Paul Pival, the Distant Librarian, brings up an interesting question in his recent post “Just what am I looking at?“. In his post, he notes:
I think students who have only researched through their computer monitor have a very hard time understanding what they’re looking at. Through the monitor, a page is a page is a page, whether it be from a scholarly journal, a book, Newsweek, a website, a chat window… There are almost none of the visual clues that are present in a more traditional physical piece of information that might make it easier to tell if you’re about to use a scholarly publication or a piece of crap in your paper. If I’ve got a PDF from Academic Search Premier and I don’t recognize the name of the publication and there are no ads on the page, surely it’s scholarly, right?”
As does much of what Peter writes, this got me to thinking. If this is a real problem with online research — and I agree it is; many of my graduate student patrons at my library seem not to have learned the difference between authoritative and non-authoritative online sources they find through Google — then I wonder what the consequences of staying on top of things via a search in an aggregator might be? An RSS feed, especially one that is a search result, provides precious little context in which to judge the authority of the source. It’s sort of like deep linking into a web site to find the print-only, stripped-of-graphics, stripped-of-author version of a page. The impatient researcher (i.e., almost anyone with a deadline of, say, tomorrow) will grab the URL and take the work as it is.
The problem of recognizing “authoritative” content is, of course, nothing novel; I imagine when I was back in middle school and assigned a “research” paper whose requirements were that I find at least three different sources from the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature that I was none too picky about which three I picked. I got my three, wrote my page or two, and moved on. I like to think my research techniques improved in college and graduate school. But I also was doing that work just at the dawn of the online age; yes, there were databases, but no, there were relatively few full-text online journals accessible to me, so I largely relied on what was in the stacks and available to me, not what was truly “good.”
So I ask myself, what could I, as a blogger, put in an RSS feed that might provide someone reading it with a sense of my “authority” (if, that is, I actually have any)? Yes, each post links to the web site, and the collection of items I’ve written. And from there, it’s just a click to a web site that tells the casual reader more about me than I probably ought to let them know. Is the provision of such links, probably to be used only by the engaged researcher, enough?
Perhaps there should be some way of rating a web author as authoritative (or popular, authority’s online proxy). This seems a similar problem to content ratings systems like the W3C’s PICS rating system was designed to solve. (PICS is a standard for saying how child-safe a particular site or page is, but has broader applications as away to apply labels to content. These labels are “controlled” by some organization, so a label contains both the label and a link to a page that defines what the label means.) Should RSS items come with a DIGG or Technorati rating in their header that could be displayed in an aggregator or used as a filter, set to a default of some positive score for those who choose not to customize their preferences?