Web Research: You’re Doin’ It Wrong

What follows are quotes from a July 7, 2014 article on The Chronicle of Higher Education web site, which I visit several times a week, as well as my comments, as someone who has assisted college students with research writing since 1996.

Nearly all of the employers said they expected candidates, whatever their field, to be able to search online, a given for a generation born into the Internet world. But they also expected job candidates to be patient and persistent researchers and to be able to retrieve information in a variety of formats, identify patterns within an array of sources, and dive deeply into source material.

Notice the part that I placed in bold: whatever their field. Students often comment, during a first-year English course, that they don’t need all this research writing, because they are going to be bankers or engineers or coaches or data analysts. What they need to understand is that while they may not be asked to do formal, cited research papers, they will be asked to do intensive research.

Sure, the writing process is important for synthesizing ideas and making connections and communicating findings, but not at the expense of research. The research process itself often is rushed through by students eager to get to their minimum word count. Unless scholarly sources are required by the instructor, many writers will use what pops up in the first page of hits on a poorly designed Google search. This is neither patient nor persistent.

This is why many teachers have shifted away from the formal research paper to an exploratory research project that privileges the importance (and time-consuming nature) of finding good sources. Would this be a more valuable assignment, in the long run, for more students?

Many employers said their fresh-from-college hires frequently lack deeper and more traditional skills in research and analysis. Instead, the new workers default to quick answers plucked from the Internet. That method might be fine for looking up a definition or updating a fact, but for many tasks, it proved superficial and incomplete.

Ouch. No new hire, especially fresh out of college in this job market, wants to be seen as doing work that is “superficial and incomplete.” To explain the importance of research on the job, I use the following example:

Your boss wants to buy new anti-virus software for the office and asks you to research the options and send him a brief report of your findings next week. You could just go to a single web site, look at the prices of three programs, and recommend the cheapest one. Is cheapest necessarily the best for your company, however? What about site licenses? What are the particular security concerns of your business? Does the software have regular updates? Does it work on multiple operating systems and tablet devices? Has it had issues with hacking, crashing, or failing to interface with specific hardware / software?

To really impress your boss, even about anti-virus software, you need to do more than three minutes of web searching. There’s a reason he gave you a week to do the work; he expects you to thoroughly investigate all the pros and cons of what’s out there for purchase and to make a reasoned, evidence-based recommendation.

Real research takes a lot of time. It’s a matter of hours, not minutes. It’s not a box to check off or a hoop through which you must jump. In the real world, it may be the difference between a promotion and a layoff.


2 thoughts on “Web Research: You’re Doin’ It Wrong

  1. aiyshah2014

    This is a good article because this is one of the most difficult things for people to learn and I think your key phrase here is ‘to be a patient and persistent researcher’. These two qualities are the things we need to instil in students as well as techniques of researching online. Most people go for the first thing they see and hope that will satisfy their boss or lecturer, instead of really wanting to find out and understand the information they are looking for.


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