Each semester, I ask students to choose a question that's relevant to our course materials that they want to pursue. Once I’ve approved their respective questions, they go off and research the topic. What do I find that they're turning to for answers? Wikipedia! Not necessarily a bad start, but when they end there it becomes problematic.
That’s where the discussion of reliable technical information begins. Where do you start to find a reliable resource? Academics will tell you to check peer-reviewed journals or other resources. Others will suggest looking it up in a book or on a reliable website – there we go with the term reliable. What is reliable?
Most librarians, from all that I’ve seen, will support the view of the academics; others also will support the use of reputable references from known trade journals, magazines, or repositories such as GALILEO. All are vetted and reviewed for accuracy, thus, making them reliable sources. I further suggest to my students that they check multiple resources and verify that they are saying the same thing!
The students then go off and write their papers, sometimes presenting information they've gathered in a list of bullet points, or, worse, with entire paragraphs copied and pasted from the source. Don’t worry, they are cited – but this isn't good communication or accepted practice.
There we go again with that communication issue! I do grade the passive research portion of my class’s papers. Keep in mind that these are senior students; they know better than to slouch with research and citation. Unfortunately, when I compare written assignment results with my colleagues in academia, I’m hearing the same thing – that some students are unable to properly research and write. Even more disappointing are my colleagues in industry sharing their experiences and suggesting the same thing as the academics. I invited one of my colleagues in from the libraries department to speak to my class. I have seen improvement in citations; now students cite properly. I’ve been asked what sources needed to be cited, and those have been addressed.
Let’s go back to the original concept - reliable technical information. There is so much information on the internet that it really is hard to discern what is reliable and what is not. I suggest to my students that they triangulate. Find three independent, unrelated sources and see what they say. Find out who wrote them, if there were reviews of that work, and whether the sources were truly unrelated. It is also important to identify the author and his or her credentials, answering the question of whether this author is in fact an expert. Then read all of that again and see if it makes sense; does it pass the “test of reasonableness”? Personally, I’m even more old-fashioned and suggest finding older resources, e.g., books. My class topic is applied fluid mechanics; it's an older topic and one that has been studied for a long time. Are older resources worthwhile? Absolutely, unless the topic is newer than the base question developed by the student. Students have come to me with questions about pipe sizing, steam flow and steam tables, and other parts of their research projects involving structural members. Fortunately, researching all of those issues involved turning to “old-fashioned,” books, as most piping vendors supply sizing instructions and tables, steam tables, and fabricated structural members. My students learn where to find those materials online and how to work with them as we move through course materials. Generally, students come to appreciate how to discern whether information they find is reliable, particularly found on the internet. The real problem is finding information and materials that have not been readily available.
As you read through this and see the students' issues, does anything resonate with you about your ability to find reliable information?