Are Databases Killing Research?

Outside of the sciences, the answer may well be “Yes.” But it doesn’t have to be.

The shift away from library research, from actual examination of books and journals—or of microfilm that shows the whole of a particular periodical—has caught my profession (“teacher, higher education”) unaware, at least in regards to the ways we expect our students to perform on research projects. Without thinking much about it, we have accepted database searches as replacements for the activities we earlier expected as part of student research. Many of us, not conversant in the latest database tools, even relegate instruction in these new research methods to others, to librarians or technical experts with a grasp of how to use them but without, too often, an understanding of the needs of the particular course—of what the professors are trying to do through them.

Because our students are able to produce results that look like the results of the past, but without acquiring the knowledge once gained through a hands-on research process, these students, more than ever before, are graduating without the ability to do even the most basic research—beyond, that is, a keyword search through a database. In fact, few of them, today, seem able to recognize research at all. They mistake simple “data mining” for research and have developed almost no ability at all to judge its value. They rarely can, among other things, rate the relative importance of publications or recognize that one should judge the whole of a work instead of simply relying on a part.

This is showing up today in an inability on the part of readers to evaluate data presented—as well as in a great deal of scandalously poor research presented as “scholarly” by more than a few American publishers. Sometimes it even seems that the simple use of footnotes—required for most undergraduate research papers but meaningless in itself—has come to signify “research” to most people, allowing readers to abandon their own duties to verify for themselves. The footnotes wouldn’t be there, many assume, unless the data had been carefully vetted.

Some of the most egregious misuses of research today may come from Regnery Publishing, presenter of works by the likes of Ann Coulter and David Horowitz, the later being perhaps the most famous user of faulty “research” in the country right now. Horowitz will take a snippet from something someone else has written and build what looks like a careful “research” apparatus around it, completely twisting what that person was trying to do in the first place so that it fits the point Horowitz is trying to make. For example, in his Book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, Horowitz identifies Priya Parmar of Brooklyn College as teaching that “proper English is the language of white ‘oppressors’” (296). The truth of the matter, according to Free Exchange on Campus, is that the comment in Parmar’s class was in regard to something someone else (bell hooks) had written concerning a poem by a third person (Adrienne Rich). Technically, Horowitz may be right that Parmar has taught that some people may see “proper” English as the language of oppressors, but that gives no accurate indication of just what Parmar was trying to teach.

Not only is this sort of misleading “research” increasingly common, but the populace is less and less able to spot it, for the training in research that should be leading them to the necessary knowledge just isn’t there when student research, done in exactly the same way with exactly the same myopic concentration on detail at the expense of the larger picture, is as poorly executed as it is today.

Bad research isn’t new, of course. One of the weaknesses of too many college research projects was always an over-reliance on libraries, on secondary data. When students take five classes over a fifteen-week semester (many of them working, to boot), they haven’t the time to do a lot of “original” research. The interview, as a part of undergraduate research, had all but disappeared even forty years ago (if it ever had been stressed, which I doubt). Few students have ever been taught to construct their own surveys, conduct them, and evaluate the results. Even more infrequently have students been asked to collect documents and artifacts that might not show up in a library or database—letters, photographs, check stubs (whatever might be pertinent). The library was always a poor substitute (though it certainly did and does have its own value as repository of secondary, and even primary, information—but it should not be seen as the sole repository of information any more than should the Internet), but students were able to learn something of the “philosophy” of research through use of its possibilities.

One of the most important points to be learned from real research is that one will always find things one does not expect, things one may not even have known existed, by following the trails that research opens up. There’s no point in the researcher knowing beforehand what he or she wants to find—for the research will change that through the very process. The same is not true for data mining—at least, not nearly so often (though the experienced researcher, one who already understands the meaning of the term, can use data mining in this way). There, the initial assumption, all too often, changes quickly into a conclusion, and the search becomes simply one for bits of information that seem (at least) to support that conclusion. When this happens, the process of learning and discovery disappears.

What can be done?

First of all, teachers might consider abandoning the traditional research paper completely. After all, judgment of it is based on results, not on process—and it is the process of research that needs to be emphasized. In place of it, a series of assignments, each centering on development of a specific research skill, could be put in place. One might be an annotated bibliography. Through this, the students may learn to consider the whole of an article or book they are “mining” rather than just picking out quotes. Another might be an interview. Through this, students might learn to test the statements that people make by having to look into the assertions of the interviewee (a necessary part of the assignment) and verifying them. A third could be development of a small survey, along with after-the-fact analysis of both design and results. A fourth might require examination of certain historical documents or items alone, followed by a look at later commentary once the initial examination had been written up and preliminary conclusions drawn. These, together (or others like them), would certainly provide students a better understanding of just what research is—and of how to do it—than the traditional research paper does in the age of Internet databases.