When Microsoft closes the website for its digital, multimedia encyclopedia Encarta at the end of this month,few people will notice. Those who did hear Microsoft’s announcement to discontinue Encarta this summer probably reacted much as I did—with surprise that it still existed. When the first edition of Encarta appeared in 1993, this year’s freshman class was potty training. By the time they were ready to do real research, they had about as much use for Encarta as I did for that 24-volume, 100 lb. set of Collier’s Encyclopedia that my parents bought when I was born. But even though the demise of Encarta is largely symbolic, it signals a major shift in what constitutes research in the 21st century. The era of the encyclopedia officially ends this month. For, despite its slick, multimedia interface, Encarta was based upon the same basic principles as those Enlightenment-era works were: a hierarchical, vetted, well-defined presentation of information.
In one of those wonderfully symbolic confluences of events, I was in the process of reading a set of seminar papers when I heard Microsoft’s announcement. As I scanned the bibliographies of the research papers, I noticed what I think was a first for me, but which I had known would someday happen—every source in every paper began with the letters: http://www. Now, this was a particularly engaged group of students in a course in which we read actual printed books and articles. But when it came time to write a research paper, that meant only one thing to them: the internet. I know that many professors have reacted to this fact by banning Wikipedia (or even all online sources) from being cited in research papers. But in my opinion, this is not the right move. The era of WikiResearch is here. Our task—as researchers and teachers—is to understand what this means and to harness its full potential. What follows are four basic principles to help us begin to navigate this new era in research.
#1: We no longer need to concentrate on teaching students how to track down scarce information; rather, we need to teach them how to manage an abundance of information.
The first lesson that a new researcher used to need to learn was how to locate information. Not too long ago, we would chase sources through card catalogs and footnotes until we gathered enough evidence to begin to build an argument. I once spent an entire year trying to locate an obscure 1940s German detective novel before I finally discovered it (accidentally) on an uncataloged shelf of a small library in Berlin. Ten years later, I can Google the author’s name (Axel Alt) and find the relevant information right there on the first page of results (which I’m pleased to see, is a link to the Google Books version of my book!). My problem a decade ago was uncovering scarce sources.
The problem for researchers today is figuring out what to do with the 1,160 results that pop up in a fraction of a second for Axel Alt. The abundance of information has transformed the process of research from detective work that seeks evidence to forensic work that sifts through and evaluates evidence. We all have a methodology course built into our majors, but how much time do we spend on the nuts and bolts of where to locate information and how to distinguish a scholarly source from other sources?
#2: The democratization of knowledge is not only a challenge to researchers; it is one of the greatest positive developments in the age of WikiResearch.
In one of the internet-sources-only research papers that I mentioned above, a student cited an argument made in the comments to a blog by someone whose name was something like “FilmBuff2009.” I had to chuckle not only because of the carefully and properly cited forum post (“As FilmBuff2009 convincingly argues…”), but because FilmBuff2009’s argument clashed with one I had recently made in a book published by a respected university press—now hidden away on a library shelf much less convenient to and therefore unused by the student researcher (more on this below).
I’ve spent years studying German history, watching obscure silent films, and puzzling over theoretical works in order to form my arguments. How can FilmBuff2009’s thoughts be more influential than mine—regardless how many followers he or she has on Twitter! But on the other hand, isn’t this refreshing! A couple of decades ago, the subjects deemed worthy of scholarly research were quite confined. Literary scholars studied mostly a small set of canonical texts. Historians studied mostly major figures and events. Economists studied mostly traditional companies. But nowadays the scope of what we study—personal writings, minorities, small start-ups, etc.—has expanded greatly. And research is much richer for it. The same thing will happen for secondary sources.
Even as I shudder at the abundance of bad information readily available (see #1), I am excited by the prospect of a much more expansive conversation that has room for enthusiasts such as FilmBuff2009 alongside more credentialed sources. As Michael Scott, the branch manager of a paper company on the NBC TV series The Office put it so unwittingly ironically: “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information.” The joke comes of course at the expense of the affable—but not always thoughtful—branch manager, but it gets to the heart of what is so compelling and promising about Wikipedia, even as it points out its biggest weakness: It is a non-hierarchical, massively collaborative project. And here Wikipedia stands as it does throughout this post as a symbol for all research in the information age. Whereas the move from bound encyclopedias to digital encyclopedias brought changes mostly in the presentation and speed with which information is conveyed and updated, the move to the internet as the location of information is a fundamental shift in the very notion of what constitutes evidence and intellectual authority.
#3: We need to make our publications more public—and that means putting them on the open internet.
There is a time-honored, scholarly principle that applies to all fields of research: peer review. Scholars value the most distinguished journals and presses in their fields because they hold their writers to high standards of scholarship. We can, must, and will maintain these standards. But there is nothing about the fact that it is printed in black ink on dead trees that gives a book or journal its scholarly value. In fact, all of these writings had to be converted out of more convenient digital forms to be printed on paper at a great cost in time and money.
I know that there are complex economic considerations here, but let’s face it: The current model of academic publishing is economically unviable. Nobody seems to be making any money off of it. And if there are two things that universities have in abundance—server space and scholars who want to make their ideas heard. Let’s find the best way to put the two together. If we don’t, then future researchers will ignore us. Full-text databases are a weak compromise. Scholarship needs to be free, open, and searchable to all users. We can start by valuing online publications by junior faculty based on their quality and impact, not on the pedigree of the journal printing it. These are the people who will lead the way to new modes of publishing—modes that will take us from the research-write-archive model we currently follow and toward a more dynamic means of publishing our research.
#4: Most of the fundamental principles of good, scholarly research remain unchanged.
Good, scholarly research has always been about (1) asking an interesting question, (2) acquiring evidence to answer that question, (3) building an argument based on an evaluation of that evidence, and (4) publishing our findings. The era of WikiResearch changes none of that. But it does expand the potential for each step: There are more questions, there are more sources of evidence, and the conversation is larger than ever. It will be a challenge to adapt these core principles to the new modes of research, but it can be done and it must be done. Once we do it, our research will be stronger and more relevant.
Despite the cocksure and pedantic prescriptions above, I don’t claim to know how the era of WikiResearch will evolve. We’ve already begun by transferring older models of research and publishing (databases and papers) to online sources. But like Encarta, this is little more than translating older structures into new media. Eventually new models will develop that will likely be increasingly collaborative and increasingly dynamic. And I know that there are already people who are doing this. I invite readers to post examples of this—positive and negative. Or maybe you want to argue in favor of other models (I still buy, read, and occasionally even write books!) It wouldn’t be WikiResearch if we didn’t turn this into an evolving conversation that begins here but will end somewhere very different. So let’s do that.