PhD Progress & Thoughts

The Rabbit Hole of using the Internet to Find Things

Recently I was offered my second job as a Research Assistant. It seems to involve a pattern – There I am, sitting around and minding my business, when an academic approaches me and asks if I’m interested.

Of course I’m interested.

Especially when, as this academic shyly asked, I’m needed to conduct literature searches.

This may be the generation-gap displaying itself in full colour, but literature searches are the things that give me life. Other academics groan, roll their eyes, and complain that their research ‘takes too long’ because ‘you have to wade through all that literature’.
I love it. Always have, always will. Being paid for it is the icing on the cake.

Imagine that you’re a librarian in a library with endless shelves.
That’s basically the internet – only the shelves are interactive, and a savvy librarian knows precisely where everything can be found…if not where everything is.

Conducting ‘searches’ using the internet is becoming a skill that is more and more valued every day. As an academic, not being able to conduct a simple search leaves you exposed to missing key literature and not knowing where to start finding it. Flaws like this can get an entire study scrapped because a foundational piece by an important author already answered the question being researched.

So that is where I, and countless other academic librarians, come in*.

*Not saying that I am an academic librarian, but over the years I seem to have developed some of the skills that academic librarians are known for. I continue to cultivate these skills as much as I can, because honestly? It’s fun.

We have learned how to guide our own searches, and the searches of others. How to state specific parameters for different repositories and databases. It’s part navigation and part truffle-hunting – the truffles are those excellent papers that make you want to kiss your fingers as you read them. Mwah. Well-structured, robust and valid research that is perfectly formatted and published in a reputable journal. We put on our metaphorical adventure-hats and search into the sunset.

My job is precisely as badass as this poster image looks.

When it comes to navigating well-shelved information, or things that require more than a basic Google search to retrieve, the knowledge of how to search becomes infinitely more important. Searching ‘Articles, [author] and [date]’ is all well and good, but snowball searching (finding a resource through its reference in another resource; commonly used in Wikipedia and TV Tropes) and knowing the process of search refinement are the basics of academic literature searches.

The rabbit hole becomes even more complicated when you leave the security of defined databases and enter the World Wide Web. Anything is possible out there – so come prepared.

Through searching the Internet for academic sources and information to support research, I have discovered countless pages of useful information and data that I couldn’t possibly use in one lifetime. If only I had a research team to direct – then I would show them the treasure I found in the hopes of them turning it into something useful for the general public. We’d become a research factory; generating grants, papers and PhD students like nothing else.

But then you need to stop. Stop and ask…why? What are we using this information for?

The ‘rabbit hole’ of resources on the internet may be near infinite if you go looking, but being an ethical researcher requires boundaries.
The ability to stop and say, ‘that’s enough’, or ‘I don’t think that would benefit the stakeholders of this issue’ is just as important as being able to find information.

I’m looking at you, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Just because I can find some resources doesn’t mean I should. As a result, I purposely don’t seek out information that is illegal, dangerous or harmful to those impacted by the information. I used to scoff at my Catholic university’s insistence on shoving corporate social responsibility and ethical conduct down the throats of their students at every opportunity. However, considering today’s political climate I begin to see that perhaps they had a point. Am I still irritated that I had to ‘spin’ my assignments to a theocratic aim? Yes. Am I glad that students who are otherwise less inclined to be ethical had to endure the same ordeal? Also yes.

I get it – the temptation to take everything you can find and use it in the most profitable way is very strong, particularly when laws governing use of information freely accessible via a skilled search are – shall we say – near non-existent. I have found information myself that would have kick-started a career in publications had I been morally lax enough to use it. But I didn’t, because I knew it would have been wrong.

What this means for my current adventures into the World Wide Warren is that I am content to leave well enough alone – and go digging for truffles where I know truffles are wanted.



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