pm. today I will have completed eighteen years as an employee of the City of Waterloo. Since September 17, 1996 I have served eighteen years as the Technical Systems Administrator and nearly eleven as a professional librarian. In December of 2003 I graduated for the final time completing of 32 years of post K-12 education—off and on—resulting in several certificates, one bachelor's degree followed by graduate degrees in English, Education Technology, and Library Science. Intermingled in all this work and schooling were about eight years as an itinerant temporary part-time adjunct instructor. Mostly teaching writing, the “backbench” of academia. Though limited in scope and duration, my experiences as an information consumer, provider, and instructor suffice to provide reasonable insights into use of sources, print or online.
Over the past 45 odd years—a mere blink of an eye for this crowd—I've been consistently intrigued by the notion of knowing what I know, what I don't know, proving the former, discovering answers for the latter. Research is probably an innately human activity. With infants we see a lot of trial and error. However, as we get older we learn more sophisticated methods which we use with various levels of efficiency and effectiveness. One behavior remains fairly constant: If something works for us, we repeat it.
For example, last fall a gentleman came up to the Reference desk to ask if we still carried Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature! My first thought was, maybe we have some stowed in the basement, then realized that, in a fit of housekeeping, I had previously supervised the disposal of Reader's Guide as well as several thousand shelf feet of bound periodicals in various states of decay.
We don't subscribe to the modern version of the Reader's Guide—available from H.W. Wilson—via EbscoHost, but I did run the fellow through list of our research reference guides, which include the following:
. . . this multidisciplinary database provides full text for nearly 1,700 periodicals with full-text information dating as far back as 1975. Covering virtually every subject area of general interest, MasterFILE Premier also contains full text for nearly 500 reference books and over 164,400 primary source documents, as well as an Image Collection of over 592,000 photos, maps & flags.
Academic Search Elite
[which] contains full text for more than 2,100 journals, Nearly 150 journals have PDF images dating back to 1985.
Regional Business News
[which] incorporates coverage of more than 80 regional business publications covering all metropolitan and rural areas within the United States.
Health Source - Consumer Edition
[provides] information on many health topics including the medical sciences, food sciences and nutrition, childcare, sports medicine and general health. Health Source: Consumer Edition provides access to nearly 80 full text, consumer health magazines.
Business Source Elite
[which] provides information dating back to 1985. More than 10,100 substantial company profiles from Datamonitor are also included.
Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition
. . . provides nearly 550 scholarly full text journals focusing on many medical disciplines. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition also features the AHFS Consumer Medication Information, which covers 1,300 generic drug patient education sheets with more than 4,700 brand names.
And finally, the venerable
ERIC, the Education Resource Information Center, provides access to education literature and resources. The database contains more than 1.3 million records and provides access to information from journals included in the Current Index of Journals in Education and Resources in Education Index.
The above are a sample of our subscription online resources. EbscoWeb alone provides us with 23 different databases. Were the library to devote more resources we could acquire dozens of other web based research tools. In fact, dropping our entire acquisitions budget on research tools could be done in an afternoon. But we don't do so. In fact, for us to buy an online research tool nowadays, it has to be heavily subsidized by someone else and we must feel some sort of political need to do so. In the case of EbscoWeb, most of the money comes from the budget of Iowa Library Services. In the case of Learning Express, from Iowa Workforce Development.
We don't get those subsidies by accident.
From 2007-2010 I served as chair of ILA GAC (Iowa Library Association Government Affairs Committee) and had a behind-the-scenes view of how library policy is formulated and implemented.
Many of us have heard the quote, falsely attributed to Bismark: I have come to the conclusion that the making of laws is like the making of sausages—the less you know about the process the more you respect the result. This assessment is closer to the truth than you might expect. Anyway, my signature accomplishment as GAC chair was restoration of a significant reduction in Governor Culver's FY2009 budget proposal to the State Library. I vividly recall asking Governor Culver's representative, right in front of cringing lobbyists and State Library officials, “What the hell are you thinking? We're going to have editorials in all the major newspapers denouncing the cuts and calling for their restoration. We have 543 public libraries in this state governed by 3500 rapacious trustees who will be calling their legislators to bitch about this trivial cut. The legislature is going to restore the money and it's doubtful that the Governor will want to draw a line through it. Why not restore it right now and avoid all the negativity?”
The governor's boy shrugged and turned away.
The next AEA 267 legislative forum had about half a dozen librarians mostly clad in sensible shoes, lined up for the public questions segment. They took turns berating our legislators for abandoning the cultural and moral core of their community. One after another, the state's big newspapers, from Sioux City to Davenport, including Des Moines, felt the need to editorialize on behalf of us beleaguered librarians, doing our best for the kids of Iowa despite a hopelessly parsimonious governor. [I even got a complaint from Fred over my getting 800 words in the Courier while his essays on energy were limited to 200!]
The money was restored, and what did we get? Among other things, money for online subscription research databases.
Well, what's wrong with more access to high quality research tools that lead to articles written by experts, vetted, by scholars, mediated by big name university presses?
Answer: The fancy research tools are largely ignored by public library patrons.
Reality: Public library patrons are, at best indifferent and at worst, openly hostile to subscription databases, the search of which lead to scholarly articles. The patron looking for the beloved Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, that he loved so much in 1970, couldn't get excited about our Masterfile or Academic Elite resources. He was polite, but unpersuaded.
He did, however, know how to use Google and probably ended up with a Wikipedia article that may or may not have adequately answered his needs.
As much as library geeks admire the online subscription databases, our patrons are staying away in droves and are flocking to Google and Wikipedia. Is this obsession—Wikipedia now has more than 4 million articles and is the 6th busiest site on the World Wide Web—all that bad? Like many things in life, “it depends.”
Suppose my patron was seeking information on a drug recently prescribed by his physician, or perhaps an explanation of a new diagnosis, Google could very possibly have pointed him at Medline, or Mayo or the Cleveland Clinic. For example, it's possible that he was having prostate woes and was looking for information on Tamulosin, a generic formulation for Flowmax. Had he googled Tamulosin, the first hit would have been Medline and the second would have been Wikipedia. One source would give us, we assume, an objective, authoritative description of the drug and its applications while the other may or may not.
As a librarian, if a patron were to ask me about Tamulosin, I'd say take your questions to either a pharmacist or the prescribing doctor. If that's not satisfying, look at Medline, but be wary of Wikipedia. But I know darned well that our patrons—mostly unencumbered by graduate degrees in library science--are drawn to the Wikipedia. Wikipedia is easier to read (probably several grade levels below the work of the scientists of Medline) and has an egalitarian quality that appeals.
Frankly, I like Google. I often use Wikipedia. And so do most other librarians.
Josef Stalin is reported to have said that “quantity has a quality all its own If Stalin was right, Wikipedia certainly has the quantity quality: As of September 5, 2014, Wikipedia was home to some 4,596,421 articles. Tonight, 11 days later, has about 4,605,221 as about 800 new articles show up every day.
We also know that Wikipedia's accuracy compares favorably with mainstream encyclopedias: In particular, Encyclopedia Brittanica. Despite having a mere 80,000 odd articles, the venerable Encyclopedia Brittanica, when its articles under go comparative analysis with corresponding Wikipedia articles, has about the same level of accuracy. Brittanica, of course, consistently does have cleaner copy editing.
Like it or not, the world is moving rapidly towards crowd-sourced or otherwise non-professionally mediated reference tools.
Many in academia do not like the trend and are pushing back. An article by Scott Jaschik, “A Stand Against Wikipedia,” Inside Higher Education, notes that
As Wikipedia has become more and more popular with students, some professors have become increasingly concerned about the online, reader-produced encyclopedia. While plenty of professors have complained about the lack of accuracy or completeness of entries, and some have discouraged or tried to bar students from using it, the history department a Middlebury College is trying to take a stronger, collective stand. It voted this month to bar students from citing the web site as a source in papers or other academic work. All faculty members will be telling students about the policy and explaining why material on Wikipedia—while convenient—may not be trustworthy.
Wikipedia not trustworthy? Not an appropriate source? No kidding! I've been fussing around with teachers and sources for quite some time now and do not recall a time, at least since the early 1960s, when encyclopedia articles were considered—with some exceptions—an appropriate source for academic work.
The editors of Wikipedia agree with this assertion: according to Jaschik, Wikipedia spokeswoman stated that
Wikipedia is an ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, however, it is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources. Additionally, it is generally good research practice to cite an original source when writing a paper. . . . It is usually not advisable, particularly at the university level, to cite an encyclopedia.
Furthermore, Wikipedia policy explicitly forbids primary research:
Wikipedia articles must not contain original research. To demonstrate that you are not adding original research, you must be able to cite reliable, published sources that are directly related to the topic of the article, and directly support the material being presented.
"No original research" is one of three core content policies that, along with Neutral point of view and Verifiability, determines the type and quality of material acceptable in articles. Because these policies work in harmony, they should not be interpreted in isolation from one another, and editors should familiarize themselves with all three.
The Wikipedia disclaimer not withstanding, it's possible to imagine circumstances wherein citing an encyclopedia or almanac in an academic work would be acceptable. Are the professors of Middlebury College claiming that Encyclopedia Britannica or the World Almanac would be acceptable to cite but not Wikipedia?
For instance, if the writer of a paper wanted to establish the duration of the Little Ice Age, which is a matter of some discussion, would a reference to Encyclopedia Britannica be acceptable while a reference to Wikipedia would be grounds for dinging the student's evaluation? If so, why?
Certainly, it is still the case that a research paper based primarily on information gleaned from encyclopedias would be frowned upon. If this is the case, why is it that so many in the academic community continue to vent about Wikipedia?
Some academics—present company excluded--are griping about the use of Wikipedia as a source for research papers are attacking a straw man of their own contrivance! Many professors are convinced that after years, perhaps decades, of study that they are damned well not going to be usurped by a bunch of volunteer 26.5 year-old Wikipedia editors! So, instead of shrugging it off, treating Wikipedia as they would any other encyclopedic source, they go nuts over errors and typos while ignoring the fabulous scope and consequence of this huge social phenomenon.
I started thinking about this seriously last June at the Civil War Institute. Each June, about 300 American Civil War geeks and scholars take over the Gettysburg College campus and spend four days listening to lectures, taking tours, and drinking chocolate milk in the student cafeteria.
During one of the panel discussions a professor lamented the rise of online, crowd-sourced resources, especially Wikipedia, that facilitated the propagation of misinformation. He covered the usual bases, no vetting, anybody can post, lack of comprehensivity, etc. This led to the only time where I got up the nerve to get into the microphone line with my “question.” I suggested that with half of a billion unique users each month, like it or not, Wikipedia is a more important source of ready reference ACW information than are all of the articles and books published by everyone on the stage. My suggestion was that, rather than complaining, they should embrace Wikipedia. Were they to become editors they would be able to assert a huge positive influence on the quality of information consumed by ACW buffs.
The response ranged from sharp looks, to indifference, to nodding heads.
I've been looking at ACW Wikipedia articles for quite some time. Some are extremely well-done while others are appalling. The misbegotten articles tend to draw derisive comments and are often, but not always repaired. I'm a Wikipedia contributor and have, from time-to-time, intervened to touch up problematic articles. Cherie and I have even authored articles and from our experience it's not a trivial task.
Shortly after my experience in Pennsylvania, Cherie and I had a visit with Barbara Lounsberry where she proudly showed off her new book, a scholarly treatment of Virginia Woolf's diaries titled, Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read. For a mere $61.51 you can own a copy of this 272 page gem. Barb's treatment of Woolf is accurate, comprehensive, important, and will be well-reviewed. The work already resides on 147 university shelves, ranging from UNI to Victoria University in Perth, Australia, including Harvard and several other Ivy League institutions.
However in the previous 30 days, 56,227 unique users have visited the Wikipedia article devoted to Virginia Woolf. That works out to 1874 visits a day, about 684,000+ visits annually! The Wikipedia article includes links to articles on 19 Woolf works and cites 40 sources.
If Barb's book is a bang up success she'll be lucky to sell 5,000 copies which will probably not circulate very well. However, if she were to become a Wikipedia editor she could control—or at least influence—the content of the material displayed to hundreds of thousands of readers on the World Wide Web. And, of course, the 41st work cited on the main article could be Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read!
Barb could also oversee the existing Wikipedia entries on nine Woolf novels, two collections of short stories, four works of non-fiction, and six photo albums. By-the-way: in the previous thirty days, To the Lighthouse has had 13,073 unique visits; Mrs Dalloway, a mere 887!
I would like to leave you with the following assertions and one admonition:
I get the notion that formal resources, online or in print, vetted by scholars, mediated by serious publishers, are important and well-worth the money for those doing academic research. I understand that teachers would be wise to require that their students not rely upon encyclopedias or almanacs.
However, those who ignore the phenomenon of crowd based information sources do so at the risk of being left out. Rather than carping and complaining about the new paradigm, I suggest that we embrace it. When we see an awkwardly written or erroneous article, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, establish a credential, log in, announce your presence on the “talk” pages, and become part of the solution.
Our guiding philosophy should be: It's the quality of the article that counts, not the medium nor the author.