Research on the Web


Posted to DEOS-L 19 July 1999

Maggie Mcvay wrote, to a chorus of approval, "I hope you are not relying ONLY on the web for your research." I am led straight to the question: "Why not?"

Let me clear about my biases. I don't like libraries. Never have. The stale air gives me a headache. The omnipresent dust gives me a headache. Searching via card or even online catalogue is a lottery at best.

Yes, I have spent many an hour in the library - who among us hasn't? Hours at the photocopying machine reproducing a page here, a chapter there. Seated on a dingy floor for hours reading every item on the BC.181 shelf. Or searching for that missing issue of the Australasian Journal of Philosophy (checked out by Professor C.B. Martin some time in 1982).

Some part of that time I even spent reading relevant material, but most of the time I spent perfoming the mechanical tasks related to working with large, heavy, unindexed physical objects. So I say again, why not use the web?

Maggie McVay gives us our first and most obvious answer: "the majority of research articles are still published in journals and books that are not available to the web." Too true, and so sadly today's graduate students must still climb the literal ladders of academe searching for arcane jounal articles and texts. But must it always be this way?

It seems odd in today's wired world, but the publishing industry continues unabated, almost oblivious to the idea of a non-paper alternative. Respected academics continue to place their best work, not on their home page, but in the pages of a limited run publication. It was even seen as a move forward when recently the studies listed in the "No Significant Difference Phenomenon" were removed from the web and placed in an inaccessible print-based format.

Even in the field of online learning, I find it startling to record that many works in the field are published in print, and in print only. I'm not sure how to take this - how seriously should I treat an 'authority' in the field who does not have a web page or even an email address?

There is a bias in academe toward the printed word. Maggie McVay captures it nicely: "It is still the case in many universities that publishing to the web is not an acceptable 'publication' for faculty development/tenure, so you will miss a great deal of important work by relying on the web."

But this is very much a chicken-and-egg problem. No person who wishes advancement in academic life will publish on the web, so therefore the important work is not published on the web, thus perpetuating the cycle. But is there any reason why a web-based publication is any less valuable than a paper-based publication?

I would argue that there is not. True, there is much on the web which has not been blessed with the seal of authority (which may not be a bad thing), but for those seeking a referee- sanctioned publication many respectable online journals are now available.

The scholar who publishes solely for prestige, solely for a limited readership, scholarly review, and eventual career advancement, may consider print-based journals and books an acceptable mode of publication. But scholars whose interest is in the first instance a wide-spread (and even non-academic) readership, who is concerned more with the distribution and discussion of ideas, will find the print-based world a poor second cousin to on-line publications.

Now let me be clear - this is not to disparage books at all! This is not to say that books should be completely replaced with web-based publications. There is no reason we should not reproduce important or worthy materials in book-based form.

No, what I am arguing is that we should not publish in *only* print-based form. I am arguing that it should be possible to find, on the web, everything which is also produced in print. And that there is no reason why this should not be so! Except for academic prejudice and the economics of scarcity.

Now Don Hart asks the question, "I am concerned that if students in Education programs get into this behavior, then later when they are teaching they will allow (encourage?) their students to go FIRST to the WWW for research projects."

It seems odd that Don Hart would find this a concern. What reasoning would prohibit students - especially elementary or high school students - from first searching the web in their area of enquiry? Even today, in the infancy of the web, more and better materials are available online than exist in most school libraries.

Want to study the United Nations? All relevant documentation is online, including the most recent and up-to-date UNESCO reports. Interested in Austria? The Austrian government has a comprehensive library of information. Media studies? One need only look at Canada's Schoolnet for vast resources in its online Media Awareness Network.

What school library could compete with these? Indeed, even, what university library is ready with the breadth of current and relevant information? And even considering those libraries which are able to keep pace, what is the cost of a large institutional library when compared with simple internet access?

Maggie McVay, in well-intentioned advice, counsels students to "develop your own library of distance learning resources of books." Perhaps she hasn't been to the bookstore lately, but modern texts are running between $40 and $80 per copy. In my field - philosophy - my modest library of essentials cost several thousand dollars (and this includes a thorough scour of the used book stores).

Is it good advice - really - to advise students to incur additional expenses when by a fair-minded and reasonable policy we could make these resources available to all students at a fraction of the cost?

Now in fairness and good sympathy, the question of online resources was raised in the context of graduate students' use of mailing lists as a research tool. And yes, I too have seen more than my share of graduate student enquiries take the quick route from my in-box to my trash folder.

But as Dennis Roberts comments, "life has changed drastically with the advent of the web and email lists ... all bets are off compared to what they used to be."

For one thing - what is *wrong* with asking the experts on a mailing list a question, even if it turn out to be a naive or ill-informed question? Were the experts located in the office down the hall, or the snacks table at the June Symposium, this sort of behaviour would be applauded, as getting the information from the source.

Indeed, my university went to great expense to invite and host such luminaries as David K. Lewis and Saul Kripke so graduate students such as myself could look them in the eye and question them on their work. True, some such brushed off my questions as naive, but others - with, I think, a keener eye to education - were kinder.

Yes, of course some questions are very basic and reveal a general lack of knowledge of the field. In fields where online enquiry is more prevalent such needs are handled with a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file, to which new users (newbies) are routinely referred (indeed, many mailing lists post the URL of the FAQ at the bottom of each message).

DEOS-L writers - and others in the field of online learning - would do well to emulate this strategy. Instead of suggesting that students performing their studies online are in some way taking a short-cut, the online acadmics should throw together the weight of their knowledge and create a short reference pointing aspiring students to the stacks of knowledge already available on the web.

And who knows - perhaps the reference at the end of the essay might even lead them from in front of their computer terminal and into their library! But be ready for the grumbles cast in the direction of such inconsiderate authors, who can't be bothered to ensure wide accessibility to their materials.


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