When Speed Trumps Substance

A Dozen Problems with Internet-based Research

by Robert Velarde (Posted: 3/11/04)


[Please Note: As with all Bully Pulpit articles, the views expressed in this opinion piece are completely those of the author, and are not necessarily representative of CMUG.]

Is it possible for printed books and online technologies to peacefully co-exist? I think so, but recent trends in popular online research concern me. An Associated Press article by May Wong called "Encyclopedias Gather Dust in Internet Age" (March 9, 2004) observes, "These are lonely days for encyclopedias. At libraries, the volumes sit ignored for days on end as information-seeking patrons tap busily away at nearby computers."

Has the proliferation and popularity of Internet-based search engines, such as Google, spelled the end of print-based resources? Is print dead (or at least on life-support)? While these are certainly thought-provoking questions, the purpose of this article is a little more modest. In it I will explore a dozen problem areas of Internet-based research.

1. Not everyone has access to the Internet.
This seems an obvious point, but in American culture it seems many just think everyone has online access. For those without online access, Internet-based research is obviously a problem. There are, however, solutions. Most public libraries offer internet access for free or perhaps for a modest fee. Additionally, a visit to a library may prove more fruitful research-wise than a Google or other online search, depending on what one is looking for.

2. Not everyone has high-speed access to the Internet.
We live in an age where patience has degraded. We want fast food and instant gratification. Students (whether college, high school, or younger) don't tend to have much patience. Without a high-speed Internet connection, they may be waiting too long for their taste to view images related to an article, to watch a video clip or to listen to a streaming audio clip. As we will see later, this may not be a bad thing. The dominance of images over words can be disconcerting. Incidentally, I often browse the web with images disabled (most browsers will allow image loading to be turned off) because pages load faster and I am not bombarded by advertisements and such.

3. Not everything you find on the Internet is true.
Again, this seems an obvious point, but it is not always obvious to students seeking quick information and easy answers. Gary Price, writing in "Searcher," remarks "... links are not the same as answers—let alone authoritative answers" (See Price's article "What Google Teaches Us that Has Nothing to Do with Searching"). Unfortunately, many of us have grown up in a setting that accepts the attitude that if a computer says something, it must be true. For those who believe that truth must correspond to reality, conflicting "truths" on a matter cannot all be true. Either they are all false, or one of them is true.

4. What is the shelf life of software?
This point relates more to reference resources available on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM, as opposed to Internet-based research, but I think it is still a relevant point when it comes to using technology for research purposes. If I purchase an encyclopedia on CD-ROM for a particular computer operating system, will I still be able to use or access this resource in ten years? Twenty years?

Of course, one might argue that in ten or twenty years why would I want to access such outdated material? Here we come to a matter described by C.S. Lewis as "chronological snobbery." Lewis used this term in the context of preferring more modern authors on a given subject over the older. However, the concept may be applied to technology as well or even reversed (i.e., someone suffering from chronological snobbery may prefer the old to the new). The point is, say I have the entire collection of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) on CD-ROM going back to the 1960s up until the 1990s, will I still be able to utilize this resource some years from now?

A couple of years ago I looked into the possible purchase of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM. The cost was a bit beyond my liking, but then the thought struck me that this is a resource I would like to have access to for the rest of my life. I lacked the shelf space for the entire 20-volume set, so I opted for purchasing the printed version called The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. This single volume compresses all 20-volumes into one (albeit with very tiny print read with the included magnifier). Still, I am glad to have a printed copy of my own that some day I can pass on to my children (or at least the most scholarly one!). Besides, computers and online access sometimes are down, but the printed dictionary will, barring unforeseen events, always be available to open.

5. Certain fields of research and study are better served by printed books or knowledgeable people.
What if you wanted to look up a particular musical piece in an online search engine, but you could only remember the tune? One cannot simply sing a tune and have a search engine identify it. The field of music, then, is at least one area where printed books and knowledgeable people are needed. A good music librarian may do what Google could never dream of doing. Research regarding a specialized branch of philosophy, for instance, may also benefit from consulting established and authoritative reference works or a knowledgeable professor. To assume that a few keywords can be entered into an online search engine and the results with provide accurate and authoritative insights is, frankly, naïve. Certainly one may come across the information one needs in this manner, but an online search engine is not the final word on many subjects.

6. Hyperlinks derail the proven method of learning by reading a book.
Writing about hypertext in his book, The Soul in Cyberspace, Douglas Groothuis observes, "Instant access to all kinds of information may corrode a sense of coherence and meaning if the information is not put into an appropriate framework." (p. 65, Baker Book House edition) A good author has a specific structure in mind, organizes points logically and argues his or her case in a manner that makes sense. Hyperlinks can be useful, but they also have the potential to derail a proper train of thought. This article, for instance, includes hyperlinks, which by their very nature offer the reader opportunities to leave the train of thought developed here.

This does not mean that hyperlinks are bad. They can, of course, lead us to further thought-provoking information. The point is that it is easy for someone to jump from thought to thought and web page to web page without much critical thought or evaluation of the worldview behind a particular page—something that is often important in research. Mortimer Adler's classic book, co-authored with Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book, is a good place to start in understanding how to read well in a variety of subjects. (And, no, it is not available to read online.)

7. There are potential problems associated with citing a web page as a resource.
By its very nature, cyberspace is sort of ethereal. There is no guarantee that a web site, such as this one, that is available today will be available a year from now. There is also the possibility that a link to a web site will change. The mutable nature of cyberspace presents a challenge to researchers and writers. When referencing some web sites in a book I co-authored on alternative medicine, for instance, I would note the date that I accessed the site, save a copy to my hard drive and also print a copy for my records. Still, if a page is gone, there is no guarantee that it will ever be back. Worse still, there have been cases of the owner of a particular site passing away and the contents bought out by a rival or perhaps even an organization that holds to opposing views.

8. Encyclopedias and other reference works are, in most respects, not out of date.
With the exception of certain fields, such as technology, most encyclopedias are not out of date. A student doing research on the American Civil War, for example, will find a great deal of useful information in a printed reference work. Again, this is a case of chronological snobbery. Because an encyclopedia is a printed work, some believe that the contents of the work will quickly become outdated. Certainly encyclopedias are not perfect and there is room for human error, but the same can be said of the Internet. Of course, there is a benefit in having errors quickly corrected in online resources, but, nevertheless, printed reference works are still of great value.

9. Online search engines are not the be-all and end-all of research.
All the world's information is not available on the Internet. I don't know that there is anything more to say on this point, as it speaks for itself. Quite simply, there is a great deal of information that is not available online. What some may term the "Googlefication" of society gives the impression that anything can be found via an online search engine.

By the way, I do not mean to deride Google specifically here, but I use its searching service as an example because of its high-profile and market recognition. Google is a useful tool, when kept in perspective. As Price observes in his article noted in point three above, "I'm starting to get the feeling that for others [non-librarians], the masses so to speak, finding the answer to a question does mean simply going to one site, entering a few words, and waiting for a link to 'the answer' to magically appear."

10. Quick Internet research minimizes the importance of seriously digging into a topic, evaluating it and understanding it.
Yes, there are certain things online search engines are very useful for, such as when one is searching for facts (even then, one has to apply discernment with regards to the source). However, there are many topics and issues that require in-depth study. Some specialists may spend a lifetime cultivating and understanding a particular topic. To suddenly think that a quick online search can take the place of serious study is, again, naïve.

11. Internet research tends to value the image over the word (or thought).
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but how many thoughts and careful reflections is a picture worth? Really grappling with difficult issues requires extensive study, contemplation, and reflection—all aspects that do not generally lend themselves well to the Internet and its emphasis on the image.

12. That's NOT what I was looking for!
How many times have you entered a few key words into a search engine only to discover links to things that had nothing to do with your search? Part of the problem here is learning to use a search engine properly, but sometimes nefarious web site designers will include popular search words in order to lure searchers to, shall we say, unsavory pages.

There are many other problems with online research I could probably list. For example, the availability of information online makes it easier for students (and others) to unintentionally or deliberately plagiarize. It should also be noted that the dozen problems I list above should not be taken as insurmountable problems. I merely point them out to counter the popular assessment that Internet-based research is fast, easy, and reliable. Moreover, I am by no means anti-technology. So long as it is used wisely, there is certainly a place for technology. The Internet has much valuable information to offer, but we need to be careful to temper the availability of this information with the cautions I note above. Printed resources and brick and mortar libraries still have a valuable place in society. I hope more people begin to understand the importance and contribution these resources offer.

Robert Velarde, co-author of Examining Alternative Medicine (InterVarsity Press), is a writer and editor. He is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy of religion at Denver Seminary.

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History or Gospel? Can the Biblical accounts of Jesus' passion be trusted?
The Passion Implies Exclusivity: The sufferings of Christ make it unthinkable that there could be any other way to God.

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