Whatever one thinks of the legislation being proposed in the U.S. A. — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate — and the implications for British web sites hosted on American servers (as this one is), the blackout of the English-language Wikipedia raises some interesting possibilities. Will people start reading books again and doing their own research the hard way? Will the results be more accurate? Will plagiarism be less of a problem? Shall we look back on 18 January 2012 as a golden moment when we rediscovered the beauty and power of an old technology? Despite my enthusiasm for most things digital, I’m rather hoping we may.
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.