Should research papers be scrapped?

by Courtney Zott - Fix Contributor on September 8, 2011

The research paper has long been the professor’s best friend and the student’s worst enemy. It is the villain responsible for countless caffeine-infused all-nighters at the library, the pain in the neck project with a level of intrigue that rarely makes up for its tedious requirements.

But thanks to the likes of Google and Wikipedia, searching for relevant information and sources no longer means faithfully scanning book titles along library shelves. Valuable sources are just a few keywords and a search engine away.

And since research papers doesn’t require the effort they used to, some higher education experts want them abolished.

“The more I think about it, the more the research paper strikes me as symbolizing the evacuation of spirit from contemporary education,” said Thomas Bertonneau, a literature professor and author. “The word research is resonant of the clinic and the laboratory, but what does it have to do with knowledge?”

Last month, Bertonneau wrote a column for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy arguing that professors should replace the research paper with the essay: a shorter paper that asks students to argue an opinion of their own instead of simply regurgitating information taken from the top results of a Google search. The column claimed that students have become too reliant on these digital resources, which steer them toward conventional–and recent–ways of thinking.

“The essay, not the research paper, best suits the desperate need of badly prepared students to come to terms with primary sources and to apply the wisdom of belles-lettres to the contemporary social, cultural, and political situation,” he wrote in the column.

Bertonneau also worried that the research paper gives students little incentive to retain knowledge on a given subject beyond their due date. The solution, he claimed, is for students to read rather than research.

“I’m for sending students into the stacks so that they might reconnect with the intuition that brings the right book to hand in the moment of its need–even when it’s a book that no one has checked out since 1923,” he said.  “I’m for the re-spiritualization of the higher learning.”

A recent New York Times feature asked other higher education experts to weigh-in on the value of the research paper in the digital age. Many didn’t share Bertonneau’s disdain for the research paper.

Courtney Young, head librarian and an associate professor of women’s studies at Penn State Greater Allegheny, argued that the critical thinking skills students develop through the research process are necessary for lifelong growth. Skills acquired through research are applicable no matter the end assignment–whether it be purchasing a T.V., moving to a new city, or choosing a university–she said.

“Any of those things, they all have the same sort of process, pieces, that you would use in doing a research paper,” she said.

Nor does Young  see much of a difference between using online resources and browsing library stacks. As a librarian, she said that she provides students with both physical and digital copies of books, scholarly articles, and reference collections. What they would prefer to use is up to them.

“The content is still the same but the way we access it is changing,” she said.

Another debater, Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review, argued that the Internet was merely a supplier of information from which students, through the research paper, must make into their own knowledge.

“If students abandon the research paper, they will miss the only discipline that can reveal to them the accuracy and integrity of their own thoughts,” he wrote.

But Bertonneau sees this way of thinking as part of the problem. He worries that higher education is no longer a pursuit of knowledge but a deference to researchable facts.

“The research paper is merely a symptom,” he said. “It’s a symptom of the reduction of thought to paltry routine. It’s a symptom of method and conformity, a triumph of quantity over quality, as though truth might be derived from a consensus.”

Courtney Zott is an SFPA member and a sophomore at Michigan State University.

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