Is the research process actually easier these days?

Most people seem to feel the Internet has made research faster and easier. That might be true—for quick and dirty searches. However, writers wanting to ensure their sources are credible may be turning to flimsy websites in an attempt to get their work done.

I had the opportunity to contemplate this problem when I found myself trying to answer the question, “Are ovaries glands?” For the record, the word “gland” worked better in my rhyme scheme than the word “ovary.”

Like most modern people, I started with Google—actually plugging in this question, word for word. I could have just grabbed the Wikipedia article that appeared at the top of my list of search results. I was happy with the answer. Actually, the second hit also revealed a worthy answer, another Wikipedia article. My third hit came from WikiAnswers. Ask.com provided the fourth. And the fifth site had heart: “Ovary Glands – Ova Achiever.” This site sells stuffed body parts. No joke.

Yes, I could have punted and trusted the information I found on Wikipedia, as it is often accurate. No doubt writers do this every day without reprisal. Yet most writers consider their art form to be a risky business. After all, we regularly put ourselves on the line, exposing our guts to the world in the form of poems, stories, articles, and ultimately books. The last thing we need is to get something wrong because we didn’t dig deeply enough to verify a certain point, as simple as that point may seem.

In any event, I make my living goading college students to think about where their sources are coming from. So I forced myself to move away from Google and try a research database (if you don’t know what a research database is, check out one of my soapbox lectures: The Information Landscape: Thinking About Research Databases).

For this question, I turned to the Gale Virtual Reference Library. It contains many of the reference books older folks once used in pre-Internet libraries. The contents of GVRL will vary from library to library, as librarians handpick the titles included in a particular subscription.

One great thing about this database is that it allows the user to run a keyword search on all of its titles simultaneously. This certainly becomes a faster process than spending time in the stacks browsing the indexes of one heavy tome after the next. However, there is a noticeable drawback. GVRL often contains a lot less titles than a typical print reference collection. FYI: print reference collections are still in existence—in case you miss the old system.

So I ran my search on GVRL, and I must admit the digging process felt clumsier (this time I entered the words, “ovaries” and “follicles”). Instead of locating a succinct answer to my question, I found myself wading through a number of articles packed with medical jargon. It felt like the information I needed was in there, but I wasn’t completely sure.

I tried eliminating the word “follicles,” but I pretty much ended up scanning the same murky details.

Finally, I decided to broaden my topic. I switched to the word, “gland.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Science finally delivered an entry that set my mind at rest, “Other endocrine glands include the thyroid gland, the parathyroid glands, the testes and the ovaries, the thymus gland, and the pituitary gland.”

I know, I know. Nobody wants to do this—especially your kids. Yet most writers put a lot of time and effort into developing their craft. They spend a lot money on workshops, MFA programs—books about writing. It’s a shame most people don’t bother to learn how to become competent researchers.

Where can I find a research database? 

Almost all college libraries subscribe to research databases. These search tools are often password protected, only available to students and college employees. However, some college libraries may allow walk-in use for the general public.

Many public libraries provide research databases for their users. Here are a few examples.

Works Cited

“Glands.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. 3rd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 1826. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

Poem in Far Enough East

My poem, “Restoration,” has been published in Far Enough East.