Thursday, January 24, 2008

Academic Research Online Is a Walled Garden

I've been consumed for the past three weeks researching and writing papers for my Master’s program. I managed to write one paper an Internet topic (a semiotic analysis of folksonomies) and added as many Net references in the others as I could.

In the process of researching online on online topics, I noted two critiques of academia:
1) vehicles for searching online resources are inadequate
2) academic research remains too cloistered

The last few weeks were the first time ever for me that I was exposed to the wealth of electronic academic research. I thought there was lots of information on the Web before, but I was stunned by the quantity and quality of academic information available to students (the databases require log-in and an individual subscription is prohibitively expensive).

Royal Roads University has one of the largest electronic libraries in Canada, which is fitting as it is primarily an online university. Electronic information there takes the forms of:
  1. e-books
  2. online journal databases
  3. electronic theses
I haven’t made the most of e-books, due to my dislike of reading for a long time onscreen and that e-books can’t accompany me to many of my regular reading places. The theses seem promising, although due to Royal Roads being a comparatively young university they don't have a lot of theses available.

Online academic resources a treasure, albeit hidden & sans map
I did extensively use online academic journals and this is where I was overjoyed and overwhelmed. I had no idea how many journals there were, some of which, believe it or not, aren’t completely esoteric.

There are essentially two problems that I discovered with online searching of these journal databases. Problem one is that there is a bewildering array of journal databases. Second, the search engines for pretty much all these services are, well, crappy. Granted, graduate students do require more advanced search skills than a normal online surfer would need, but still the search tools are unnecessarily complicated, buggy at times, and just plain miss things. I found a lot of instances where I was searching the entire body of articles and certain results would not appear, but later, having found these articles via other means, I would find the terms appearing prominently.

The journal database search engines were so generally poor that I had to use other means, serendipity being the most painful method for time-pressed procrastinators such as myself.

Google Scholar helps save my day
Fortunately, someone turned me onto Google Scholar. I found it retrieved items from academic databases better than the databases own search, plus Google Scholar pulls up other applicable information as well. Truly a very handy tool - thank you Google!

Ivory towers cloister useful research
My final complaint is that while I was also surprised by the quantity and quality of academic research on Internet topics, I was miffed that I never saw any of it before. I’ve worked in the Internet for years, have read books and articles, and been to conferences and was never exposed to this research before.

Granted, it is possible that this research could have come to me via other authors and speakers who digested and regurgitated it. Also, it's not like the research is fit for wider application as can be exceedingly and, I might add, unnecessarily obtuse and elitist (another complaint, sorry). But some research is fine for everyone working in the field as is, and in other cases the findings could be repurposed for wider distribution.

Frankly, I think that too much of academia is infatuated with itself and doesn’t make enough effort to share their research to the outside world. With this attitude one ends up with research for research’s sake. And those, like me, who can benefit from the information don’t get it.

1 comment:

Stephen Fetter said...

Yes, Yes, and more yes!

You would think that academics would be among the greatest advocates for spreading the joy. After all, "the truth shall make you free" they say (it's even written into the stonework at Victoria College in Toronto). And with all the emphasis on "publish or perish", you'd think academics would actually want people to be able to read what gets published!

I wonder how much of it has to do with money. After all, publishing a peer-reviewed journal is expensive, and the audience is limited (and pretty computer savvy). If the journals were available for free, who would pay for all the editorial time?

But surely there's a way ... or at least a way to do this without breaking the bank. A year ago I discovered a subscription service that allows me access to a database of theological journals. For $100 a year I can have access to past and present issues of a couple of hundred academic journals in my discipline. I'm thrilled. I'm doing better quality research than I've ever been able to do before, and I don't have to trudge down to the university library (which doesn't have nearly as many journals on the shelf anyway).

The trouble is that we're caught between paradigms. Academic journals, I suspect, are run on a shoestring, and managed by people over 50 who still struggle with digital tools. (Gee, I better watch what I say ... I'm approaching that magical age myself ... but there is a generation gap re digital technology that seems remarkably difficult to cross.) The service I subscribe to doesn't offer digital copies of the articles -- it offers the paper copies, scanned into pdf files. This makes them impossible to search properly ... so all searching is done only on the basis of tags that the librarians have created. Just like the old card catalog system!