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A few words on Digital Research, Synthesis and Curation

Sean Wright

I'm doing a little blogging over at the ANU's Historynet on the subject of Digital History and Heritage. Nothing too serious... I'll repost my posts here, but feel free to head over and see everything that is going on there.

The web really affects the way I undertake research. I would say that it is more positive than negative, for the speed and synthesis of researching on the web easily surpass the manual process of research in the stacks or the archive. Not to discount research in the stacks and the archive: it’s more horses for courses, so to speak.

What do I mean by speed and synthesis: speed needs no explanation in terms of using the web — it’s all there, all of the time — ready and waiting, quick to the chase. Synthesis, for me, is the curatorial aspect of the web: the rich summaries and pointers that help you distil research down to the key components. Part of Leitch’s argument (Wikipedia U) hinges on who is doing the role of the curation and whether they have the authority to do the curation (subsequently inheriting the power of direction). Search is one thing, but direction to information is critical when there is simply too much of it.

Synthesis is critical from the aspect of avoiding the pitfalls of research in general: it has been done for eons, through use of general reference texts or collections (such as encyclopedias etc) to help give a base understanding and a point to begin. This, for me, begins with the first page or two of search results from Google or Supersearch. Where can I flesh out my basic understanding of the topic I’m researching before hitting the depths of texts I will identify. Often, if it is easy to crowd-source the basics from sites such as Wikipedia, and it can be a useful starting point. While I understand the academy’s dislike of Wikipedia, the reality is that when you go looking for answers (in general) on the web, all you have to do is ask and somebody will provide you with an answer. Wikis are the natural extension of this, and they supplement search really well.

But there is a danger with these synthesised sources at the outset: the hyperlink. While hyperlinks are, for the most part, the key to the success of information on the web, they also provide the rabbit holes for research that can extend the time it takes to come to an understanding of the subject of your research. Invariably, the curated content leads to interesting material beyond the scope of your research and this serves as a distraction. When you’re in the stacks looking up a call number, you’re focussed on the items you’re looking for, as well as keeping an eye on the surrounding items for anything of interest. This traditional method gave (gives) you focus. You’re less likely to be distracted by other responses. And if the item you’re looking for is on topic, then it, in turn, leads to other focussed results. The web, in contrast, can provide you with the gold, but you need to avoid the interesting weeds on the way.

And the curation isn’t limited to wikis: it can be blogs, special interest pages, articles, abstracts et al. You really need your wits about you to determine whether the curated source is of value and should have some weight as you undertake your research. The qualitative difference between traditional methods of research and using the web is the weight given to the curated materials and sources. The decision has been made for you in many respects in traditional research. You need to do the finer analysis of the resources you discover. The web, on the other hand, opens up the opportunity for you to draw a wider range and amount of thought on any given subject that you need to weight yourself before you undertake the finer analysis.

I’ll have more to say on this over the next few posts.