When did search become research?

Posted November 9th, 2010 by Paul Ayres

Typing a few keywords into Google isn’t research, yet the words search and research are often bandied about as though they were interchangeable – but is this a new problem? Surprisingly, no.

The notion that the word research is used when we really mean search, is a topic that I’ve meant to look into for quite a while. It’s something that I feel a tad guilty about, after all we use the tagline – Developing Internet research skills – for the Virtual Training Suite.

I set out to do a bit of preliminary Internet searching expecting to be swamped by news stories chastising students for being too reliant on Google or Wikipedia and opinion pieces saying that the Internet is making us stupid or enhancing our brains in ways that we can’t even imagine.

Instead, I was drawn to an article on PubMed Central from the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association - When does search become research? by Edith Dernehl, read at the 43d Annual Meeting of the Medical Library Association at Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 29 … in 1941.

She starts by neatly outlining the problem, in terms that ring true nearly 70 years later.

“Research has as its object the exploration of uncharted fields, while search leads only into domains previously explored. We all know that many a search wrongly assumes the name of research, when the work reported has hardly shown evidence of even a thorough survey of a subject, and has no trace of the original thought so essential to any project dignified by the name research.”

But the student or academic should be just as careful as the commentator in their choice of words to describe their work.

“No matter in what field he chooses to work, he must bring originality of thought or of approach to the task. Without these attributes or without new truth, his work can at best be called a library search and should never be classed as research work.”

However, the librarian must treat the searcher and researcher equally.

“One of the qualities most necessary for a librarian, therefore, is vision; she must show judgment, guided by imagination, in her decisions, and she must cultivate an understanding for the needs of the searcher and the researcher alike.”

She concludes by saying that:

“A search will often be rewarded with useful information; if not, then even a small problem, solved by a live intelligence, may well be called a bit of research well done.”

Suitably chastised that there really isn’t anything new under the sun, I’ve discovered that search became conflated with research at least as far back as 1941 and probably a lot earlier! And perhaps I won’t feel so bad about saying research when I mean search – as it’s clearly not something that has come about purely since the invention of the Internet.

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