Dr. Quinn

a woman of words

Check the Ingredients!: Why you & I & Students Shouldn’t Trust Any Websites for Research

September 18, 2012

This is an i-u Research post and for details about using topics discussed here, please scroll to the end of this post.

Recently in an April 5th, 2012, article from the Wall Street Journal (“Cows: The Innocent Bystanders”) John Bussey quoted Marc Smith, director of the Social Media Research Foundation, who observed that American’s favorite emotion is righteous indignation. So I begin this post by stepping down from my soap box, although hesitantly and despite my natural tendency, before sharing why I’m disturbed as a college-level writing instructor.

False Promises
Everywhere I go, I’m being watched. And my students are too. OK — when I say “go” I really mean search online — so everywhere I search online I am actually being watched… tracked, that is. Earlier this year in the spring, Google released its updated Terms of Privacy — a bit of a misnomer considering those terms smack more for tracking purposes than privacy. That or I have a different definition of privacy.

So, why am I “disturbed”? To begin with, all teachers and students, regardless of age range and focus, should be concerned by online tracking and false promises of privacy protection because these directly impact our ability to choose. And for those who like to mince words, I am talking about a human being’s free will (or freedom).

Every Internet browser, every search engine, tracks what we do (and what we don’t do for that matter).  And much like those notorious online dating services, these search engines employ some kind of magical algorithm (working in the background) to make sense of every move you or I make. OK – I can hear the collective sigh — This sounds like a conspiracy theorist’s rant, but bear with me. Although I am on the fence about tracking, I do take offense when these search engines decide what results to provide (or not) based on my past searches, websites I’ve clicked and the ones I’ve skipped entirely.

This is just the thin edge of the wedge. In the Wired article “Inside the Matrix” by James Bradford (April 2012), Bradford discusses the even larger government tracking software centralized out in Utah. And my concern is that my students may be completely ignorant of how far reaching the “tracking” software truly is.

Google me this, Google me that…
Students think they are doing “good research” when they Google their essay topics. They think the Google search results are giving them the fullest extent of possible results based on their keyword searches (which any instructor teaching longer than a hot New York second can tell you ain’t true … You know you’ve cringed when you’ve received yet another essay supported primarily by “.com” sites in lieu of strong, scholarly sources).

Now, maybe some students really don’t know how to do good research. And Google (even Google Scholar – don’t even get me started on that mine field!) never claimed to provide stellar results for academic papers. But there is something inherently flawed with a tool that misleads users into believing its research results provide a breadth and wealth of knowledge.

Something to Think About
So here are some interesting research questions that come to mind in regards to online tracking, search engine algorithms, and online privacy:

1. How do the limited/limiting search results impact student research and their writing? Interesting caveat: how can we apply Aristotle’s concerns raised in On Rhetoric to research/writing in the digital age?

2. If search engines do track and limit results, can we trust academic databases, such as EbscoHost, university libraries, etc..? What kind of software do they use to provide results? Is it a simple keyword, subject, author or title search like the old card catalogue days or is there an algorithm involved?

3. Because of tracking and algorithms, do search engines know us better than ourselves? If the odds were I wasn’t going to click on a site anyway (based on past actions and preferences), does it really matter, then, if a search engine just doesn’t provide me with certain results to begin with?

Closing Thoughts

Just because you go to an “all-you-can-eat” buffet doesn’t mean you are really being given a choice for dinner. Deciding between Kung Pao Chicken and meatloaf isn’t a choice. It is an ultimatum. Someone else decided what you would eat. And researching online is no different: Someone else is providing the buffet and deciding what to serve. So, students and teachers alike really need to consider the implications of conducting research in the information age.

On second thought, I think I will climb back up on my soapbox.

Interesting related Wired article – how Google experiments on us “The A/B Test” by Brian Christian (May 2012). The Google tests also impact how we access, view and receive data.

This is an i-u Research post where I share potential research ideas. Please feel free to pursue any line of inquiry posed here, including sources referenced. In an effort to remain collegial, I share my ideas, so I would love to hear from you if you do decide to develop items from this post.

Please email: engagedrhetoric at gmail dot com.
Happy Researching!

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2012 by in i-u Research and tagged , , , , , .
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