EVERY student at any level of education must write an essay. It is almost synonymous with the very idea of higher education; write an essay to show an understanding of the material.
However, given the gargantuan nature of the Internet, it would be easy to think that research is as easy as using an Internet search engine for a few minutes. There is a lot of information and it is equally easy to get lost in that sea of data. Therefore, the true nature of the essay is not so much a showcase of understanding the material; I would argue this as secondary to its true function. The essay is a means of practising academic honesty.
The proverb “the pen is mightier than the sword” is some 178 years old. We live in an age where this statement has never been truer. The very existence of the Internet perpetuates words and ideas at light speed and it can be hard to discern quality when surfing the Internet.
It is the duty of students to ensure that they hold themselves to an academic standard grounded in the discipline of research methodology. It can be hard to know where to look and therefore it is important to know how to look when doing research.
In the third century BC, the Library of Alexandria was established. It was a great library housing an estimated 40,000 to 400,000 scrolls at its height. It was a symbol of human ingenuity in the acquisition of knowledge. It was a collection of human knowledge held in the highest regard by scholars of the time. However, the library was burnt down, resulting in the loss of many scrolls and books. According to the former National Library of Malaysia director general Datuk Raslin Abu Bakar, as of 2012, there are 366 government and higher education institutional academic libraries in the nation. There are nearly 10,000 school libraries across the country. The library is a student’s first line of defence against misinformation and bad research methodology. It is an old-fashioned method of research in contrast with digital methods but it is an approach that should never be overlooked. Make use of your local public library and maybe borrow a fun book while you’re at it? It is free, after all.
Of course, the digital method of acquisition of good research resources should also be put to good use. A report by the Open Society Foundations states: “Malaysians have increasing access to digital technology. Internet access and mobile phone subscriptions have risen every year since 2005. Fixed-line and wireless broadband penetration reached 81 per cent in December 2011. There were 17.5 million Internet users in 2011, about 65 per cent of the population, and 10 million 3G subscribers, about 38 per cent of the population.”
And if a student does not have immediate access to the Internet, keep in mind that most libraries provide computers with Internet connection. Knowledge is free to those who seek it, but it must be paid with the effort of those who truly want it.
However, seeking information in a sea of data is a task that can be daunting to those who do not know where to look. Googling key terms pertaining to the topic of research only gets you so far. However, Google Scholar is a search engine that specifically targets scholarly literature across many publishing formats and disciplines. It even comes with options that automatically format your citations as per the requirements of your academic paper. If an academic institution has an online library system, Google Scholar can display library access links that come from it.
It should be noted that while most universities restrict access to their library from Google Scholar unless you’re a student of the institution, some tertiary institutions do provide free access to their digital libraries. These digital libraries can even be accessed by anyone without Google Scholar. This is useful for searching academic papers and journals that are peer-reviewed as Google Scholar cannot index these as a search function. Examples of university digital libraries that are free to access are Harvard University Library, Yale University Library: Digital Collections, Michigan State University Digital and Multimedia Center.
Finally, it can be difficult to go through an entire book just to find the points that pertain to the essay you intend to write. Obviously, you cannot digitally search a physical book. Enter Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort to digitise and archive cultural works. In addition to being free and mostly public domain, the archives are kept in several simple to read and browse digital formats that allow word searches. (That’s CTRL + F for PCs and Command + F for Mac) However, despite the project boasting a massive collection of over 53,000 items as of August 2015, it is limited to books that are clear of copyright restrictions, under US Copyright Law. This means most of these books are old and already in the public domain, you won’t find college textbooks here unfortunately. Nevertheless, the project is useful if you, for example, are seeking the English translation of the famous The Apology written by Plato. It’s important to note that this method saves a lot of time and allows you to focus on editing your paper to perfection now that your research is concrete and factual.
We live in an age where fact-checking is more important than ever before. Information can, in fact, steer the opinion of the masses and it does not even have to be true to do so. Hence, the proverb of “the pen is mightier than the sword”.
Students may think their role in ensuring credible cited sources through meticulous fact-checking and research is a small one. However, students — the youth of today —will be future leaders of tomorrow. If students are not well-informed people backed by factual evidence, it will be a rather grim future. The conclusion to draw here is, therefore, a simple one. There is no excuse not to do good research in today’s world. Hold yourself up to a standard of excellence through good research methodology. These methods of research will benefit you even after college. Good luck, and happy researching.
**The writer is an adventurous English and Creative Writing student at The University of Iowa in the United States. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org