authority in undergraduate research

March 24th, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink

picture of Cartman as officer

photo credit: steven r watson

As a student of medieval studies, the concept of authority is never far from my thoughts; it pervades every decision I make from choosing the next book to read to deciding which recipe to use for goulash. Add to that a year+ of MLIS education and I can follow the footprints of auctoritas with eyes closed. However, for many undergraduates, the concept of authority is more fleeting, more difficult to put a finger on; or, at least, it seems that way to us (the “professionals”). How do undergraduates approach the concept of authority in research? As I’ve been looking over the literature, this is what I’ve found:

Observations:

1. Authority matters but ease of access matters even more

Metz (2006) points out that students easily recognize the difference between using scholarly and non-scholarly resources. McClure & Kellian (2009) also found that students recognize that certain sources of information are more authoritative that others. So why, as they also show, do students have a tendency to miss important indicators of bias and lack of objectivity in [primarily web-based] sources and use them in their research? As both Metz and McClure & Kellian conclude, ease of access trumps the more authoritative source. Resources that are easy to use and easy to find, as long as they meet certain minimum requirements (see Tsai-Youn), are far preferable to more authoritative resources.

2. Scope is not as important as coverage

In much the same vein, resources that have a dense coverage of a particular topic as opposed to a broad coverage, are considered by undergraduates to be more authoritative (Tsai-Youn, 2004). For example, a web site that has graphical or statistical data, a list of external websites that also cover the subject, or other additional information that continues to narrow in on the topic is often considered by undergraduates to be a better resource than a web site that covers a wide range of issues or discussions about the topic. In short, density wins over breadth.
3. Authority doesn’t mean what it used to when you’re on the web

When students examine web resources for authority, they look at a number of aspects including top-level domain (.edu vs. .com) and web site design. If a web site doesn’t look professional, if it looks like something created in the late 1990s, students consider this to be less authoritative. Some undergraduates have difficulty articulating authority (at least in their papers) in the traditional sense and often misinterpret advocacy sites as authoritative sources (McClure & Kellian, 2009). In one example from Tsai-Youn’s research, students examined a site that “looked” like a scholarly article but did not list an author. They deemed this to be an authoritative source. If a website has citations or links to fact-checking resources, this also increases the students’ perception of a site’s authority.
4. We need a new way to evaluate authority

Dahl (2009) calls for new methods for evaluating resources on the web. The metrics for determining authority (as well as accuracy, coverage, and objectivity) simply do not apply in the same way as they do for print materials. This is not to say that they matter less, only that we cannot use the same lens through which to examine them. We need to teach students how to understand sources in the context with which they appear (as best as possible) and how to use critical thinking skills to evaluate authority.

Recommendations:

1. Teach students to “follow the links”. Aggregated information obscures the source and authority/bias can be hard to determine if you don’t know where information originated. There’s nothing wrong with using web resources and finding the source is usually only a few clicks away.

2. Use aspects that are already important (web site design, top-level domain) to explore issues of authority and bias. If we know that students are already attuned to these, use them as springboards for examining what makes a site more authoritative or what aspects betray an author’s bias.

3. Illustrate how some sources of information are more efficient or higher quality than others. Teach students to instinctively click over to the “about” page of any web site and examine how information for the site was gathered. Talk with students about how articles are selected for journals, how journals are selected for databases, how databases are selected by the library and compare that to other aggregating services.

4. Reevaluate student perception and interpretations of print resources. Is it merely convenience and deadlines that keep them away from the stacks? We know that ease of access is a significant factor in student selection of resources, but is it the only factor? Has our approach to information on the web changed the way we perceive and interpret information in print? For example, a web site with too many ads can lower its perceived level of authority. Does the same apply to a magazine or journal? (American Libraries has a lot of ads but I still consider it to be a valid authority)

Some thoughts as I wander through these materials. As a student in an MLIS program, I am in the unique position to both consider and use these practices in my daily research. Any conclusions I come to affect my own interpretation of authority, especially in regard to web-based resources.

References:

Dahl, Candice. (2009). Undergraduate research in the public domain: the evaluation of non-academic sources online. Reference Services Review, 37(2), 155-163.

McClure, R., & Kellian, C. (2009). How do you know that? An investigation of student research practices in the digital age. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9(1), 115-133.

Metz, R.M. (2006), “Conducting online research: undergraduate preferences of source”, MSLS thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC.

Tsai-Youn, Hung. (2004). Undergraduate students’ evaluation criteria when using web resources for class papers. Journal of Educational Media & Library Science, 42(1), 1-12.