Why research is hard: the start of a series

I hadn’t been to Jeannette’s blog, Moot Thoughts & Musings, for a while, so I didn’t catch this post on the research process when it first appeared, but it rang quite a few bells of recognition. Jeannette, who was writing a paper at the time, comments:

I can’t figure how to assess a database. I think that if I type in a
word any book or article that contains the word will come up, right? I
mean, it’s supposed to search everything, right? Well, not necessarily.
Oh. I’ve been venturing out and trying other databases, but these
endeavors aren’t very fruitful. I feel like I’m missing something.

I’ve so been there. That "I’m missing something" feeling Jeannette describes? Completely familiar from my own grad-student days. Now that I’m on the other side of the reference desk, I’m much more aware of the factors that make academic research hard to do. It’s gotten me thinking about which factors might be intrinsic to the research process and which have to do with the design of the tools we make available to researchers.

And because it would make an awfully long single post, I think I’ll break it down into a series on Why Research Is Hard. Off the top of my head and in no particular order, the factors are:

  1. The research tools themselves.
  2. The often cyclical, roundabout, and serendipitous nature of the process itself.
  3. The way information-seeking skills are taught.
  4. The assumption that it’s better to make the user learn a really convoluted interface than to redesign the interface — also, the lack of resources (time, money, personnel) to redesign the interface.
  5. The larger culture of academia and its assumptions about the difficulty of research and the nature of expert knowledge.

To take Jeannette’s post as an instance: she’s having trouble formulating search strategies, and blames herself for not being able to figure out the databases. But the problems she describes point to the confusing nature of article databases (some offer full-text searching, some don’t; how’s a user to know which is which?) as well as to the unfamiliarity of her paper topic.

Jeannette concludes:

Right now, my favorite place to look for stuff is Amazon, because it
gives you suggestions for other books and often you search inside the
book or search other books it cites or that cite it. Now if we could
just get the Amazon model to work for articles, too.

I’ve seen lots of posts in the biblioblogosphere about this very phenomenon, namely: why can’t we design our search tools to do the things that Amazon, Google, et al. do so readily, and that users have come to expect? Why don’t library catalogs offer "Did you mean…" options when a user misspells a search term, like Google does? How come every article database has its own special learning curve while commercial search sites make everything intuitive? And so on.

Next up: Rambling thoughts on what scholars do when they go hunting for information. A rant about the least user-friendly database I’ve ever seen. Even ramblier thoughts about why librarians and scholars should spend quality time talking to each other. Stay tuned.

4 Responses to “Why research is hard: the start of a series”

  1. Jeannette says:

    *blushes* wow, I feel famous.
    Seriously, though, I’m excited to read what you have to say.

  2. Harriet says:

    I’m looking forward to the next installment. Supplementing my research with random searches via google and amazon and even ebay has always seemed ridiculous, and yet time after time I turn up things there that I can’t find through any other more organized and scholarly sources or methods. Although in fairness, things do seem to be getting better in some areas. Proquests systematic expansion of newspaper archives available in facsimile and word-searchable on line is an incredible project. Without out it, my diss would probably not exist or would at least be very, very different.

  3. Rudy says:

    This is actually very serendipitous! I was just helping a patron with CSAs PsychInfo (a not full-text database…), and realized that the citations for articles are incuded, and linked to full text (when available) and to SFX. And in addition to all that, CSA is including linked citation statistics (this article has been cited XXX number of times, and the number is a hotlink, listing out all of those articles, complete with full text for a link to SFX….) Not quite the same as If you like X you’ll Like Y, but pretty close!

  4. Amanda says:

    And, serendipitously, I was just experimenting with PsychInfo the other day and noticed the same thing! So there is progress, after all.