Tools & Skills

Back to the Books: How Google Hurts Our Research Skills

by The Muse Editor

Remember when you had to actually go to the library to do research for a paper? Especially for the younger ones among us, probably not. Thanks to Google, gone are the days of combing through shelves, sifting through library books, and painstakingly compiling notes and lists.

But that’s not necessarily a good thing: In our fast-paced world, where shortcuts abound, the intricacies of research appear to be getting lost on us.

A new study examining 156 college students around the country uncovered some of the dangers of our Google-obsessed culture. Because all search engine results get presented in the same format, students have difficulty narrowing their criteria for more accurate results and evaluating a source for its credibility and relevance. Of 30 students evaluated at Wesleyan University, for example, 27 were unable to narrow their search terms and filters to get more accurate result. And time and again, students were unable to tell the difference between a good database result and a bad one.

It’s pretty frightening that an entire generation entering the workforce may still be struggling to distinguish between a blog and an academic journal, but it gets worse: Andrew Asher, anthropology professor at Bucknell University and one of the study's authors, commented that he believes the issue extends to more than just college students. Quite simply, we may all be losing the patience and discretion good research requires.

While technology allows us to work quicker and more efficiently than ever before, with our dependence on it, our ability to parse through information is fading. We want the answers and data we need immediately—and we want it presented to us neatly, right at the top of the page. We’ve become used to quick answers, and we’re losing our ability to understand the true meaning of “research.”

When looking up a restaurant or checking a sports score, this is all fine. But when researching an academic topic or examining a case for work, trusting the first page of Google search results isn’t going to cut it—we need to go back to the roots of research.

So how can we counteract our quick-searching tendencies? For starters, quit multi-tasking (yes, that means closing your 17 browser tabs, Tweetdeck, and IM window). Trying to do multiple things at once provides punctuated distractions from the task at hand, and in-depth research is best done without interruption.

Next, think outside that clean white browser window. If you’re writing a scholarly paper, refer to scholarly journals and well-established authors in the field. If you’re writing a trade article or examining a professional topic, use your industry’s respected databases and experts on the subject. Libraries still exist, and librarians are there to point you in the right direction. Or—at the very least—learn to use Google’s advanced features to search academic journals, news articles, and other credible sources.

Finally, use your intuition. If you’re using research that comes from 1973 and has a sample population of 15, it’s probably not logical to draw conclusions based on this research. Ask yourself where your research is coming from. If it’s some dude’s blog, odds are it’s not as credible as it should be—and it if is credible, the same info should also be printed in another, more established source you can track down.

Real research requires slowing down, thinking critically, taking the time to analyze data in-depth, and checking yourself when you’re looking for a quick fix. Google can do almost everything, but there are some areas where it falls short. And that’s where you have to come in.

Photo courtesy of Horia Varlan.