One of the most common requests that the PCC librarians receive at the research help desk is for help finding peer-reviewed articles or determining if the article in hand or on the screen is, in fact, peer-reviewed. We have learned that the requirement for peer-reviewed articles falls into two categories: (1) actual scholarly peer-reviewed articles which match the student's research interest, and (2) articles that are credible, written by someone with authority on the subject, preferably with some evidence of research. In general, both aim to fulfill the same goal, which is to steer students toward higher-quality resources, a goal that all of us in higher education support.
Framing and mediating
The requirement of using peer-reviewed articles is a topic that sparks much professional discussion. In the library, we mediate the seeming no-man's-land between this requirement, the student's topic, and the student's ability to extract useful information from an article for which they, as introductory-level college students, are not the intended audience. We frame peer-reviewed literature as disciplinary conversations with their own languages, conventions, styles, and go-to set of experts. As in any kind of culture or community, one must be immersed in it and engaged with its practitioners to learn their rules and slang. Generally, upper-level undergraduates reach the beginning stages of this enculturation; it is not more fully achieved until graduate school.
Because beginning-level undergraduates are still novices when it comes to all academic disciplines, one approach for introducing students to peer-reviewed literature is to provide them with a selection of discipline-specific sources to select from, and then engage them in discussions about the context, as well as the content, of the sources. English professors John C. Bean and Nalini Iyer have taken this approach at Seattle University. To help students move down the path from novice to expert, they created a third-year class called "Texts in Context," in which students begin to learn the disciplinary context that will help them make meaning of the sources they find. This class was designed to help students undo their novice assumptions about research and build towards a research paper in which they start to approximate disciplinary ways of making knowledge (Bean and Iyer).
In other academic fields such as composition, the research paper – the most common vehicle that requires peer-reviewed articles as resources – is under scrutiny. At the recent annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson presented research from the Citation Project that shows most student citations demonstrate little to no comprehension of the work cited. Furthermore, students rely so heavily on their sources that they are unable to say anything new about their topic (Berrett). Another conference participant, Barbara Fister, aptly noted: "Most commonly, students pull together a bunch of sources, many of which they barely understand on a topic they know little about, and do their best to mash the contents up into the required number of pages. …[T]hey believe that original ideas are not allowed in 'research'."
It is no wonder that students dread research and any research-related project. The process sucks the joy out of researching topics that initially made them enthusiastic. If this process – and the sources we require to complete it – is not working, then how do we get students to think critically about ideas, use sources ethically and convincingly, and express their own ideas to the appropriate audience?
Recent scholarship offers some ideas. To address the problem of student use of sources and citations, Nick Carbone has suggested that students first learn to use sources in their writing the way in which non-academics do. By drawing sources into the text like journalists and essayists do, they can learn the skills necessary to situate the sources contextually. Later, when they are in a discipline doing more academic writing, they can hew more closely to academic sources and citation styles (Fister).
The Stanford Study of Writing and Project Information Literacy are examining students' extracurricular writing and research practices. Both have found that when students have a real purpose or consequences (hence investment) to their research and writing, they often achieve the outcomes desired in most college classes. They understand and care about their subject; they understand their audience and address it appropriately; and they have few problems finding a variety of resources, though they do struggle with evaluating them. These studies show that students write and do research all the time. Common everyday life research areas include "health, news, purchasing, and trip-planning information" (Head and Eisenberg). However, students do not think of this kind of information seeking in the same way as the work they do for classes.
For the research component, Anne-Marie Deitering and Kate Gronemyer propose an alternative to the peer-review-driven writing research project. If the point is to get students to use resources from credible authors or to engage students in a scholarly conversation, they suggest introducing students to scholarly blogs. While the language is less formal and blog conventions differ from peer-reviewed publications, scholarly blogs engage ideas at a level that is accessible to students, and at the same time make the process of scholarly knowledge construction more transparent. These blogs also show that there are people with biases, agendas, and viewpoints behind the scholarship. Recognizing this can make it more likely for students to see themselves as active knowledge creators, rather than passive, disconnected mimics of scholarly discourse.
Deitering and Gronemyer cite numerous blogs in their article. These include:
- Bean, John C. and Nalini Iyer. "'I Couldn't Find an Article that Answered My Question': Teaching the Construction of Meaning in Undergraduate Literary Research." Teaching Literary Research: Challenges in a Changing Environment. Ed. Kathleen A. Johnson and Steven R. Harris. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2009. 22-40. Print.
- Berret, Dan. "Skimming the Surface." News, Inside Higher Ed, 11 April 2011. Web. 21 April 2011.
- Deitering, Anne-Marie and Kate Gronemyer. "Beyond Peer-Reviewed Articles: Using Blogs to Enrich Students' Understanding of Scholarly Work." portal: Libraries and the Academy 11.1 (2011): 489-503. Web.
- Fister, Barbara. "Why the 'Research Paper' Isn't Working." Library Babel Fish blog, Inside Higher Ed, 12 April 2011. Web. 21 April 2011.
- Head, Alison J. and Michael B. Eisenberg. "How College Students Use the Web to Conduct Everyday Life Research." First Monday 16.4 (4 April 2011). Web. 21 April 2011.
- Project Information Literacy. University of Washington, Information School (iSchool).
- Stanford Study of Writing. Stanford University.
Library & Learning
Vol. 2 Issue 5 June 2011