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A Consideration of Required Sources

December 7, 2021

Let’s consider the first-year English class* – the basic, general education course that most first-year students must take. Usually, this course is design to prepare students for the rest of their college/university career. The course usually has a substantial writing component meant to introduce students to academic writing, and a research component that is meant to introduce students to an academic library’s resources.

This course is often the domain of one-shot library instruction sessions and is often the only introduction to the library that students receive. But that is another grip for another day…

I want to delve into another concern: the sources required for the papers written during this course. Usually, they have at least one assignment where they need to use “outside sources” beyond the class readings. But the acceptable sources outlined in the assignment are often mis-matched with the student’s experience and knowledge. This dissonance can have important repercussions for a student’s success in the class, their perception of the research process, and their overall confidence in the library as a place of support.

Below are some examples of how source requirements can thwart a student, making a writing assignment harder and more frustrating than it needs to be.

Requiring Only Peer-Reviewed Articles

Peer-reviewed articles may be the gold standard for many disciplines, but they may not be the best source for students just beginning their higher education. Often the assignments in first-year English are on the shorter side (5ish pages) and require just an introductory understanding of a topic. Peer-review articles often represent extensive research on one nuisance of a topic and go too far in-depth for this purpose. So, while they are quality sources, they don’t fulfill the student’s information need.

An example might be a student who needs basic information on the United States’ suffrage movement. They need a source that explains who the main people were, the date range of the movement, and a few important events. An encyclopedia article or general magazine article would easily provided that information, but the assignment requires “research articles.” While some research articles may provide this information in an introduction or background section, it may take a bit of digging to find a peer-review article that gives this basic information. The student ends up frustrated that research articles are so hard to use, but it isn’t a deficit in the articles. Instead, it is a mismatch in the information needed and the sources required.

Sometimes a topic may be too new or may be outside the scope of academic research, so a peer-review article may not exist. Students may choose to write about pop culture individuals like Lebron James or the Weeknd. These individuals might have a large social media presence, or have articles written about then in newspapers or magazines, but do not have the same popularity in academic journals. Students don’t understand why the research doesn’t exist (the person is famous!), nor do they have the familiarity with a discipline to adapt an existing theory or scholarship on a tangentially related topic.

No websites (or only a certain type of website)

Other faculty may recognize that peer-review articles aren’t always appropriate, but they still are leery about sources from “the internet.” So, they try to guide students to more reputable sources by limiting the websites used or eliminating the web entirely. Faculty may think they are steering students to library resources, but instead they can lead to confusion or uncertainty.

Since students access library resources online, they may assume that anything found there is a “website.” Or, they don’t understand the sources they find online may actually fall under another source category – like a newspaper article from the New York Times or a peer-review article from an open access journal. Students may think that they are limited to physical books in the library, or our dwindling collection of physical journals, and so miss out on our database and other electronic resources.

If told that some websites are OK, the requirements might limit students to certain types of websites, with the belief that .gov, .edu, or .org are superior sources. But we all know the fallacy of this assumption. Because a certain domain is indicated, students often look only at the URL of a sources. They don’t pay as enough attention to the information contained in the site, or the creator of these sites. They may not be finding reliable or appropriate sources, but they can argue that they are fulfilling the requirements.

Requiring “Credible” Sources

Some faculty might understand the limitations of assigning specific types of sources, and instead tell students that they need to use “credible” sources. But these professors often don’t take class time to discuss the various facets that determine credibility, which means that students must figure it out themselves. The success of this approach hinges on the student’s other experience with research. Studies show that students are not good at identifying credible information online, and often first-year students have very little experience using the library’s resources. Or they think that anything they find through the library’s website and resources, not matter the source, is automatically a credible and appropriate source for their topic.

Why Does This Matter?

When the required sources mismatch with the assignments, or the students don’t have the research skills to find appropriate sources, their anxiety and frustration manifests itself at the library reference desk. Often, they turn to a librarian for help at the last minute, or in response to feedback from their professor. They don’t understand why research for this assignment has to be so hard. A Google search was fine for high school. A quick search there and they’d find all the outside sources they need. Why can’t they just do that?

The librarian at the desk then has to talk them down from the edge, and in the span of 10-15 minutes explain the information cycle, information literacy, and the exceptions to the credibility rule that would be too much even for a fifty-minute one-shot. And even then, the librarian can’t work miracles. No matter how many tricks we have we can’t will into existence a peer-review article on Ellen DeGeneres’ apology video one week after its posting.

An ounce of prevention: maybe a library one shot a week before the paper’s due or even better a consultation with the instructor while writing the assignment, could prevent a lot of student frustration. It may even elicit some good will towards both the library and their instructor. Unfortunately, we tend to be only triaging the symptoms instead of solving the problem. But that’s another gripe for another post…

*Other courses have the same issues related to mismatched source requirements, but first-year English was a good stand-in for other, mainly first-year courses, that can cause student angst at the reference desk.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Alex K. permalink*
    December 8, 2021 3:24 pm

    It’s a tough balancing act. I’ve seen faculty tell students to use “credible” source only for students to respond by using exclusively questionable websites. On the other hand requiring only peer reviewed sources causes all the problems you mention. And peer reviewed articles are often written for advanced audiences which makes them extremely difficult for students to understand.

    I find professors who require minimum amounts of different sources types have the best results. At least two peer reviewed articles, one book and no more than two websites for instance. It isn’t perfect but it gives students experience with different sources types. It lets them use a few “easy” sources while also using some more difficult ones.

    I also find that books and ebooks are not emphasized enough by faculty teaching first year students. Books contain that basic information that you mention isn’t present in scholarly articles, yet are more rigorous than general websites.

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