16.2 Finding Your Sources

Article links:

Wikipedia Is Good for You!?” by James P. Purdy

“Googlepedia: Turning Information Behaviors into Research Skills” by Randall McClure

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  • Identify reasons for research-based writing in college.
  • Describe the role information literacy plays in society.

 

Wikipedia Is Good for You!?

by James P. Purdy

“I actually do think Wikipedia is an amazing thing. It is the first place I go when I’m looking for knowledge. Or when I want to create some.”

—Stephen Colbert

You may not realize it, but creating knowledge is one reason you are asked to do research-based writing1 in college.* And a popular resource you may already use can help you with this task—though perhaps not in the way you might initially think. Wikipedia, the free wiki “encyclopedia,”2 can provide information to assist you with and model some of the activities frequently characteristic of college-level research-based writing. As with any resource you use, your success with Wikipedia depends on how and why you use it. The goal of this chapter is to show you how and why you might use Wikipedia to help you complete research-based writing tasks for your first year composition class. It offers suggestions for two ways to use—and not to use—Wikipedia. The first is as a source. The second is as a process guide.

My premise for the first is that you are going to use Wikipedia as a source for writing assignments regardless of cautions against it, so it is more helpful to address ways to use it effectively than to ignore it (and ignoring it precludes some potentially beneficial uses of Wikipedia anyway). My premise for the second is that, as I argue elsewhere, Wikipedia can reinforce approaches to research-based writing that many composition teachers support. Wikipedia, that is, can help to illustrate (1) recursive revision based on idea development, (2) textual production based on participation in a conversation rather than isolated thinking, and (3) research based on production rather than only critique (Purdy). The process of successfully contributing to a Wikipedia article, in other words, parallels the process of successfully creating a piece of research-based writing. Both involve putting forth ideas in writing and developing them in response to feedback based on audience members’ perceptions of the usefulness, accuracy, and value of those ideas.

I offer two caveats before I proceed. All first year writing instructors teach research-based writing differently and ask you to produce different kinds of texts for assignments, so you will need to adapt the suggestions offered in this essay for your particular course and assignment. My goal is not to mandate one correct, universally applicable process of research-based writing. There is none. Nor is it to claim that products of research-based writing should look like a Wikipedia article. They should not. Wikipedia articles are a different genre than academic research-based writing. Wikipedia seeks to emulate an encyclopedia (that’s where the “pedia” part of the name comes from) and, thereby, requires that articles be written in what it calls “NPOV,” or neutral point of view; articles are intended to represent all significant sides of a topic rather than to persuade readers to believe one is correct (Bruns 113–114, “Wikipedia:Neutral”). Research-based writing assignments in first year composition commonly ask you to advance and develop your own argument on a topic by drawing on and responding to relevant outside sources. While you may be asked to represent multiple views on a topic for such an assignment, you will frequently be asked to argue for one, so your writing will likely be more overtly persuasive than a Wikipedia article.

Despite these important differences, I believe that some of the practices often involved in successfully writing a Wikipedia article are also often involved in successfully writing a research-based text for college classes: reviewing, conversing, revising, and sharing. As Australian scholar Axel Bruns asserts, “Wikipedia . . . is closely aligned with the live processes of academic exchanges of knowledge” (208, italics in original). Thus, this chapter proceeds with the assumption that it is useful to consider Wikipedia as both a product (i.e., a source) and a representation of process (i.e., a guide to practices).

Using Wikipedia as a Source

The first way you may think to use Wikipedia is as a source—that is, as a text you can quote or paraphrase in a paper. After all, Wikipedia is easy to access and usually pretty easy to understand. Its articles are often current and frequently provide interesting facts and information that can support your ideas. What’s not to like?

Usually teachers do not like two primary aspects of Wikipedia. The first is its open participation: anyone, regardless of background, qualifications, or expertise, can write Wikipedia articles. As a result, articles can display incorrect information. There are many examples of such incorrect information on Wikipedia. Perhaps the most infamous involves the Wikipedia article on John Seigenthaler (former journalist, political advisor, and father of the reporter of the same name on NBC news). Brian Chase changed the article to indicate that Seigenthaler played a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert. This untrue contribution lasted for 132 days (Page, “Wikipedia Biography”). Seigenthaler was understandably upset, which he reported vociferously in an article in USA Today (Seigenthaler). Were someone to take Wikipedia’s John Seigenthaler3 article at face value during this time, she or he would come to the wrong conclusion about Seigenthaler. If you quote or paraphrase a Wikipedia article as an authoritative source, then, you are potentially making a claim based on wrong information, and using incorrect information is not a good way to make a convincing argument. Of course, misinformation isn’t limited to Wikipedia. As Jim Giles reports in Nature, Encyclopaedia Britannica has errors in some of its articles, too; he claims that Wikipedia is almost as accurate as Britannica for a series of articles on science topics (900–901; see also Bruns 127–133, Levinson 93). You should, therefore, read critically all sources, not just Wikipedia articles. It’s always a good idea to verify information in multiple sources. To ensure a better chance of accuracy, though, college-level research- based writing assignments generally ask you to use sources written by academic professionals and recognized experts.

The second aspect of Wikipedia that many teachers do not like is its changeability: Wikipedia articles do not remain the same over time. The Michael Jackson article makes this explicit. Its 19:35, 27 June 2009 version begins with a header: “This article is about a person who has recently died. Some information, such as that pertaining to the circumstances of the person’s death and surrounding events, may change rapidly as more facts become known” (emphasis in original). As this notice implies, the article didn’t stay the same for long given the unfolding details of Jackson’s death. As a result of such change- ability, Wikipedia articles are unreliable; the article you cite today may not exist in that form tomorrow. This variability challenges prevailing understanding of how published texts work so causes some anxiety. Because print texts are (relatively) stable, we expect texts we read (and cite) to be the same when we go back to them later. Even Wikipedia contributors express worry about the implications of article changeability for citation:

Among other problems . . . if several authors cite the same Wikipedia article, they may all cite different versions, leading to complete confusion. That just linking to the article sans version information is not enough can be seen by those Wikipedia articles themselves which refer to others, where it is clear from following the link that a different version was referred to (and there is no clue which of the many versions in the history was actually read by the person who cited it). (“Why Wikipedia Is Not So Great”)

As Wikipedians explain, article variability makes citing hard because it is difficult for readers to know which version of a Wikipedia article an author cited. And academic audiences like to be able to return to the texts you cite to verify the conclusions you draw from them. If the texts you cite don’t exist anymore, they cannot do that.

Teachers have concerns about you using Wikipedia as a source for another reason—one that has less to do with Wikipedia itself and more to do with the kinds of texts you are expected to use in research-based writing. Most college-level writing asks you to engage more deeply with a subject than does an encyclopedia, and doing so entails reading more than the general overview of a topic that encyclopedia articles provide.4 So articles from any encyclopedia are not usually good sources to quote, paraphrase, or summarize in your writing. Indeed, in response to Middlebury College’s history department officially banning students from using Wikipedia as a source in their papers, Sandra Ordonez, a spokesperson for Wikipedia, and Roy Rosenzweig, Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, agreed “the real problem is one of college students using encyclopedias when they should be using more advanced sources” (Jaschikn.  pag.). If you wouldn’t cite an encyclopedia article in a project, then citing a Wikipedia article likely isn’t a good idea either.

Because of their open participation, unreliability, and (potentially) shallow topic coverage, you generally should not cite Wikipedia articles as authoritative sources in college-level writing. This does not mean that Wikipedia is not useful, or that you cannot read it, or that you should not cite it if you do use it. It does mean that Wikipedia is better used in other ways.

Using Wikipedia as a Starting Place 

There are productive ways to use Wikipedia. In fact, Wikipedia can be a good source in three different ways. Rather than a source to cite, it can be a source of (1) ideas, (2) links to other texts, and (3) search terms.

To use Wikipedia as a source of ideas, read the Wikipedia article on your topic when you begin a research-based writing project to get a sense of the multiple aspects or angles you might write about. Many Wikipedia articles include a table of contents and headings that provide multiple lenses through which you might frame an argument (e.g., origins, history, economics, impact, production). Looking at the table of contents and headings can help you view your topic from vantage points you might not otherwise consider and can give you directions to pursue and develop in your writing.

You can also use Wikipedia as a gateway to other texts to consult for your research. Wikipedia’s Verifiability Policy requires that material posted to articles be verifiable—that is, be cited (Bruns 114, “Wikipedia: Verifiability”)—so articles include bibliographies, as shown in figure 1. They also frequently include “further reading,” “external link,” or “see also” lists, as shown in figure 2. These lists provide the names of—and often direct links to—other sources. Take advantage of these leads. When you have decided on a topic and are searching for sources to develop and support your thinking, look at these references, external links, and further reading lists. Wikipedia’s Verifiability Policy, however, does not stipulate what kinds of sources contributors must cite to verify the information they post, so these reference and further reading lists do not necessarily provide connections to trustworthy, valid texts appropriate for citing in an academic paper (but, then again, neither do other sources). You still need to evaluate a source to determine if it is suitable for use.

 

Figure 1. References section from Wikipedia’s Web 2.0 article 5

 

Figure 2. Further reading section from Wikipedia’s Writing article

Utilizing Wikipedia as a gateway to other sources should not replace going to the library or using your library’s online databases. In fact, reviewing the Wikipedia article on your topic can help you better discover sources in your school’s library. You might read Wikipedia articles to help you generate search terms to use for finding sources in your school library’s catalog and online databases. Ashley Gill (who, like all students quoted in this essay, consented to the use of her real name) explains how she used Wikipedia in this way for an award- winning research project for her school’s first year composition class:

For this project, I began on Wikipedia, knowing that results were not accurate, but also knowing I could find useful search terms there. I was only slightly familiar with the psychology angle I was using for my paper, and so Wikipedia gave me a rough sketch of the general background. From here, I used the information I gained from Wikipedia to search for books form [sic] the . . . Library. (“Research” 2–3)

Gill acknowledges Wikipedia’s problem with accuracy but outlines ways in which Wikipedia was still really useful in helping her get some general background information to determine search terms to use to find sources through the library. You might find Wikipedia similarly useful.

Using Wikipedia as a Process Guide

Not only is Wikipedia potentially useful for generating ideas, finding sources, and determining search terms, but it is also potentially useful for remembering and understanding some of the tasks that are frequently part of good research-based writing: reviewing, conversing, revising, and sharing. To be clear, I am not suggesting that all types of research-based writing ask you to do these tasks in exactly the same way or that your writing should emulate a Wikipedia article. However, some of what happens in making successful contributions to Wikipedia parallels some of what happens in producing effective research-based writing. Looking at Wikipedia can help to demystify these practices. These practices happen recursively—that is, they repeat—so the order in which I present them here is not necessarily the best or correct one. While you do not need to move through these practices in a specific order, you will want to engage in these activities for many research-based writing assignments.

The Wikipedia Interface

Before proceeding, let me offer an overview of the Wikipedia interface so that the following discussion, which points to specific aspects of the interface, makes sense. A Wikipedia article’s interface has four tabs, as shown in figure 3. These tabs are labeled “article,” “discussion,” “edit this page,” and “history.” The “article” tab contains the content of the article. This content is what displays automatically when you open an article in Wikipedia. The “discussion” tab provides access to the conversation surrounding the article, how it is being written, and the topic being written about. On this page users can, among other things, suggest changes to an article, justify changes they made to an article, and ask why other users made changes to an article. You can participate in this conversation. The “edit this page” tab provides a space for users to add, delete, or revise content of an article. This page is where people write the content that is displayed on the “article” page. You can make these changes. Finally, the “history” tab lists all the versions of the article, when they were written, who updated them, and what changes each user made (each author can provide a summary of his or her changes). On the “history” tab users can also compare and contrast selected article versions.

Figure 3. A Wikipedia article interface’s four tabs as shown for the Web 2.0 article

Each of the sections below is devoted to a practice common to both successful Wikipedia contributions and research-based writing. In each, I explain how Wikipedia authors engage in that practice, outline how you can learn from what Wikipedians do to engage in that practice for your research-based writing, and finally provide a specific way you can use Wikipedia for help with that practice.

Reviewing

Examining the role of reviewing in contributing to a Wikipedia article can help you understand the role of reviewing in research-based writing. To make a successful contribution to Wikipedia, authors must review what other contributors have already written about the topic. They don’t want to include information that the community of people interested in and knowledgeable about the topic has determined to be inappropriate, off topic, or unimportant, or to simply repeat information already published. Such contributions will be deleted—usually quickly—because they do not offer anything new to people’s understanding of the topic.

To do this review, successful Wikipedia contributors read texts in and outside of Wikipedia. They look at previous versions of an article on the history page, including the change summaries provided by authors, and read the discussion surrounding an article on the discussion page. To show that they have reviewed other texts published on the topic of the article they are contributing to, Wikipedians also provide citations for material they post. As I indicate above, Wikipedia requires that material posted to articles be verifiable (Bruns 114, “Wikipedia: Verifiability”), so contributors need to demonstrate that they can verify material they post by citing its source. As shown in figure 4, an absence of citations often results in a warning that someone needs to cite a source to support what is written or the text will be removed.

 

Figure 4. Wikipedia’s warning to provide citations to verify claims from the research article

This process parallels what you can do for research-based writing assignments. Review what other contributors have already published about your topic so you avoid writing something that is inappropriate, off topic, or repetitive. Doing this review in formal course writing is somewhat different than doing it in Wikipedia, though. You need to acknowledge in the texts you write that you have reviewed what others have previously published by doing what is called a literature review. A literature review entails summarizing main points from your sources, identifying their insights and/or limitations, and situating these texts in relation to one another and your writing.

Let’s look at an example. Gill provides a literature review in her essay “The Analogical Effects of Neural Hemispheres in ‘The Purloined Letter’”:

There are approaches to cognitive, and consequently behavioral, functioning that stem from ideas that each side of the brain thinks differently. Michael Grady asserts that a person who thinks with one side of his brain will differ greatly than a person who thinks with the opposite side (20–21). According to Thomas Regelski, the left side is said to think in the following ways: “linear, sequential, logical, analytical, verbal, fragmenting, differentiating, convergence (seeks closure) . . . conventional symbols, facts (objective, impersonal, confirmable), precision, explicit, Scientific Empiricism/Logical Positivism/certitude/ surety” (30). Conversely, Regelski establishes that the right side is responsible for thinking in the subsequent ways, which seemingly oppose the first set of thinking methods: “circular, simultaneous, para- doxical, combinative, holistic, divergence (content with open-endedness) . . . expressive, vague, implicit . . . Immanence/ Introspectionism/ Intuitionism/ Intuitive Cognition/ indwelling/insight/intuition” (30). Sally Springer and Georg Deutsch assert in their book Left Brain, Right Brain that the human brain is divided in this model, and an easier way to interpret this model is “the left hemisphere is something like a digital computer, the right like an analog computer” (185), and that depending on which hemisphere the individual uses most primarily, the individual will think and therefore act in accord with said attributed qualities (186). Poe incorporates many of these characteristics into his characters[’] methods during the investigation. The Prefect exemplifies the left side thinking with his systematic and complex approach to finding the purloined letter, while the Minister and Dupin utilize both right and left side attributes, thinking about the cognitions of the other and acting accordingly. (12–13)

Here Gill shows that she has reviewed the work of Grady, Regelski, and Springer and Deutsch by over-viewing their claims about brain function and then connecting those claims to her argument about “The Purloined Letter.” Like a successful Wikipedia contributor, she also offers citations, though the form of these citations is different than in Wikipedia. Wikipedia generally uses hyperlinked endnotes, while the most popular academic citation styles from the American Psychological Association (APA) and Modern Language Association (MLA), which Gill uses here, require in-text parenthetical citations and reference and works cited lists, respectively. Despite these differences, the larger idea is the same: in your research-based writing you need to show you have reviewed other relevant texts to demonstrate conversance with appropriate source material and to allow readers to verify your conclusions.

I end this section suggesting a way you can use Wikipedia to help you with this reviewing process. My intention here is to not to prepare you to contribute to a Wikipedia article itself, but rather to use Wikipedia to prepare you to do the reviewing that is part of successful research-based writing. When you are beginning a research-based writing assignment, read the discussion page for the Wikipedia article on the topic you are writing about and identify the debates, questions, and absences that you find. In other words, list what contributors (1) argue about (i.e., what ideas are contentious), (2) have questions about, and (3) think is missing from and should be included in coverage of that topic. Then identify these debates, questions, and absences for the published literature (i.e., books, articles) on your topic. Review what other authors have written about them. Looking at the discussion page first allows you to enact on a smaller scale what you need to do with a wider range of sources for a literature review in a research-based writing project.

Let’s consider an example. If you read the discussion page for the Wikipedia article History of the board game Monopoly, a section of which is shown in figure 5, you will find that contributors argue about when the game originated and the role Elizabeth Magie played in its creation; they ask questions about the rules for players selling property to one another; and they think information on the volume of game sales, McDonald’s Monopoly games/promotions, and the World Monopoly Championships is missing and should be addressed more fully. Were you to write about the history of the board game Monopoly, you now have several avenues (no pun intended!) to read about and know what you might need to review in making an argument on the topic.

 

Figure 5. Section of the discussion page from Wikipedia’s History of the board game Monopoly article

Conversing

A second practice successful Wikipedia contributors engage in that reflects a successful practice of research-based writing is conversing. Productive Wikipedia authors situate their contributions to an article in relation to those of past authors, recognizing that making a contribution to an article is like stepping into an ongoing conversation. Wikipedia authors engage in this practice by posting to the discussion page—for example, by asking questions of and responding to other contributors and by arguing for why they made certain changes—and by providing change summaries for their contributions when they edit an article, particularly change summaries that identify briefly why they made a certain change—for example, “corrected factual errors in introduction,” “deleted irrelevant information to maintain article focus.”

As with reviewing, conversing is another practice frequently characteristic of successful research-based writing. You should respond to the sources you use rather than just report on or parrot them. While Wikipedia contributors can literally insert themselves into a conversation on a Wikipedia article discussion page, you can engage in conversation with sources in research-based writing by quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing them; by indicating agreements, disagreements, and connections among them and you; and by showing their insights, limitations, and applications.

Consider the following example. In a paragraph from “Literacy,” an award-winning first year composition essay on the need to “broad- en the range of serious reading material for youth to include comic books and the [I]nternet” (16), Lindsey Chesmar acknowledges what two other sources, Bob Hoover (italicized below) and Janell D. Wilson and Linda H. Casey (bolded below), have written about youth reading behaviors and inserts what she wishes to say in response to them (unformatted text below):

The NEA report, “To Read or Not to Read,” [sic] shows “the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read” (Hoover 1). Although many people could have already guessed, this NEA report officially states what has been on the decline since the early 1990s. However, it seems as though the NEA left out some important data when conducting their study. According to Wilson and Casey, “comic books have been at the top of the student preference list for sometime, yet it seems that they may not count as ‘serious’ reading material” (47). Children and young adults have been reading comics and comic books since their beginning. Some educators also use comics in class as a way to interest students who would be otherwise unwilling to read (Wilson and Casey 47). However, literary studies rarely include comic books in their questions and surveys of youth. If a young adult spends 3 hours a week reading comic books, the study will not include that in their overall findings. It is as if that time the young adult spends reading means nothing. The NEA itself did not include the “ double-digit growth in recent years” in sales of books aimed at teens (Hoover 1). This statistic leads me to believe that teens are actually reading more than what the recent studies suggest. Leaving out some young adults’ reading time and the growing popularity of young adult books could lead to misrepresentations in the results of the overall literacy studies. This also may lead the young adult to believe that what they are reading is not worthy enough, or “serious” enough, to count towards anything. They may feel discouraged and give up reading all together after finding out the things they like to read are not valid in the literary and educational worlds. (17, italics and boldface added)

In this paragraph, Chesmar makes clear that she knows important components of the ongoing conversation about literacy and reading: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a study that reports reading (amount and proficiency) has declined in the United States and, though popular among young adults, comic books did not count as reading material for the study. She puts sources discussing these ideas into conversation; note the back and forth between the bold, italics, and unformatted text. She then responds to these sources, writing, “This statistic leads me to believe that teens are actually reading more than what the recent studies suggest” (17). Chesmar thereby establishes her role in the conversation: she thinks the NEA report provides misleading results because it ignores certain types of reading material, which, for her, can have some troubling consequences.

Again, I end this section offering a suggestion for how you can use Wikipedia to help you with the research-based writing process—in this case, by putting your sources into conversation with one another and with you. One way to engage in a conversation like Chesmar does is to construct a dialogue between your sources like the dialogue on a Wikipedia article discussion page. Identify topics your sources address and create headings for them (e.g., concerns, benefits, history). Then quote and paraphrase relevant material from your sources and group it under the appropriate heading. Finally, situate these quotes and paraphrases in relation to one another and add yourself to the discussion. Literally construct a dialogue between them and you. The idea is to see yourself as a participant with a voice in the conversation.

Revising

Another practice that is part of successful Wikipedia and research-based writing is revising. Effective Wikipedia contributors revise articles frequently. They take advantage of the wiki capability to edit the articles they read. To be successful, they do not give up when other people delete or change their contributions but instead revise in response to the feedback they receive (be that from posts to the discussion page, change summaries on the history page, or administrator explanations for why something was removed). The history page for nearly any Wikipedia article provides evidence of how frequently Wikipedians revise. Figure 6, for instance, shows that authors made eleven revisions to the Michael Jackson article in one hour on 28 June 2009. As this page illustrates, making an enduring contribution to a Wikipedia article is an ongoing process of negotiation with the reading audience. Moreover, those contributors who revise the most and have their article contributions last for a long time can gain in status among the Wikipedia community and be promoted to administrators. It is, in other words, through revising that Wikipedia contributors earn respect.

 

Figure 6. Section of the history page from Wikipedia’s Michael Jackson article.

To succeed at research-based writing, you, like a successful Wikipedian, should also revise your texts multiple times in response to feedback you receive. You might receive such feedback from teachers, peers, writing center consultants, roommates, and friends who offer advice and suggestions rather than from strangers who change the text itself, as is the case for Wikipedia contributors. But the larger idea re- mains: creating an effective text involves multiple iterations of recursive revision. You need to write a draft, get some feedback, respond to that feedback in your next draft, and repeat the process. Good writing entails thinking through your ideas on the page or screen. Rarely do people record perfectly what they think the first time they write it down. Indeed, you often don’t know what you think until you write it down. It is not uncommon, therefore, to find at the end of your first draft the thesis to develop in your second. That’s okay! Knowledge production through writing is an ongoing process.

One way to use Wikipedia to help with revising a course assignment is to post a change to a Wikipedia article based on a draft you are writing, see how others respond and analyze those responses. In other words, give your idea a test drive with a public audience. If you aren’t comfortable posting directly to an article or are afraid your contribution might get taken down, suggest a change on the discussion page and likewise chronicle the responses. Then revise your draft based on the feedback and responses you receive. The point of this activity isn’t just to revise the Wikipedia article itself (though you might chose to do that later), but to use responses and what you learn by posting to Wikipedia to help you revise your research-based writing for class.

Sharing

A final practice successful Wikipedians engage in that reflects a successful practice of research-based writing is sharing. To get feedback, Wikipedia contributors share their writing; they post it for public viewing by editing an article and/or contributing to the discussion page for that article. Otherwise, they do not get feedback, their writing cannot have an impact on others’ understanding of a topic, and they cannot gain in status among the Wikipedia community. To more fully participate in this sharing, they might even register and create a profile so other contributors and readers know who they are and can contact them. Professor Mark A. Wilson, for example, identifies contact with other people as a beneficial outcome of sharing his writing and photographs on the Great Inagua Island Wikipedia article. He was even invited to speak at the school of someone who saw what he shared.

You also need to share your writing to be successful. While this may seem obvious on some level, sharing involves more than turning in a final draft to a teacher. You have to be willing and prepared to share your writing earlier in your writing process. You can share by taking your writing to the writing center,6 giving it to a classmate for a peer workshop, or reviewing it in a conference with an instructor. This sharing is clearly less public than posting to a widely accessible website like Wikipedia, but it still entails making written work avail- able to a reading audience and is a critical part of the learning process. Key is that in order to get the most benefit from sharing—that is, to get feedback to which you can respond—you need to be prepared to share your writing prior to its due date. In other words, you cannot procrastinate.

Using Wikipedia as I suggest above in the revising section is also a good way to share your writing. After all, a goal of sharing is to get feedback to revise. You can, however, use wiki technology in another way to share your writing. You can record in a course wiki (or another wiki you create) your writing of a text, provide change summaries for all of the different versions along the way, and ask others to review your progress. Using a wiki in this way allows you to reflect on what you are doing and provides an accessible venue for you to share your work—one where your peers and your teacher can respond.

Conclusion

Understanding how to use (and not to use) Wikipedia as a source can help you avoid relying on Wikipedia in unproductive ways and can help you see sources as more than static products to plunk into your writing. In other words, looking at Wikipedia as a starting place (for ideas, sources, search terms, etc.) shows the importance of engaging with rather than ventriloquizing sources—of viewing sources as means to spur and develop your thinking rather than as means to get someone else to do your thinking for you.

Doing research-based writing can also be less daunting—and more fulfilling and fun—when you understand the practices involved and realize that these activities are an important part of knowledge creation. No one assigned Wikipedia contributors to proceed as they do. Since their goal, however, is to add to our understanding of a topic— the very same goal you have for the research-based writing you do in first year composition—they engage in certain activities: reviewing, conversing, revising, and sharing. Not all Wikipedians perform these practices in the same order in the same way, but successful Wikipedians do them. And the most dedicated contributors stay involved even after their text is shared: they read, respond, and revise, over and over again. The process doesn’t stop when their writing is made public. That’s just the beginning. If you approach your research-based writing in a similar fashion, it’ll likely be the beginning of a journey of knowledge creation for you, too.

Notes

1. You may be familiar with the term research paper and may have been asked to write one for some of your classes. I don’t use that term here, however. There are two primary reasons: (1) Research “papers” need not be papers anymore. That is, what you write need not be in the form of a print document. It might be a website or a video or a poster or some other multimedia form. The term research paper doesn’t encapsulate all these possibilities. (2) Research papers are often associated with presentations of what other people have written about a topic. When people hear research paper, in other words, they often think of compiling what other authoritative, smart people have to say about a topic and calling it a day. The kind of writing you are asked to do in college, however, requires more than that. It asks for your response to and application of what others have written. You need to do something with the sources you read (other than just string together quotes from them in your paper). So instead of research paper, I use research-based writing. This term emphasizes the activity (writing) rather than the medium (paper). This term also presents research as the basis (research-based), a beginning rather than an end.

2.   I put the word “encyclopedia” in quotation marks because I argue that calling Wikipedia an encyclopedia and evaluating it based on the standards of print-based encyclopedias misrepresents the way it works (see Purdy W352, W357, W365).

3.  For clarity, I italicize the names of Wikipedia articles in this chapter.

4.  That Wikipedia provides the same shallow coverage as other encyclopedias, or even that it should be considered an encyclopedia, is debatable (Bruns 101–133, Levinson 95–98). Nonetheless, its prevailing classification as an encyclopedia raises concern.

5.  This image, like all the images in this chapter, comes from the English version of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/) and, like all Wikipedia content (except the logo, which Wikipedia does not allow to be reproduced), is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike (http:// creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) and GNU Free Documentation License (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), which permit reproduction of content with attribution for non-commercial purposes, as explained by Wikipedia’s official policy on reusing Wikipedia content (“Wikipedia:Reusing Wikipedia Content”).

6. See Ben Rafoth’s “Why Visit Your Campus Writing Center?” chapter in this Writing Spaces volume.

Googlepedia: Turning Information Behaviors into Research Skills

by Randall McClure

Introduction

The ways in which most writers find, evaluate, and use information have changed significantly over the past ten years.* A recent study, for example, has shown that as many as nine out of every ten students begin the process of searching for information on the Web, either using a search engine, particularly Google, or an online encyclopedia, notably Wikipedia (Nicholas, Rowlands and Huntington 7). I believe this finding is true of most writers, not just students like you; the Web is our research home.

To illustrate for you how the Web has changed the nature of research and, as a result, the shape of research-based writing, I trace in this chapter the early research decisions of two first year composition students, Susan and Edward, one who begins research in Google and another who starts in Wikipedia. Part narrative, part analysis, part reflection, and part instruction, this chapter blends the voices of the student researchers with me, in the process of seeking a new way to research.

Please understand that I do not plan to dismiss the use of what I call “Googlepedia” in seeking information. As James P. Purdy writes in his essay on Wikipedia in Volume 1 of Writing Spaces, “[Y]ou are going to use [Google and] Wikipedia as a source for writing assignments regardless of cautions against [them], so it is more helpful to address ways to use [them] than to ignore [them]” (205). Therefore, my goal in this chapter is to suggest a blended research process that begins with the initial tendency to use Google and Wikipedia and ends in the university library. While Susan and Edward find Googlepedia to be “good enough” for conducting research, this chapter shows you why that’s not true and why the resources provided by your school library are still much more effective for conducting research. In doing so, I include comments from Susan and Edward on developing their existing information behaviors into academic research skills, and I offer questions to help you consider your own information behaviors and research skills.

Understanding Information Literacy

Before I work with you to move your information behaviors inside the online academic library, you need to understand the concept of information literacy. The American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) define information literacy “a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (American Library Association). The ACRL further acknowledges that information literacy is “increasingly important in the contemporary environment of rapid technological change and proliferating information resources. Because of the escalating complexity of this environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choices” (Association of College and Research Libraries). In short, information literacy is a set of skills you need to understand, find, and use information.

I am certain that you are already familiar with conducting research on the Web, and I admit that finding information quickly and effortlessly is certainly alluring. But what about the reliability of the information you find? Do you ever question if the information you find is really accurate or true? If you have, then please know that you are not alone in your questions. You might even find some comfort in my belief that conducting sound academic research is more challenging now than at any other time in the history of the modern university.

Writing in a Googlepedia World

Teachers Tiffany J. Hunt and Bud Hunt explain that the web-based encyclopedia Wikipedia is not just a collection of web pages built on wiki technology1, it is a web-based community of readers and writers, and a trusted one at that. Whereas most student users of Wikipedia trust the community of writers that contribute to the development of its pages of information, many teachers still criticize or disregard Wikipedia because of its open participation in the writing process, possible unreliability, and at times shallow coverage (Purdy 209), since “anyone, at any time, can modify by simply clicking on an ‘edit this page’ button found at the top of every Web entry” (Hunt and Hunt 91). However, the disregard for Wikipedia appears to be on the decline, and more and more users each day believe the “information is trustworthy and useful because, over time, many, many people have contributed their ideas, thoughts, passions, and the facts they learned both in school and in the world” (91). Wikipedia and Google are so much a part of the research process for writers today that to ignore their role and refuse to work with these tools seems ludicrous.

Still, the accuracy and verifiability of information are not as clear and consistent in many sources identified through Wikipedia and Google as they are with sources found in most libraries. For this reason, I am sure you have been steered away at least once from information obtained from search engines like Yahoo and Google as well as online encyclopedias like Answers.com and Wikipedia. Despite the resistance that’s out there, Alison J. Head and Michael Eisenberg from Project Information Literacy report from their interviews with groups of students on six college campuses that “Wikipedia was a unique and indispensable research source for students . . . there was a strong consensus among students that their research process began with [it]” (11). The suggestion by Head and Eisenberg that many students go to Google and Wikipedia first, and that many of them go to these websites in order to get a sense of the big picture (11), is confirmed in the advice offered by Purdy when he writes that Wikipedia allows you to “get a sense of the multiple aspects or angles” on a topic (209). Wikipedia brings ideas together on a single page as well as provides an accompanying narrative or summary that writers are often looking for during their research, particularly in the early stages of it. Head and Eisenberg term this Googlepedia-based information behavior “presearch,” specifically pre-researching a topic before moving onto more focused, serious, and often library-based research.

The concept of presearch is an important one for this chapter; Ed- ward’s reliance on Wikipedia and Susan’s reliance on Google are not research crutches, but useful presearch tools. However, Edward and Susan admit they would not have made the research move into the virtual library to conduct database-oriented research without my intervention in the research process. Both students originally viewed this move like many students do, as simply unnecessary for most writing situations.

Talkin’ Bout This Generation

Wikipedia might be the starting point for some writers; however, Google remains the starting point for most students I know. In fact, one group of researchers believes this information behavior—students’ affinity for all things “search engine”—is so prominent that it has dubbed the current generation of students “the Google Generation.” Citing not only a 2006 article from EDUCAUSE Review but also, interestingly enough, the Wikipedia discussion of the term, a group of researchers from University College London (UCL) note the “first port of call for knowledge [for the Google Generation] is the [I]nter- net and a search engine, Google being the most popular” (Nicholas, Rowlands and Huntington 7). In other words, the UCL researchers argue that “students have already developed an ingrained coping be- havior: they have learned to ‘get by’ with Google” (23). I believe we all are immersed and comfortable in the information world created by Googlepedia, yet there is much more to research than this.

Despite the fact that it would be easy and understandable to dismiss your information behaviors or to just tell you never to use Google or Wikipedia, I agree with teacher and author Troy Swanson when he argues, “We [teachers] need to recognize that our students enter our [college] classrooms with their own experiences as users of information” (265). In my attempt though to show you that research is more than just a five-minute stroll through Googlepedia, I first acknowledge what you already do when conducting research. I then use these behaviors as part of a process that is still quick, but much more efficient. By mirroring what writers do with Googlepedia and building on that process, this essay will significantly improve your research skills and assist you with writing projects in college and your professional career.

The Wikipedia Hoax

At this point in the chapter, let me pause to provide an example of why learning to be information literate and research savvy is so important. In his discussion of the “Wikipedia Hoax,” Associated Press writer Shawn Pogatchnik tells the story of University College Dublin student Shane Fitzgerald who “posted a poetic but phony” quote supposedly by French composer Maurice Jarre in order to test how the “Internet-dependent media was upholding accuracy and accountability.” Fitzgerald posted his fake quote on Wikipedia within hours of the composer’s death, and later found that several newspaper outlets had picked up and published the quote, even though the administrators of Wikipedia recognized and removed the bogus post. The administrators removed it quickly, “but not quickly enough to keep some journalists from cutting and pasting it first.”

It can safely be assumed these journalists exhibited nearly all of the information behaviors that most teachers and librarians find disconcerting:

  • searching in Wikipedia or Google
  • power browsing quickly through websites for ideas and quotes
  • cutting-and-pasting information from the Web into one’s own writing without providing proper attribution for it
  • viewing information as free, accurate, and trustworthy
  • treating online information as equal to print information

Of course, it is impossible to actually prove the journalists used these behaviors without direct observation of their research processes, but it seems likely. In the end, their Googlepedia research hurt not only their writing, but also their credibility as journalists.

Edward, Susan, and Googlepedia

Edward and Susan are two students comfortable in the world of Googlepedia, beginning and, in most cases, ending their research with a search engine (both students claimed to use Google over any other search engine) or online encyclopedia (both were only aware of Wikipedia). Interestingly, Edward and Susan often move between Google and Wikipedia in the process of conducting their research, switching back and forth between the two sources of information when they believe the need exists.

For an upcoming research writing project on the topic of outsourcing American jobs, Susan chooses to begin her preliminary research with Google while Edward chooses to start with Wikipedia. The students engage in preliminary research, research at the beginning of the research writing process; yet, they work with a limited amount of information about the assignment, a situation still common in many college courses. The students know they have to write an argumentative essay of several pages and use at least five sources of information, sources they are required to find on their own. The students know the research-based essay is a major assignment for a college course, and they begin their searches in Googlepedia despite the sources available to them through the university library.

Edward

Edward begins his research in Wikipedia, spending less than one minute to find and skim the summary paragraph on the main page for “outsourcing.” After reading the summary paragraph2 to, in Edward’s words, “make sure I had a good understanding of the topic,” and scanning the rest of the main page (interestingly) from bottom to top, Edward focuses his reading on the page section titled “criticism.” Edward explains his focus,

Since I am writing an argumentative paper, I first skimmed the whole page for ideas that stood out. I then looked at the references for a clearly opinionated essay to see what other people are talking about and to compare my ideas [on the subject] to theirs,’ preferably if they have an opposing view.

This search for public opinion leads Edward to examine polls as well as skim related web pages linked to the Wikipedia page on outsourcing, and Edward quickly settles on the “reasons for outsourcing” in the criticism section of the Wikipedia page. Edward explains, “I am examining the pros of outsourcing as I am against it, and it seems that companies do not want to take responsibility for [outsourcing].”

It is at this point, barely fifteen minutes into his research, that Edward returns to the top of the Wikipedia main page on outsourcing to re-read the opening summary on the topic, as I stop him to discuss the thesis he is developing on corporate responsibility for the outsourcing problem. We discuss what I make of Edward’s early research; Edward relies on Wikipedia for a broad overview, to verify his understanding on a subject.

Presearch into Research

Analysis: Some teachers and librarians might argue against it, but I believe starting a search for information in Wikipedia has its benefits. It is difficult enough to write a college-level argumentative essay on a topic you know well. For a topic you know little about, you need to first learn more about it. Getting a basic understanding of the topic or issue through an encyclopedia, even an online one, has been a recommended practice for decades. Some librarians and teachers question the reliability of online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, but this is not the point of the instruction I am offering to you. I want you to keep going, to not stop your search after consulting Wikipedia. To use it as a starting point, not a final destination.

Recommendation: Deepen your understanding. Formulate a working thesis. Reread the pages as Edward has done here. This is recursive preliminary research, a process that will strengthen your research and your writing.

After our brief discussion to flush out his process in conducting research for an argumentative essay, I ask Edward to continue his research. Though he seems to identify a research focus, corporate responsibility, and working thesis—that American corporations should be held responsible for jobs they ship overseas—Edward still chooses to stay on the outsourcing page in Wikipedia to search for additional information.

He then searches the Wikipedia page for what he believes are links to expert opinions along with more specific sources that interest him and, in his approach to argumentative writing, contradict his opinion on the subject. Unlike Susan who later chooses to side with the majority opinion, Edward wants to turn his essay into a debate, regardless of where his ideas fall on the spectrum of public opinion.

Research and Critical/Creative Thinking

Analysis: Edward’s reliance on Wikipedia at this point is still not a concern. He is starting to link out to other resources, just as you should do. I, however, suggest that you spend more time at this point in your research to build your knowledge founda- tion. Your position on the issue should become clearer with the more you read, the more you talk to teachers and peers, and the more you explore the library and the open Web.

Recommendation: Keep exploring and branching out. Don’t focus your research at this point. Let your research help focus your thinking.

Staying in Wikipedia leads Edward to texts such as “Outsourcing Bogeyman” and “Outsourcing Job Killer.” Edward explains that his choices are largely based on the titles of the texts (clearly evident from these examples), not the authors, their credentials, the websites or sources that contain the texts, the URLs, or perhaps their domain names (e.g. .org, .edu, .net, .com)—characteristics of Web-based sources that most academic researchers consider. Even though Edward acknowledges that the source of the “Bogeyman” text is the journal Business Week, for example, he admits selecting the text based on the title alone, claiming “I don’t read [Business Week], so I can’t judge the source’s quality.”

Research and Credibility

Analysis: Understanding the credentials of the author or source is particularly important in conducting sound academic re- search and especially during the age of the open Web. We live a world where most anyone with an Internet connection can post ideas and information to the Web. Therefore, it is always a good idea to understand and verify the sources of the information you use in your writing. Would you want to use, even unintentionally, incorrect information for a report you were writing at your job? Of course not. Understanding the credibility of a source is a habit of mind that should be practiced in your first year composition course and has value way beyond it.

Recommendation: Take a few minutes to establish the credibility of your sources. Knowing who said or wrote it, what credentials he or she has, what respect the publication, website, or source has where you found the ideas and information, and discussing these concepts with your peers, librarian, and writing teacher should dramatically improve the essays and reports that result from your research.

What Edward trusts are the ideas contained in the text, believing the writer uses trustworthy information, thereby deferring source evaluation to the author of the text. For example, Edward comments of the “Job Killer” text, “After reading the first three paragraphs, I knew I was going to use this source.” Edward adds that the convincing factor is the author’s apparent reliance on two studies conducted at Duke University, each attempting to validate a different side of the outsourcing debate and the roles of corporations in it. From Edward’s statement, it is clear he needs help to better understand the criteria most scholars use for evaluating and selecting Web-based sources:

  • Check the purpose of the website (the extension “.edu,” “.org,” “.gov,” “.com” can often indicate the orientation or purpose of the site).
  • Locate and consider the author’s credentials to establish credibility.
  • Look for recent updates to establish currency or relevancy.
  • Examine the visual elements of the site such as links to establish relationships with other sources of information. (Clines and Cobb 2)

A Text’s Credibility Is Your Credibility

Analysis: Viewed one way, Edward is trying to establish the credibility of his source. However, he doesn’t dig deep enough or perhaps is too easily convinced. What if the studies at Duke, for instance, were conducted by undergraduate students and not faculty members? Would that influence the quality of the research projects and their findings?

Recommendation: Know as much as you can about your source and do your best to present his or her credentials in your writing. As I tell my own students, give “props” to your sources when and where you can in the text of your essays and reports that incorporate source material. Lead-ins such as “Joe Smith, Professor of Art at Syracuse University, writes that . . .” are especially helpful in giving props. Ask your teacher for more strategies to acknowledge your sources.

Edward’s next step in his research process reveals more understanding than you might think. Interested in the Duke University studies cited in the “Job Killer” text, Edward moves from Wikipedia to Google in an attempt to find, in his words, “the original source and all its facts.” This research move is not for the reason that I would have searched for the original text (I would be looking to verify the studies and validate their findings); still, Edward indicates that he always searches for and uses the original texts, what many teachers would agree is a wise decision. Finding the original studies in his initial Google query, Edward’s research move here also reminds us of a new research reality: many original sources previously, and often only, available through campus libraries are now available through search engines like Google and Google Scholar.

After only thirty minutes into his preliminary research, it’s the appropriate time for Edward to move his Googlepedia-based approach significantly into the academic world, specifically to the online library. Before working with Edward to bring his Googlepedia-based research process together with a more traditional academic one, I ask Edward about library-based sources, particularly online databases. His response is the following: “I am more familiar with the Internet, so there is no reason [to use the library databases]. It is not that the library and databases are a hassle or the library is an uncomfortable space, but I can get this research done in bed.” Edward’s response is interesting here as it conflicts with the many reports that students often find the college library to be an intimidating place. Edward doesn’t find the library to be overwhelming or intimidating; he finds the information in it unnecessary given the amount of information available via Googlepedia.

But what if researching in the online library could be a more reliable and more efficient way to do research?

Susan

Susan begins her research where most students do, on Google. Interestingly, Susan does not start with the general topic of outsourcing, opting instead to let the search engine recommend related search terms. As Susan types in the term “outsourcing,” Google as a search engine builds on character recognition software providing several “suggestions” or related search terms, terms that Susan expects to be provided for her, and one—“outsourcing pros and cons”—quickly catches her attention. Commenting on this choice instead of searching by the general concept of outsourcing, Susan notes, “I would have to sort through too much stuff [on Google] before deciding what to do.” She selects “pros and cons” from the many related and limiting search terms suggested to her; Susan states, “I want both sides of the story because I don’t know much about it.”

Fig. 1. Outsourcing suggestions from Google.

Susan next moves into examining the top ten returns provided on the first page of her Google search for outsourcing pros and cons. Doing what is now common practice for most Web users, Susan immediately selects the link for the first item returned in the query. I believe most search engine users are wired this way, even though they are likely familiar with the emphasis given to commercial sites on Google and other search engines. Quickly unsatisfied with this source, Susan jumps around on the first page of returns, stopping on the first visual she encounters on a linked page: a table illustrating pros and cons. Asked why she likes the visual, Susan responds that she is trying to find out how many arguments exist for and against outsourcing. On this page, Susan notes the author provides seven pros and four cons for outsourcing. This finding leads Susan to believe that more pros likely exist and that her essay should be in support of outsourcing.

“Visual” Research

Analysis: There are at least two points worthy of your attention here. First, Susan’s information behavior shows how attract- ed we all are to visuals (maps, charts, tables, diagrams, photos, images, etc.), particularly when they appear on a printed page or screen. Second, she fails to acknowledge a basic fact of research—that visual information of most any kind can be misleading. In the above example, Susan quickly deduces that more (7 pros vs. 4 cons) means more important or more convincing. Couldn’t it be possible that all or even any one of the cons is more significant than all of the pros taken together?

Recommendation: Consider using visuals as both researching and writing aids. However, analyze them as closely as you would a printed source. Also, examine the data for more than just the numbers. It might be a truism that numbers don’t lie, but it is up to you, as a writer, to explain what the numbers really mean.

Like Edward, Susan is not (initially) concerned about the credibility of the text (author’s credentials, source, sponsoring/hosting website, URL or domain, etc.); she appears only concerned with the information itself. When prodded, Susan mentions the text appears to be some form of press release, the URL seems legitimate, and the site appears credible. She fails to mention that the author’s information is not included on the text, but Susan quickly dismisses this: “The lack of author doesn’t bother me. It would only be a name anyway.” Susan adds that her goal is to get the research done “the easiest and fastest way I can.” These attitudes—there is so much information available in the Googlepedia world that the information stands on its own and the research process itself doesn’t need to take much time—appear to be a common misconception among students today, and the behaviors that result from them could possibly lead to flimsy arguments based on the multiplicity rather than the quality of information.

Research and CRAAP

Analysis: I have referenced criteria for evaluating sources throughout this chapter. If you do not fully understand them, you should consult the resources below and talk with your teacher or a reference librarian.

Recommendation: Learn to put your sources to the CRAAP test (easy to remember, huh?):

  • “Currency: The timeliness of the information.”
  • “Relevance: The importance of the information for your needs.”
  • “Authority: The source of the information.”
  • “Accuracy: The reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the informational content.”
  • “Purpose: The reason the information exists.” (Meriam Library)
  • For specific questions to pose of your sources to evaluate each of these, visit the website for the developers of the CRAAP test at http://www.csuchico.edu/lins/handouts/evalsites.html. Another useful site is http://www.gettysburg.edu/library/re- search/tips/webeval/index.dot.

Unlike Edward, Susan is not concerned with engaging in a debate on the subject of outsourcing, regardless of her opinions on it. Susan views the assignment as I think many students would, another “get it done” research paper. Further, she believes the majority opinion, at least as it is discussed in the initial source she locates, should be her opinion in her essay. Susan explains, “I tend to take the side that I think I can make the stronger argument for . . . If it was a personal issue or an issue I was really interested in, like abortion, I wouldn’t do this. This topic doesn’t affect me though.”

Good Search Terms=Good Research Options

Analysis: Susan needs to understand why being overly reliant on sources uncovered early on in the research process is a prob- lem (particularly here where the search term pros comes before the search term cons likely leading to the results Susan has received). I hope you also share my concerns with the working thesis she appears to be constructing, though I recognize that many students approach research papers just this way.

Recommendation: Improve your research by attempting at least a handful of Web searches using different key terms. If necessary, work with the search phrases and terms provided by the search engine. Also, place your search terms inside quotes on occasion to help vary and focus your search returns. Looking at the subject from different perspectives should help you gain a better sense of the topic and should lead you to a thesis and the development of an essay that is more convincing to your readers.

To her credit, Susan understands the need to validate the information provided by her first source, and she examines the original ten search returns for another text that might indicate the number of advantages and disadvantages to outsourcing. This search behavior of relying on the first page of returns provided by a search engine query has been widely documented, if nowhere else but in the experience of nearly every computer user. When was the last time you went to say the fourth or fifth page of returns on Google? Such a research move contradicts the power browsing nature of most of today’s computer users, teachers and students alike. As Susan (perhaps, to some degree, rightly) explains, “The farther away from the first page, the less topic appropriate the articles become.” I would contend this might be true of the thirty-seventh page of returns; yet, please understand that you should explore beyond the first page of returns when seeking out information via a search engine. Google your own name (last name first as well) some day to see just how curiously search returns are prioritized.

Next, Susan identifies a subsequent source, www.outsource2india.com. This website provides the confirmation that Susan is looking for, noting sixteen pros and only twelve cons for outsourcing. At this point, Susan confirms her process for gathering source material for argumentative essays: she looks for two to three web-based articles that share similar views, particularly views that provide her with arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttals. Once she has an adequate list of points and has determined which side of a debate can be more effectively supported, Susan refines her Google search to focus only on that side of the debate.

Don’t Rush to Argument

Analysis: There are two concerns with Susan’s research at this point: (1) her rush to research and (2) her rush to judgment.

Recommendation: In addition to reworking your research process with the help of the ideas presented in this chapter, consider building your understanding of writing academic arguments. In addition to your writing teacher and com- position textbook, two sources to consult are http://www. dartmouth.edu/~writing/materials/student/ac_paper/what. shtml#argument and http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/hand- outs/argument.html#2.

Similar to the way she began searching for information only fifteen minutes earlier, Susan uses Google’s “suggestions” to help her identify additional sources that support the side of the debate she has chosen to argue. As she types in “pros outsourcing,” Susan identifies and selects “pro outsourcing statistics” from the recommended list of search- es provided by Google in a drop-down menu. Like Edward, Susan is interested in validating the points she wants to use in her essay with research studies and scientific findings. Susan comments, “Statistics. Data. Science. They all make an argument stronger and not just opinion.” Susan again relies on the first page of search results and focuses on title and URL to make her selections. As she finds information, she copies and pastes it along with the URL to a Word document, noting once she has her five sources with a blend of ideas and statistics together in a Word file that she will stop her research and start her writing.

Track Your Research/Give Props

Analysis: Susan demonstrates here the common information behavior of cutting-and-pasting text or visuals from Web pages. She also demonstrates some understanding of the value of quantitative research and scientific proof. She also appears to use Word to create a working bibliography. These behaviors are far from perfect, but they can be of some help to you.

Recommendation: Learn to use an annotated bibliography. This type of research document will help you with both remembering and citing your sources. For more information on building an annotated bibliography, visit http://www.ehow.com/ how_4806881_construct-annotated-bibliography.html. There are also many software and online applications such as Zotero and Ref Works that can help you collect and cite your sources. Next, make sure to do more than just cut-and-paste the ideas of others and the information you find on the Web into an essay or report of yours.3 Learn to use paraphrases and summaries in addition to word-for-word passages and quotes. The Purdue OWL, a great resource for all things research and writing, ex- plains options for incorporating research into your own writing: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/563/1/. Finally, re- alize the value and limitations of statistics/numerical data and scientific findings. This type of research can be quite convinc- ing as support for an argument, but it takes your explanations of the numbers and findings to make it so. You need to explain how the ideas of others relate to your thesis (and don’t forget to give props).

Edward and Susan: Remix

As you know by now, I certainly have concerns with Susan’s and Edward’s research process; however, I recognize that the process used by each of these students is not uncommon for many student researchers. More importantly, each process includes strategies which could be easily reworked in the digital library.

Yes, I am concerned that Susan doesn’t recognize that you can find two or three sources on the Web that agree on just about anything, no matter how crazy that thing might be. Yes, I am concerned that Susan opts out of forming an argument that she truly believes in. Yes, I am concerned that both Susan and Edward trust information so quickly and fail to see a need to question their sources. Despite my concerns, and perhaps your own, their Googlepedia-based research process can provide the terms they need to complete the research in more sound and productive ways, and the process can be easily replicated in an online library.

Based on their Googlepedia research to this point, I suggest to Ed- ward that he construct his essay as a rebuttal argument and that he use the search terms “outsourcing” and “corporate responsibility” to explore sources available to him from the library. For Susan, I suggest that she too construct a rebuttal argument and that she use the search string “outsourcing statistics” to explore sources in the university’s virtual library. (For more information on writing rebuttal arguments, visit http://www.engl.niu.edu/wac/rebuttal.html.)

Given the influence and value of using search engines like Google and online encyclopedias like Wikipedia in the research process, I recommend the following eight step research process to move from relying on instinctive information behaviors to acquiring solid research skills:

 

  1. Use Wikipedia to get a sense of the topic and identify additional search terms.
  2. Use Google to get a broader sense of the topic as well as verify information and test out search terms you found in Wikipedia.
  3. Search Google again using quotation marks around your “search terms” to manage the number of results and identify more useful search terms.
  4. Search Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) to apply the search terms in an environment of mostly academic and professional resources.
  5. Do a limited search of “recent results or “since 2000” on Google Scholar to manage the number of results and identify the most current resources.
  6. Search your college’s library research databases using your college library’s web portal: to apply the search terms in an environment of the most trusted academic and professional resources.
  7. Focus your search within at least one general academic database such as Academic Search Premier, Proquest Complete, Lexis/Nexis Academic Universe, or CQ Researcher to apply the search terms in a trusted environment and manage the number of results.
  8. Do a limited search by year and “full text” returns using the same general academic database(s) you used in step 7 to reduce the number of results and identify the most current resources.

I admit that this process will certainly seem like a lot of work to you, but I want to emphasize that Edward and Susan completed this sequence in less than thirty minutes. After doing so, Edward even commented, “If someone had shown me this in high school, I wouldn’t be going to Wikipedia and Google like I do.” Susan added that even with her search terms, Google still presented challenges in terms of the number of potential sources: “Google had thousands of hits while Galileo might have less than 100.” For students who value speed and ease, this remixed process resonated with them, and I believe it will with you.

More importantly, the remixed process addresses some of the concerns that could have hindered the research and writing of both students if they only worked with Googlepedia. By remixing and sequencing research this way, they worked with issues of currency, credibility, accuracy and bias among others, criteria vital to conducting sound research. This is not to say that Susan and Edward failed to understand or could not apply these concepts, particularly given that our research time was limited to sixty minutes total (thirty minutes researching alone plus thirty minutes for cooperative research). However, any student who makes this research move will find a more viable and valuable research path. As Edward said, “[The library sources] produced a narrowed search pattern and created less results based on a more reliable pool from which to pull the information.”

The research approach I am suggesting can be quick and easy, and it can also be more connected to the values of researchers and the skills of adept information users. Don’t take just my word for it though. Consider Susan’s closing comment from the questionnaire she completed after our research session:

I really hadn’t ever thought of using library sources in looking up information because I’ve always used open Web resources. I now know the benefits of using library sources and how they can simplify my search. I found being able to categorize articles by date and relevancy very helpful . . . I am inclined to change the way I research papers from using the open Web to using library sources because they are more valid and it’s as easy to use as Google.

In just a single one-hour-long preliminary research session, Susan and Edward were able to utilize the research behaviors they were comfortable with, were encouraged to continue starting their research in Googlepedia, and learned to remix their behaviors inside the online library. Working on your own or with a teacher or librarian to make the research move from Googlepedia to the library, as I suggest in this chapter, should help to improve the quality of your research and your writing based upon it.

Conclusion

Susan Blum notes that “if we want to teach students to comply with academic norms of [research], it may be helpful to contrast their ordinary textual practices—rich, varied, intersecting, constant, ephemeral, speedy—with the slower and more careful practices required in the academy” (16). Working through the research process as we have in this chapter, we are moving away from the research process to a combination of our process, as librarians and teachers, with your process—a process that blends technological comfort and savvy with academic standards and rigor. I believe this combination makes for an intellectual, real, and honest approach for researching in the digital age. Blum comments, “By the time we punish students, we have failed. So let’s talk. These text-savvy students may surprise us” (16). Susan and Edward have done just that for me, and I hope you have learned a little from them, too.

Key Terms

creating knowledge

Wikipedia

NPOV,” or neutral point of view

Research-based writing assignments

Wikipedians

college-level writing

Wikipedia’s Verifiability Policy

conversing

Googlepedia

information literacy

CRAAP test

Notes

  1. Wikis are websites that allow a user to add new web pages or edit any page and have the changes he or she makes integrated into that page.
  2. See pages 209–211 in Purdy for more discussion on the value of Wikipedia in preliminary research.
  3. See pages 217–218 in Purdy for an example of a student engaging in written conversation with her sources rather than just “parroting” them.

 

 

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This chapter contains Googlepedia: Turning Information Behaviors into Research Skills written by Randall McClure.This essay is a chapter in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing,
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