The Googlification of Research

We often receive requests for help with research projects. Whenever we can, we try to respond positively although doing so can take a sizeable chunk out of the day (some might say, a disproportionate amount of time, given the size of the community, but helping others is an aspect of hospitality so we do our best). I am beginning to be concerned, however, by the number of requests which suggest that the very nature of research is changing. Asking for leads, a few specific questions after the background reading has been done, discussion of a point that has arisen when looking again at the source material: all these are fine by me. I am less happy with the kind of research which consists in endless questions that a very little work by the researcher could have answered.

Let me give some examples. Frequently, we’ll receive long lists of questions about nuns/monastic life, whether we blog or engage with social media, etc, etc. Usually, these are already answered on our community web site or are pretty self-evident. (If you made contact with us via these pages, presumably you would realise that one of us blogs, wouldn’t you?) Then there are the lists of questions about other communities or organizations, e.g. Anglican sisters, about which we are not qualified to speak; there are also what I call the speculative lists, which ask questions along the lines of ‘do you think that the Church (who She?) is doing (a) a good job, (b) a bad job or (c) an indifferent job of . . .?’ Who cares what we think, and anyway, how are we to assess what two billion Catholics are doing? (People often forget that the Church is universal when conducting their surveys.) TV companies, novelists, journalists looking for a feature article, people doing dissertations, all send their little lists and hope for an answer by return.

I think Google is to blame. We have become accustomed to tapping in a few search terms and coming up with pages of resources; so why should people be any different? Send a list of questions and back will come the answers. Turn them into a few nice- looking charts (so easy with the software available today), add a few sentences of interpretation containing all the most fashionable buzz words (do another Google search to find them) and, hey presto, we have the dissertation nailed, the report ready. I exaggerate, of course, but underneath the exaggeration is a belief that the quantification of thought is no substitute for thought itself, that research is precisely that: a systematic investigation to establish facts and reach new conclusions. There are no short-cuts to research, just as there are no short-cuts in the most exciting search of all, the search for God.

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6 thoughts on “The Googlification of Research”

  1. Well said, Digital Nun!
    Half a lifetime ago, when I worked for British Information Services in New York, we would get pretty fed up with endless requests for ‘in depth’ information about various aspects of Britain, often as school projects. We had a standard booklet called ‘Britain in Brief’ which provided the answer to many questions, but it was becoming too expensive to send out in answer to every footling enquiry so we devised a series of ‘one-side-of-A4’ papers called SA/1, SA/2 (meaning ‘the short answer’ is…). This left us much more time to devote to the in-depth queries, rather than having to provide the in-depth answers to those who wanted us to do their work for them.

  2. My wife and I have read your post. She says that I might have written this. We are two freelancers working in heritage who have a Christian angle. This happens to us 4/5 times a year year after year. We have occasionally successfully done work with the media but far far outweighed are the occasions we have had our brains pilfered. Feeling sore because we have just fallen for it all again with Great British Railway Journeys. We gave two days of our time for absolutely nothing (which we were willing to do thinking there would be an acknowledgement or something for the portfolio). We were led by talk of being a “travelling guide” and so on and so forth. Oddly enough and I grant you may not watch Top Gear but the editor of Railway Magazine and the two top executives of the National Railway Museum were taken in about a fortnight ago. This was the programme about the caravans and the car train on the Great Central Railway. These senior respected railway folk appeared on the programme with no credit or “outcome”. I don’t believe they were paid. Clips they had thought were going to be used were recorded and then not used. See Railway Magazine 9.11 p3. The media have become adept at making us do their work and then not paying. Beware.

    • I think I will ask the Digitalnun to remove this post and my original post in this thread. It is absolutely the way how life works but you only have to write a comment as I did and three days later a lovely letter arrives from the researcher on the programme thanking us for all the help we gave so it would be ungracious to leave my comment standing although the general sentiment is certainly felt.

  3. Thank you for opening up this very interesting topic.
    I too worked in museums and have experienced the outpouring of questions from ‘Google’ researchers. I found the essay writers particularly irksome but tried always to sort wheat from chaff.

    Now I have also become a Google enquirer. Living in the middle of a field in Norfolk after living in West London has made me appreciate the research possibilities that the www opens up.

    However of late I have found myself drawing upon knowledgeable others, including Digitalnun, for guidance on reading in Bible study and theology in particular. The internet is laden with articles on religion; it’s a minefield.

    As one raised as a Protestant, I have been puzzling over my need to ask ‘an authority’ for guidance on matters such as choosing an online Bible commentary. Even more puzzling when Catholic advisers recommend I turn to the Bible itself for research.

    I appreciate all the net brings into my life, but in my present circumstances to use it well, I also rely on virtual authorities or advisers. Thanks to them all.

  4. Another alarming feature of the rise and rise of Google (and, to be fair, other search engines) is the undermining of people’s ability to use an index or do a methodical subject search on a library catalogue . Somewhere along the line the brain is by-passed as the searcher is mesmerised by the screen.
    I suppose we should all have a motto ‘Think before you tap’ – or ‘Think before you ask DigitalNun’!

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