“You must cite at least three peer-reviewed articles”

I’ve recently spent a good amount of time looking at Researchers of Tomorrow, a new JISC report that surveyed over 17,000 PhD students in the UK. The report focused on the research practices and pitfalls of Generation Y students, defined as those born between 1982 and 1994 (although presumably the vast majority of respondents were born between 1982 and 1990…how many 18 year old doctoral candidates can there be?).

Given the size of this study, there were a lot of interesting findings. One that stuck out to me was the fairly significant decrease in the use of primary sources. They don’t do a lot of analysis of this finding, but it strikes me as a pretty big deal!

Why would this be?

 An obvious reason is that secondary sources are easier to get. In a section entitled “Constraints on research progress,” time pressures and lack of money were named as the top two complaints (with licensing restrictions right behind).

I don’t have any historical comparison, but is it possible that today’s students have less time to dig around and less funding to travel to primary sources? But Gen Y students were less likely to travel to other libraries than (current) older student too.

On Wednesday, I developed a second hypothesis. I was at the “Re-Visioning Public Services” Unconference at Wilfrid Laurier University, and our group was battling with the question “How do we convince students of the benefits of good vs. quick research solutions?”

Over and over again, we found ourselves coming back to the assignments students came to us with. Quite often they are instructed to simply “find three peer-reviewed sources” on their topic. This search, coupled with the students’ terror at correctly citing their found sources, takes up so much room in their head! Their goals are daunting, but ultimately simplistic, and the result is that quick research solutions make sense both on their own terms, and the terms of their instructors.

With web-scale discovery services, finding three peer-reviewed articles on a topic is not a process so much as a single task. There’s no pouring over abstracts and indices, no shelf hunts, no databases-to-try checklist. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does change the meaning of “research” for a lot of students—a lot of undergraduate students, some of whom will soon be graduate students, expected to research much more deeply, thoroughly, and extensively, having always come to acceptable resources easily.

This is (thus far) 100% speculation on my part, but I don’t think completely unfounded. Perhaps I need to nab a few peer-reviewed sources of my own before I say any more!

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