Want to know the best kept secrets to good research, ask a librarian

Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Earth System Science & Policy Department, University of North Dakota

As I finished revising the syllabus for the graduate level core course that I team-teach each fall semester, I found myself wondering about the new cohort of students who would arrive in the next few days. Will they interact well or clash in the classroom? Will they be eager to participate in dialogue with each other and the faculty? What level of writing and research skills will they have as a starting point? This last question seems rhetorical; after all, they are entering a graduate program, they should have proficient research skills, otherwise they would not be coming here, right? No, year after year, we have students enter our first year graduate cohort who do not have proficient research skills; we see these struggles with both international and US educated students. In this age of incredible information access via the Internet, students (and faculty) often assume that they have all the resources they need within, for example, a simple Google search. Our research frustrations have been enlightened by a recent article on Inside Higher Ed. A recent series of studies, titled the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project has found that what many of our students think is a good research strategy, is actually a lack of understanding; for example, many do not even know that Google Scholar exists much less that it returns vitally different results than a simple Google search. The ERIAL project shows that contrary to popular rumor, the research librarian is not extinct, in fact, they are even more important in the Internet age than before.

Interestingly, the ERIAL project has found that we all share some blame for the lack of research skills we are seeing in our university students, at all levels. The ERIAL project found that librarians and faculty (and students, themselves) often overestimate the ability of students to conduct research. In addition, despite finding themselves as frustrated by the research process as their instructors are by the poor work that is handed-in, the ERIAL project also found that students do not ask librarians for help. Sadly, many students, and faculty, do not become acquainted with these knowledgeable people early in their academic career. I was one of those students who overestimated my research skills; I did not realize this until half-way through my PhD degree work when I was working for a research organization and had my first Internet research tutorial with a librarian. Oh, the hours and hours of futile Internet searching I could have saved prior, but happily, it eased some of the toil of my dissertation work. The Inside Higher Ed summary of the ERIAL project reminded me that this problem in research is still prevalent and the solution strategy is worth repeating. I speak from experience as a student and now as an instructor. At the beginning of each semester, instructors and advisors should encourage students to go to the library and talk to a librarian. This seems overly simplistic, but if we encourage students to meet a librarian (and remind them to take their research assignment guidelines with them- apparently students often don’t realize this may be helpful), we may help students improve their research skills and alleviate some of our frustrations. Simple encouragement, in some cases, may not be enough; sometimes students need an incentive or a straightforward requirement.

Three years ago, the lack of research proficiency in our graduate student cohorts prompted my colleagues and me to seek out the assistance of our specifically assigned research librarian. (You may not know this, but at most universities, there is a research librarian specifically assigned to your department or discipline.) Now, our new fall cohort completes a two-hour research training session that includes a brief tour of the main library and a tutorial on Internet databases, search logic, and how to get started with RefWorks (when I sat-in on the session two-weeks ago, I realized that with the pace of Internet change, I was long overdue for a refresher). Each year, we have students comment about how helpful the training session was for them. We recognize that this “quick and dirty” type of research training does not transform our new students into outstanding researchers, but it does introduce them to a research librarian, one of the most important resources they can utilize during their degree work.

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