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Five questions...for Jane John

By Lisa Neal Gualtieri / July 2008

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As the volume of online information increases, it becomes increasingly important to formulate research questions, understand information quality, and synthesize. In the following interview, Jane John, past president of the Association of Independent Information Professionals and founder of On Point Research, tells eLearn Magazine Editor-in-Chief Lisa Neal Gualtieri how online instructors and students can be more successful at finding information online.

Lisa Neal Gualtieri: What are the skills one uses to do research?

Jane John: The top skills needed to conduct good research are an ability to think broadly in order to frame the research goals, and an awareness of the many information sources, both free and paid, that might match those goals. The skills used by independent information professionals—people making a business by doing research for hire—are marketing and business skills, not only the basic research and information skills. Companies hire an independent information professional for their ability to review and distill large amounts of information and convey the salient points to the client. Put another way, synthesis is in high demand.

LNG: What research skills do you believe students need to be successful?

JJ: Probably the most critical research skill for students to develop is the ability to evaluate the information they find online. There is so much information available that a student can retrieve doing a basic keyword search on a Web browser or in a library catalog. But while some of it is highly accurate and high quality, other information can be incorrect, partial, or old.

If it is statistical data, does it come from a reputable publisher or organization? Is it from the original source, or has it just been repeated and "passed off" as new? Are the views and opinions expressed in a report balanced—or does the writing present just one side of an issue? How recent is the information? An article that starts "In a recent study we found…," but is undated, is not very useful in any type of analysis or comparison. As students go deeper into researching a topic, they also need to cultivate the skill of also seeing the big picture-synthesizing disparate trends or data, bringing in observations from other fields.

One way that information professionals incorporate high-level synthesis into client projects is to plan sufficient time for the final steps of the project—allowing for the "aha" observations that are not always clear in the heat of the search process, but may surface after time for reflection. Students too should allow time for those "aha" observations to develop in their research—trying not to just throw facts or data together at the last minute, but really allowing some time for their own unique observations to develop. Developing insight takes time.

LNG: What research skills to you believe teachers need to be successful?

JJ: I tell my business clients to spend as much time on framing their question as they do on seeking the answer. Before jumping on the Web and punching keywords into Google or Yahoo, think carefully about why you want to find certain information, who else has a reason to want the same answers, and what you will do with the information you find.

Do you need historical information, the current state of affairs, or forecasts for the future? Do you need a scientific approach or a persuasive political view? The answer to the question, "what should we do about greenhouse gas emissions?" is going to be different if you are a scientist or a city planner. How accurate does the information need to be? Is a major business decision or the ability to patent a new process dependent on the answer, or will a general idea be adequate?

As the volume of information available to everyone from their desktop increases, and user-oriented tools proliferate, it may become increasingly easy for end-users to answer well-defined questions; but at the same time it is increasingly important to ask the right question out of the gate.

Once you can clearly define what you need to know, then finding the answers becomes much easier.

LNG: What are the fundamental differences between doing research online and in a library?

JJ: If by "online" you mean information that is free on the open Web versus information in paid databases and print resources, one of the main differences has traditionally been the organization of the information. Typing a keyword into Google will retrieve information from disparate sources—some useful, some not.

Of course many libraries now have online databases that are available from computer stations within the library. And some universities and public libraries have database services you can access from your home computer if you are a resident or student. These online sources are part of the library's resources and paid for by your tax or tuition dollars; and they can be much more comprehensive than something you'd find free on the Web.

The commercial databases available through most libraries contain archives of news sources, comprehensive coverage of scientific fields, and numerous unique and well-organized bodies of knowledge. And of course the library has excellent print resources—business directories, historical materials, etc. For many kinds of research, it's easier to browse in print sources than try to search electronically.

LNG: What is the most interesting project you ever did and what made it so interesting?

JJ: People often ask me that and I have to tell them that in my field I'm often hired by businesses who want information their competitors can't find. And the information I find for them is confidential. Speaking in very general terms, one project that was intriguing was for the inventor of a medical device. We needed to research other companies in the same market niche. By studying the marketing messages, management teams, revenues, and product lines of selected "competitors" we were eventually able to identify a partner—another company interested in manufacturing and helping distribute my client's device.

Learning the trends and developments in a niche market segment is one of the most interesting aspects of my work. Most of my projects are, broadly speaking, market research. I do a lot of work for high-tech companies that are trying to assess the best market entry point for a proposed new product, service, or technology. I call these projects "a technology in search of an application." It's challenging research, but it goes back to the basic research skills I mentioned-helping the customer carefully frame their questions, accessing high quality sources to answer those questions, and allowing time to gain insight from what you find.


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