February 17, 2018

Columbia Study: University Students Gravitate to Electronic Resources

By LJ Staff

For a while, librarians and others in the scholarly community have been saying that college students often try Google first and may miss more serious sources available via the library or its web site. Now some statistics back that up. The Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia (EPIC), as part of a longer project on electronic resources, recently released the results of its study of 1,223 undergraduate and graduate students around the country, specializing in the fields of political science, international affairs or earth/environmental science. The results, which made the front page of the June 21 New York Times, led EPIC to point out the need to train students on how to evaluate resources, as well as the need to provide better access to full-text digital sources.

Nearly all respondents (99%) said they use electronic resources for their schoolwork. However, they use the World Wide Web, then email, before they use library-sponsored electronic databases. As might be expected, undergrads are more likely than graduate students to use non-library sponsored electronic resources. For general assignments, students are more likely to turn to the Internet, but for in-depth research assignments, they are somewhat more likely to turn to library-sponsored electronic resources. While students said availability of full text, ease of navigation, and search capabilities of databases were important, they weren’t satisfied with those features. About half the respondents said they have difficulty separating out reliable from unreliable information. Indeed, about the same number said they haven’t received formal instruction on how to evaluate electronic resources. Of those who have received instruction, most of them received it from a professor or TA. That suggests there’s a job for the library.

Though two-thirds of respondents use the physical library more than once a month, a third of respondents won’t go beyond electronic resources when looking for information. More eerily, one-fifth so rely on digital resources that they have not learned how to use the physical library. More than half the students may be sacrificing quality for convenience. About 20% say they often or always settle for information that is available remotely rather than going to the physical library, while another 36% do this sometimes. The issue, ultimately, is getting search engines to be able to access deeper collections, as new projects by Yahoo and Google emerge. “We’ll see the current generation we accuse of doing research in their pajamas develop highly sophisticated searching strategies to find high quality information on the web,” Abby Smith, director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources, told the Times. “It’s this transition period we’re in, when not all high-quality information is available on the web–that’s what we lament.”