Professors want their students to develop habits of mind that empower them to cross the gap that separates opportunistic searchers from thoughtful, purposive researchers. The marketing of discovery systems (e.g., Proquest/Serials Solutions’ Summon, EBSCO Discovery Service, etc.) to academic libraries suggests that even neophytes will be able to easily maximize their research skills using these tools. These multifaceted search tools certainly do provide rich and accessible initial search results. But observation shows great disparities between search results that students submit as satisfactory and relevant and what their professors want them to select. Perhaps, pedagogically speaking, discovery systems are too rich, too multifaceted, and too beguiling for many students’ own good as they are guided through the transition from searcher to researcher.
Focusing on the question of how students understand and apply the idea of relevance among articles identified by Summon, this presentation updates and adds considerable data to preliminary findings we presented at last year’s Charleston Conference. Whether examining use by undergraduates in introductory courses or graduate students enrolled in an advanced research methods curriculum, our ongoing research finds strikingly similar research-skills deficits in students’ use of Summon to discover and select related journal articles. Spanning several academic terms, our qualitative and quantitative results reveal: (1) that students’ perceptions of relations among articles are often cued by discovery systems more than by the actual content of articles, and (2) this deficit requires professors to adapt instruction (including assignments) to compensate.
Our findings raise troubling questions for libraries and vendors about library technologies’ working at cross purposes with the goals and practices of faculty as teachers. On a more pragmatic level, they raise questions of how better to identify, assess, and communicate the fitness for purpose of discovery systems to different stakeholders (e.g., students, faculty, librarians), who have multiple roles.