Developing Highly Effective Researchers

by Amanda Hovious of The Designer Librarian and Todd Heldt of LIS101

As a PhD student in Information Science, I have been chewing on one problem in particular: What are the missing components of information literacy instruction? What is not currently being addressed? I believe the answer lies in the essence of every information seeking model out there, and especially in Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP) model, which I had the pleasure of deconstructing in a theory development class. What is that essence? Uncertainty.

Uncertainty is present in the information seeking process (just about every information seeking model recognizes that role).

Uncertainty is inherent in inquiry and reflective thinking (John Dewey).

Uncertainty is the primary principle of Kuhlthau’s ISP model, and she defines uncertainty as “a cognitive state that commonly causes affective symptoms of anxiety and lack of confidence.”

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Addressing uncertainty is key to information literacy development. But in the absence of understanding ways to overcome the barriers that uncertainty creates in the information search process, we teach skills that will likely not develop beyond the classroom.

So, how do we address uncertainty in the information search process? A good place to start is Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. They identified 16 habits of thought and action that help students manage the uncertainty that comes with ill-structured problems (e.g., information problems).

These habits are described to some extent in the Dispositions of the ACRL Framework. However, habits of mind are broader than the realm of information literacy. They are ways of thinking and doing that are essential to many areas of lifelong learning. In a nutshell, habits of mind are life skills.

Many of the habits Costa and Kallick endorse are absolutely essential for information literacy development. In particular, here are ten habits we need to instill in our students:

  • Thinking about Thinking (metacognition)

Thinking about thinking seems simple: to be aware of your own thought processes. But hidden biases and faulty heuristics can cloud a student’s judgment. Encourage students to spend some time thinking about how who they are impacts their relationship with information.

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  • Thinking Flexibly (being comfortable with multiple perspectives)

Any research project that requires an analysis of multiple perspectives requires thinking flexibly. Encourage students to investigate articles from sources across the political spectrum to see how different people present the same information. Likewise, fostering respectful classroom discussion about debatable topics is another good way for students to interact with differing viewpoints.

  • Thinking Interdependently (collaborating)

Most jobs and projects require some amount of collaboration. Assignments requiring students to share their ideas clearly and actively engage with input from others will not only make them more thorough researchers, it will help them more clearly communicate the information they have found.

  • Questioning and Posing Problems

Teach students to plan their research process ahead of time. Have them identify what they know and don’t know before they begin. Also, teach them not to be afraid of being wrong! If given the opportunity they will most often find that what they think they know is incorrect or incomplete. Embrace that!

  • Gathering Information through All Senses (being an observant researcher)

Not every answer is in a book or database! Offer assignments to allow students to interview people and/or observe behaviors first-hand.

  • Striving for Accuracy (choosing accurate or evidence-based sources)

Teach students not to settle on the first source they find, even if it seems legitimate and supports their prior beliefs. Have them read as widely as time allows, and engage with primary, secondary, and tertiary sources to see what the overall state of knowledge is in the field under study. Ask them when possible to verify conclusions by consulting other expert sources.

  • Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations (transferring skills)

Let them know that it is acceptable to draw on previous research experiences to tackle new research problems.  It isn’t cheating to use the same database over and over again if it has the requisite information!

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  • Persisting (growth mindset)

Teach students to follow a research project to the end, and not to give up if they don’t succeed right away. Researchers don’t usually find what they are looking for in the first article they read. Showing students how to put together different combinations of keywords, and navigate different kinds of sources will make them much more likely to find what they need. (And it always pays to reiterate that librarians are here to help when they get stuck!) 

  • Creating, Imagining, Innovating (looking at information in new ways)

Create assignments that let students share their research findings in new and interesting ways. Would visual aids such as graphs and charts be easier to understand than a written narrative? Would an e-portfolio be more accessible than a printed paper?

  • Communicating with Clarity and Precision

The best research skills in the world will only have limited value if students can’t communicate their findings precisely and clearly. Reinforce the importance of presenting information in a clear, unbiased way.

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Some of these habits are addressed in library/information literacy instruction, but we must remember that there is a big difference between teaching a skill to a student and creating an environment where the student can put that skill into continuous practice. The latter is more important in the development of habits of mind, and the library is just one environment that can be designed to reinforce them.

 

Introducing these ideas to students need not be overly complicated, and a few simple steps can help them keep these habits at the forefront of their minds. Define the profile of highly effective information seekers and enumerate those qualities on posters and handouts. Post them around the library, touch on them during instruction sessions, and give instructors in other departments copies for their classrooms to reinforce it beyond the walls of the library.

With these habits of mind, students will be able to search for information with more confidence and purpose, and they will be more discriminant in their selection of sources. These habits of mind correspond in many ways to the Dispositions from the ACRL Framework but will likely be more approachable for students and newer information seekers.

Share this infographic with your students:

Good Habits Make Good Research

Economic Livelihood and Willful Blindness, Industry and Information

Light reading on public and private discourse and the difficulty of determining bias when one’s job or lifestyle dictates that s/he not determine bias.

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 An Old Report that is Nonetheless Instructive

In 1978, the Office of Consumer Education commissioned a report to find out exactly how advertising and marketing were affecting US society. The result was a study entitled Impact of Advertising: Implications for Consumer Education by Zena Cook et al, and the report was interesting because of what it found but also in how it framed the discussion in terms of “consumer sovereignty,” or the rights of consumers to have their wants and needs respected by the market.  The intention was, in fitting with the economic theory of supply and demand, that consumer needs and wants would determine what the market produced, instead of the other way around.  Implicit in this idea, as a theme running through the report, is that consumers need to be accurately informed about the choices confronting them.  The study’s authors note frankly, “Consumers are today faced with…

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Primary and Secondary Sources: It’s Trickier than Your Students Think

Reposted from my blog, and with a tip of the hat to KB for the idea.

 

Definitions and Explanations

primary source is an original object or document from a specific time or event under study. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, interviews, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, survey data, observations, diaries, paintings, works of literature, ancient pieces of pottery unearthed in Iraq, and much more . In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies — research where an experiment was done or a direct observation was made.

secondary source is anything that’s written about a primary source, such as  an essay about a novel, a  newspaper article about AIDS research, a history textbook, a movie review, or subsequent thoughts on The Gettysburg Address.

 

Can a single source ever be both?

Not really, but it can be confusing.  For instance, if I am writing a paper about global warming, a newspaper article that discusses new research on the topic issue is a secondary source.  But if I am writing a paper about the media’s coverage of global warming, then the newspaper article is a primary source.  What you are studying changes your relationship to the material. To further muddy the water, a secondary source may very well INCLUDE primary source materials in the form of pictures, statistics, or quotes, and that MIGHT work for your teacher, but it might not.  Likewise, to ensure accuracy, it is a good practice to track down the primary source if you can just to verify it.

 

Examples

This chart, created by librarians at the Indiana University Bloomington, illustrates kinds of primary and secondary sources by discipline:

 

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Archeology farming tools treatise on innovative analysis of Neolithic artifacts
Art sketch book conference proceedings on French Impressionists
History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) book on the anti-slavery struggle
Journalism interview biography of publisher Randolph Hearst
Law legislative hearing law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
Literature novel literary criticism on Desolation Angels
Music score of an opera biography of the composer Mozart
Political Science public opinion poll newspaper article on campaign finance reform
Rhetoric speech editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Sociology voter registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns

 

The librarians at Princeton also offer a good explanation of this potentially tricky concept.

 

When to Use Each

I think sometimes students view primary sources as “the real” sources, the ones that tell the truth and have not been adulterated by distance, time, or misrepresentation.  And there is some truth to that.  I often get e-mail forwards that say things like, “A new study by Harvard proves _________.”  The author of the email will often include a link to the study, and if you take the time to click on it and read it, you will often find that the original author of the forwarded email is either misunderstanding of misrepresenting what the ACTUAL study reveals.  So obviously in that case, you want the primary source. But finding the primary source has in some ways become trickier in the age of the internet, now that people can video something, heavily edit it, post it online (or on the news), and build a following and a narrative before the truth ever comes out. Consider this and this.  In the cases of Ed Schultz’s misrepresentation of George W. Bush and James O’Keefe’s misrepresentation of ACORN, what were taken as the primary sources were actually secondary sources–edited versions of the raw footage, so caveat emptor!

But keep in mind that there are other times when a secondary source is preferable.  Primary sources are always products of their times, and thus, a political speech from 1960 will not reflect an understanding of the present world, just as the Declaration of Independence won’t tell you who won the American Revolution, and an original research study about living with AIDS written in 1999 won’t explain the current best practices. Also, a distanced summary of a field that reflects all of its ups and downs and points and counterpoints is likely to give you a better understanding of the field than reading a single experiment or research paper. For instance, if you read Andrew Wakefield’s Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children, published in Lancet, 1998 (a primary source), you might find it persuasive in its indication that vaccines are linked to autism. However, reading a broader overview of the field, for instance a secondary source such as Good investigative reporting may finally debunk the myth that vaccines cause autism, published in Harvard Health Publications would reveal that the study was ultimately retracted by Lancet in 2010 because the research methods were flawed.

 

Being informed means more than finding the exact article that backs up your thesis; it means understanding how all the articles fit together within the broader structure and knowledge of the discipline. Information literacy demands attention to both primary and secondary sources as well as the critical thinking necessary to evaluate each for timeliness, credibility, and bias.

Open Access Sting Reveals Peer Review Problems

Science Magazine recently wrote a completely bogus article about lichen extracts that combat cancer, came up with some fake scientist names, gave them some made up credentials, and then submitted the lot of it to 300 open access journals. Though many of the journals boasted peer review boards with prestigious-sounding names and titles, the article was accepted by over half of the journals. Some of the journals did ask for edits, but the authors claim the paper was so bad that mere editing would not have fixed the fatal flaws of the research, methods, data, and conclusions.

It gets worse. According to the authors:
The paper was accepted by journals hosted by industry titans Sage and
Elsevier. The paper was accepted by journals published by prestigious
academic institutions such as Kobe University in Japan. It was accepted
by scholarly society journals. It was even accepted by journals for which
the paper’s topic was utterly inappropriate, such as the Journal of
Experimental & Clinical Assisted Reproduction.

So from whence did this problem arise? Is it merely the case that hucksters realized that academic publishing was a good scam, or is there a more nuanced take on it? According to Bauerlein, Grody, McKelvey, and Trimble’s recent We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research, greater access to publishing shares no small culpability. They suggest that increased access serves only to obscure truly brilliant work. Because so much work –much of it redundant, dim, or otherwise inconsequential– is published now, it is easy to miss the good stuff! The authors state that the amount of research makes it impossible to ensure that it is all accurate:

The surest guarantee of integrity, peer review, falls under a debilitating crush of findings, for peer review can handle only so much material without breaking down. More isn’t better. At some point, quality gives way to quantity (Par. 15).

I blogged here about the problem of open source journals demanding payment for publication, and there I suggested that students be told to use library databases instead of Google Scholar and the open internet. Because a new wrinkle has been added, I redouble my efforts here. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell your students to use the library databases.

Pseudo-Academic Publishing, Astroturfing, and Google Scholar

According to the article “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too)” (thanks Tom Higgins for the tip) appearing recently in the New York Times, there is an entire industry built around the appearance of academic qualification, “a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously-titled conferences and journals that sponsor them. Many of the journals and meetings have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications and events.”

Unwitting scholars are solicited to publish in the journals and attend the conferences only to find after the fact that there are substantial fees for doing so.  Of course, while I am sympathetic to these individuals, I am more concerned for the net impact on academe as a whole.  For as the article points out, “[S]ome researchers are now raising the alarm about what they see as the proliferation of online journals that will print seemingly anything for a fee.”

The problem seems to lie in the abuse of the “open access journal” concept.   Open access journals are defined by Peter Suber as scholarly writing that is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”  While open access journals and their attendant online scholarly communities are a boon to the free flow of information and the collaborative sharing of knowledge–things I think most of us can see the benefit in—the open nature of the internet allows for abuse.  One kind of abuse stems from charlatans running vanity presses who seek to divest academics from their paychecks.  A much more insidious kind of abuse, I think, is the creation of academic seeming fora in which those who actively seek to obfuscate knowledge have a new megaphone to disseminate misinformation.  There is, for instance, no shortage of evidence about rightwing think tanks and pro-corporate forces trying to muddy the water of the science behind anthropogenic climate change.  If we have already witnessed well-funded think tanks astro-turfing (simulating grass-roots movements) for political causes, then why shouldn’t we expect similar assaults on academic discourse?

Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, has developed his own blacklist of what he calls “predatory open-access journals.” He warns that their numbers are growing.   There were 20 publishers on his list in 2010, and now there are more than 300. He estimates that there are as many as 4,000 predatory journals today, at least 25 percent of the total number of open-access journals.  To be sure, not all of these sources are “bad” sources or even incredible ones.  The problem is that it is very difficult to tell one from another without a high degree of subject-specific knowledge and a savvy understanding of information literacy.  As the article points out, “[Researchers] warn that nonexperts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk….They will not know from a journal’s title if it is for real or not.”

And that, for me, is where the rubber meets the road.  I often hear teachers telling their students to use Google Scholar, and though GS is in no way connected to shady open access publishers, a cursory search on GS turns up a number of the journals listed on Beall’s blacklist.  Is all the information found in those journals wrong?  No, not necessarily.  But it IS suspect, and if our students have been told that GS is a good source, they are unlikely to realize that fact and evaluate accordingly.  I would caution that Google Scholar is never a substitute for a database search limited to peer-reviewed sources.