Getting Serious About Research Online

Higher education needs to get serious about materials found in electronic formats, writes Sara Kubik.

March 20, 2009

Recently, a small journal entitled RNA Biology announced that it will now require all authors to also create Wikipedia pages about their discoveries.. This move is, no doubt, trying to make the electronic content as credible and more accessible than the printed content. But how will academics embrace this mandate? Especially since, once the pages are posted, they could be changed by anyone.

Other recent headlines showed the Tribune Company filing for bankruptcy protection and two Detroit newspapers reducing their daily home delivery to only three days a week. This news made me ponder the ever-dynamic argument over the seriousness and necessity of printed publications. In my former life, before joining academe, I was a graphic designer, so my biases are toward all things print. I love print. I love the tangibleness of printed material, the presentation of the designs, the longevity of the output, and, in terms of academic publications, the seriousness of printed material. However, I also embrace technology and the flow of information now accessible to us because of it. But how do we manage this growing tide?

About six months ago, when I asked a graduate student about a theoretical framework he was using in a paper, he said he “researched” it. I winced to learn that this meant he merely Googled it. Similarly, when I asked another graduate student to conduct a literature review and find some articles about technology use by adults with developmental disabilities, he sent me an e-mail that consisted of three Web site addresses. That was it. I was shocked at his apparent laziness and naiveté on conducting research. But then I realized that no one had shown him how to conduct a proper literature review. No one had told him that referencing involved more than hyperlinks, and that referencing in and of itself had a hierarchy: Printed materials first, Web pages last, and wikis never. But wait, in 2006 the creator of Wikipedia advised us not to use the site as a source, and yet two years later he now wants to make the site more accepting to academic referencing by having “faculty-approved” sites. Also, wikis such as Scholarpedia claim to have content written by experts with a curator moderating all changes. Gray matter, it seems. If we are to use these quality online resources, while insisting on high standards for students, academics need to take seriously issues related to citing materials in media that didn’t exist a generation ago more seriously.

The new style guide of the Modern Language Association no longer recognizes print as the default medium. The recent American Psychological Association style guide includes many different types of electronic referencing. Yet it’s a race to see how credible and reference-worthy are newer forms of electronic communication. Referencing a blog, an online journal, an e-mail, a forum post, or a Podcast are all a part of APA referencing . But what about a “tweet” on Twitter, or a text message to one’s phone, or an instant message to one’s computer? Even though we can now cite electronic messages, many would argue that this is not equivalent to referencing something credible. When respected professionals cite Wikipedia, as with the recent case where a Connecticut Supreme Court justice used Wikipedia content as a source for his decision to support law to legalize gay marriage, isn’t this a justification for academics to also begin to embrace this site?

It seems that most of the communication that occurs over the Internet can be lumped under the reference of “personal communication”. But it’s time for this grouping to be broken down into more categories. Some issues that need to be specified include communication with someone who is unknown to the author; if the communication was conducted in real-time or was asynchronous; if the communication was solely one-way; or if it will be recoverable at a later date. The transitioning is also occurring because today’s technology allows for delivery of the content to be considered personal. How should we reference a mass e-mail sent to a person’s cell phone?

Personal information is transitioning into reliable news, and other gatekeeping organizations are embracing this movement. Although this is not a new phenomenon (i.e. the Zapruder film) the current transition is about every-man reporting:

  • Immediately after escaping from the burning Continental plane that skidded off of the Denver runway, a citizen journalist posted numerous messages about his experience and health status (he was unharmed) to the social networking site Twitter.
  • Television programs recently featured a cell phone image of a missing toddler; the image was taken by a Florida mall employee.
  • The New York Times encouraged readers to send in their photos during the recent elections and then posted a few on their home page.
  • Google announced that by analyzing search terms, it can track flu trends in the U.S. two weeks faster than traditional systems.

Since groundbreaking information may be delivered from a grassroots level, academics should not dismiss this type of content creation. A filtering process still needs to be in place, but there needs to be a wider acceptance of the various origins of the material. We need to have sound procedures for citing such materials to show that we are aware of their limitations, but also of their value.

Finally, we need to start attributing intellectual respect to online-only journals as much as we do to printed journals. Who cares about the output delivery method. It’s all about the content. If the Tribune Company decides to lessen its production of printed papers because they are too costly, does this mean that they are implying that printed content is less intellectual than Web content? Of course not. But academic circles are not all following suit. Online-only journals often have no impact factor scores, yet the students who use Google will find these journals pop up more frequently than the traditional publications. Perhaps this move toward paper-free publications will speed up the process of submitting an article, waiting for the first review, re-submitting the article with changes, waiting for the next review, (hopefully) getting the article accepted, and then waiting to have the article printed in the journal.

In my field, gerontechnology (you can Google that), the fact that this reviewing process can take over a year showcases how many articles are somewhat out-of-date due to the fact that technology can change so rapidly. It would be advantageous if this respected, peer-reviewed process were still in place for online-only journals; but because there is no waiting for the printed deliverable, the content would be disseminated much more quickly and consequently have a higher level of relevance. While this is the case in some fields, most others lag.

While it once made sense to equate print with quality, it’s time to embrace newer forms of communication as valid. If they need academically sound forms of verification and procedures for citation, let’s get to work.


Sara Kubik is an associate faculty member in visual communications and design at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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