Breaking Bad (Habits)

I sometimes think there’s a cottage industry of criticizing student research habits, but to solve a problem you have to diagnose it first. You can’t steer students right until you know where they’re going wrong. An article reporting how students do – or don’t do – research has been gaining a lot of attention in academic circles in the last few weeks. The study underlying the article examined research patterns among Illinois undergraduates, focusing not on how they say they do research, but on how they actually do the research. Anthropologists observed students while researching and discussed the research with them afterward. The results have alarmed many in library and information literacy circles. Why?

  • Students relied heavily on Google. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but they were also using Google poorly. Rather than restricting themselves to sections like Google Scholar or Google Books, they used the basic interface that searches everything. Even when they used scholarly resources, students used “google-like” searching rather than using the tools and techniques the databases require for good results.
  • Students didn’t select the right scholarly resources for their information need – using databases that don’t provide current articles when they were specifically looking for something current, for example.
  • Perhaps most alarmingly, students failed to seek assistance from professional researchers who are at their disposal: librarians.

You may be wondering why I mention this. After all: you’re not an undergrad and very few of you are from Illinois. But it’s probably the case that the research patterns observed in this study reflect your undergraduate experience to some degree, and we’re all products of our past. It’s also true that as a student at Wake Forest School of Law you have a leg up: you are not trapped by your past research habits!

You have access to an experienced and well-trained library staff. Your research professor is a great place to start, whether you need help with a topic you’re covering in class, or with some research you’re doing for another purpose. But you’re not limited to their help; ask for information about what you can check out, or what’s on reserve, from the staff at the Circulation Desk. Ask substantive research questions from a librarian, staff or student assistant at the Reference Desk. And know that – while you may never encounter them – there is a “hidden” staff called the Technical Services department. They’re the ones who make sure books are on the shelves and links in the catalog work.

You have access to the best research systems for legal research, and that goes beyond Lexis and Westlaw. Databases like BNA and CCH are tailored to areas of law represented by these publishers; they have secondary sources like treatises and “looseleafs” that don’t appear on Lexis and Westlaw. You also have access to specialized databases like ProQuest Congressional (great for legislative history), Treaties & International Agreements Online (just what it sounds like!), and RIA Checkpoint (fantastic for tax)… not to mention all the subject-specific resources available through the Z. Smith Reynolds Library! You have so much at your fingertips, and librarians can help you learn to use each of these, and more.

As a 1L, you’re given explicit and detailed instruction in research techniques that go far beyond Googling, and as upper level students you can get even more specific research instruction in areas like Tax and Administrative law, as well as a broad Advanced Legal Research class. You should walk out of any of these classes knowing how to think about research, how to select the right tools, and how to use tools to get the information you need. You should also have picked up some habits like keeping good notes to track your research.

If all of this is old news to you – congratulations! Keep up the good work. But if you’ve gotten this far with bad research habits, don’t worry. Research is a skill, and it takes practice. You can learn good habits. If you’re not sure where to start, you have to flail around! Ask for help – a quick email, call or stop by the library may be all it takes to get you off on the right track.

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