Authority and Academic Databases

Beyond Citation hopes to encourage critical thinking by scholars about academic databases. But what do we mean by critical thinking? Media culture scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has defined critique as not attacking what you think is false, but thinking through the limitations and possibilities of what you think is true.

One question that the Beyond Citation team is considering is the scholarly authority of a database. Yale University Library addresses the question of scholarly authority in a handout entitled the Web vs. Library Databases, a guide for undergraduates. The online PDF states that information on the web is “seldom regulated, which means the authority is often in doubt.” By contrast, “authority and trustworthiness are virtually guaranteed” to the user of library databases.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether scholars should always prefer the “regulated” information of databases to the unruly data found on the Internet. While Yale Library may simply be using shorthand to explain academic databases to undergraduates, to the extent that they are equating databases and trustworthiness, I think they may be ceding authority to databases too readily and missing some of the complexity of the current digital information landscape.

Yale Library cites Academic Search and Lexis-Nexis as examples of databases. Lexis-Nexis is a compendium of news articles, broadcast transcripts, press releases, law cases, as well as Internet miscellany. Lexis-Nexis is probably authoritative in the sense that one can be comfortable that the items accessed are the actual articles obtained directly from publishers and thus contain the complete texts of articles (with images removed). In that limited sense, items in Lexis-Nexis are certainly more reliable than results obtained from a web search. (Although this isn’t true for media historians who want to see the entire page with pictures and advertisements included. For that, try the web or another newspaper database). Despite its relatively long pedigree for an electronic database, careful scrutiny of results is just as crucial when doing a search in Lexis-Nexis as it is for an Internet search.

In some instances, especially when seeking information about non-mainstream topics, searching the Internet may be a better option. Composition and rhetoric scholar Janine Solberg has written about her experience of research in digital environments, in particular how full-text searches on Amazon, Google Books, the Internet Archive and HathiTrust enabled her to locate information that she was unable to find in conventional library catalogs. She says, Web-based searching allowed me not only to thicken my rhetorical scene more quickly but also to rapidly test and refine questions and hypotheses. In the same article, Solberg calls for “more explicit reflection and discipline-specific conversation around the uses and shaping effects of these [digital] technologies” and recommends as a method “sharing and circulating research narratives that make the processes of historical research visible to a wider audience . . . with particular attention to the mediating role of technologies.”

Adding to the challenge of thinking critically about academic databases is their dynamic nature. The terrain of library databases is changing as more libraries adopt proprietary “discovery” systems that search across the entire set of databases to which libraries subscribe. For example, the number of JSTOR users has dropped as much as 50% with installations of discovery systems and changes in Google’s algorithms. Shifts in discovery have led to pointed discussions between associations of librarians and database publishers about the lack of transparency of search mechanisms. In 2012, Tim Collins, the president of EBSCO, a major database and discovery system vendor, found it necessary to address the question of whether vendors of discovery systems favor their own content in searches, denying that they do. There is, however, no way for anyone outside the companies to verify his statement because the vendors will not reveal their search algorithms.

While understanding the ranking of search results in academic databases is an open question, a recent study comparing research in databases, Google Scholar and library discovery systems by Asher et al. found that “students imbued the search tools themselves with a great deal of authority,” often by relying on the brand name of the database. More than 90% of students in the study never went past the first page of search results. As the study notes, “students are de facto outsourcing much of the evaluation process to the search algorithm itself.”

In addition, lest one imagine that scholars are immune to an uncritical perspective on digital sources, in his study of the citation of newspaper databases in Canadian dissertations, historian Ian Milligan says that scholars have adopted the use of these databases without achieving a concomitant perspective on their shortcomings. Similarly to the Asher et al. study of undergraduate students, Milligan says, “Researchers cite what they find online.”

If critique is, as Chun says, thinking through the limitations and possibilities of what we think is true, then perhaps by encouraging reflective conversations among scholars about how these ubiquitous digital tools shape research and the production of knowledge, Beyond Citation’s efforts will be another step toward that critique.

Reach us at BeyondCitation [at] gmail [dot] com or follow us on Twitter @beyondcitation as we get ready for the launch in May.

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