Philosophical Research and the Internet

When you write a philosophy paper, you will often read some material about your topic. If you are writing about a philosopher such as Descartes, you will (unless you are cheating) actually read Descartes.  You might also read some of what is called the “secondary literature” about Descartes, that is, things others have said about him.  If you are writing about a topic such as abortion, you will read a number of authors who have written about abortion.  This is all as it should be.  Of course, as I emphasize elsewhere, you must go beyond reading other people and reporting on them.  You must make your own contribution to the discussion.  But nevertheless, reading on your topic is normal and helpful. 

But something changed with the internet.  In the (not necessarily so) good  old days, reading about your topic required library work, and that meant that virtually everything you read had been chosen by a librarian or by members of an academic department.  This made it fairly easy to be sure you were working with more or less reputable materials, though that is never absolutely certain.  The main resources available were written by academics for academics, and sometimes for students.  Now, however, students do a great deal of their research on the internet.  This is fine, to a point, but must be done with care, else academic disaster, complete with metaphorical blood and gore, can result.   Though today's students are far more sophisticated with some electronics than I am, say, ipods, game boys and cell phones (none of which I own and I am not even sure what the first two are), they are not always savvy about the internet as a research tool.  A brief discussion of what is available on the internet for philosophy students (and philosophers) will help.  I end with a rant about the dangers of using the internet. 

Internet Materials Versus Materials Delivered Through the Internet

  • This is a very basic distinction.  First, the internet can be used to deliver materials to you that are not really pure internet materials.  For example, in philosophy there are many journals in which philosophers publish their articles.  These are mostly print journals and some were around long before there was an internet.  But now, the publishers make it possible to deliver this print resource to us over the internet for a fee.  In general, college and university libraries subscribe to both print journals and suites of journals delivered through the internet.  I can read articles from the journal Ethics in the old way in the library, or I can read the exact same journal, identical page for page, online, because the university subscribes to both versions.  Second, there are pure internet resources.  These are materials published by people solely for the internet.  Actually, there are a number of academic journals that only have internet forms, but most of the materials on the web are not journals.  They are sites put together by various people for various purposes which may be helpful, or harmful, in doing various kinds of research. 

Locating Philosophically Relevant Material on the Web
  • There is a lot of material on the web.  You can find information about most anything, including how many angels can dance on the head of a pin:  the answer is that it used to be an infinite number, but OSHA has apparently  limited the number to four for safety reasons, or so I read somewhere on the internet.  You can find instruction for how to use ordinary objects everyone has around the home such as string and used birthday candles to make cascades of centrifuges to enrich uranium – there has recently been a run on string and old candles in Iran so I guess it works.  But the problem is finding the material you want when you need it.  I will give some basic advice. 

    • The Philosophers Index: This is your basic tool for constructing a bibliography of materials  that have been written by philosophers and others interested in philosophical topics.   It is a fully searchable index of scholarly articles and books in philosophy and some related fields.  It includes citations and abstracts, but not full texts.  However, at some universities, including mine, you can click on a button to see whether your university has the resource available.   

    • Google Search Engine:  Particularly if you are using pure web materials, the google search engine is the most popular search engine, though there are others.  Google is working hard to monopolize the world's information and some people object to that, but they do offer many fine products including online word processing, online versions of books from some of the world's great research libraries, and my personal favorite, the ability to convert google maps into satellite photos of cities and Rocky Mountain hiking trails, and even to examine entire cities from street level.   I am eagerly awaiting the “Peeping Tom” version of google maps.  If you type into Google your topic, whatever it is, you are sure to get more hits than you can possibly look at. 

    • General Philosophy Resources on the Web: There are a number of websites set up by philosophers specifically to give guidance to students and others.  I will only name a few of them.  You can practice your research skills by finding them on the web. 

      • Episteme Links: The premiere philosophy super-site. It includes thousands of sorted links to philosophy resources on the internet. It is a good place to begin your philosophical web browsing.  (Oops, its been hacked and sufficiently damaged that they pulled if off the web till further notice.)

      • The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: This includes articles from three sources (1) original contributions by philosophers, (2) adaptations of material written by the editors for classroom purposes, and (3) adaptations from public domain sources.

    • NOESIS: Philosophical Research OnLine: Noesis tries to organize the philosophical content of the internet for use by philosophy teachers, researchers and students.  Last time I looked, it was only moderately useful, but by now it is probably better 

  • Ethics Resources on the Web: My main interest is in moral philosophy so I should mention two good sites dedicated to ethics.  There are many more. 

    • Ethics Updates: This ethics supersite was put together by Lawrence Hinman. It is intended for students and instructors of ethics. It includes a massive quantity of material on both ethical theory and applied ethics, as well as extensive links to other sites.

    • The UBC Center for Applied Ethics:  The University of British Columbia provides us with a good resource with materials on a number of topics in applied and theoretical ethics. By clicking on the link at the top of the page, you can access the home page for the site.
Dangers of Web Research: As I said, you can get many things on the internet that are not specifically internet resources.  They are regular resources delivered through the web.  If you library has subscriptions you can get, for example, electronic issues of the leading journals in philosophy and many other field.  But there are also pure web resources.  Those are the ones I especially want to talk about here.  The web can be useful for research.  But it has drawbacks and dangers.  I will draw your attention to three.

  • Low Quality: Anyone can put pretty much anything on the web.  It does not have to pass any quality or accuracy inspection.  I call your attention to two kinds of sites that are not necessarily fraudulent but which might be only minimally useful for your research.  They should be used with caution.  To much reliance on them shows you never really made it out of highschool!

    • Advocacy Sites: Many sites on the web are designed to advocate a certain point of view.  Many make no pretense at being objective, and when they do, it usually is just that, pretense.  Sometimes these sites provide useful information and discussion, but they must be used with care.  Outright fraud is common on the web, both to get hold of your money and your minds.   To quote the famed  physician, doctor Gregory House, “everyone lies.”  And even more scary is that we are all suckers for a lie.  Approach websites with the assumption that you are an idiot and easily fooled, and that will give you some measure of protection. 

    • Lower Level and Introductory Sites: This includes a variety of different kinds of sites.  They share a tendency to (sometimes seriously) oversimplify matters.  I include sites associated with popular magazines, such as Time, but also sites put up by professional philosophers (and others) designed to educate the general public.  The materials on these sites should be viewed as introductory, as providing a first look at the subject.   They could be perfectly accurate as far as they go, but at the intellectual level of high school or grade school.  These are not serious sources for college research. 

  • Academic Misconduct: The web just begs to turn you into cheaters.  It is so easy to cut and paste.  I have flunked more students for plagiarism since the rise of the web and have become a bit of crusader for dealing with the problem.  Ironically, I finally got my dander up when I had three blatant cases in a single, small upper division ethics class.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with incorporating material from the web, or from other sources, into your work.  But you must give proper citations. 

  • Mindless Information Gatherers:   In order to think well about a topic, you need to acquire information about it.  But it is also necessary to think about it, to come up with ideas and assessments of your own.  Some people believe that they should not even start to think about a topic till they have all the information.  That means they will never think at all!  It is so easy to acquire information from the web that it encourages you to become just one more bot compiling endless lists in a mindless way.  And when it comes time to write, it is easy just to spew out all the “facts” you acquired from your web research.  That is why it is called the “information superhighway,” and not the “makes you think superhighway.”  As one very bright pre-med student who had already been accepted at a prestigious medical school told me after I gave her a very poor grade on her first paper, one of the few grades she ever got less than an A, “But isn't that what we are supposed to do, tell you what we learned.”  She approached philosophy the way she approached an anatomy class:  the hip bone is connected to the leg bone and the leg bone is connected to, well, some other bone (I never took anatomy, sigh).  No doubt a medical student must memorize huge quantities of material, and no doubt she is much better at that than I am, but that is only one part of an education, and relatively minor in a philosophy class.  On the other hand, even in a philosophy class, you must memorize some material and you can safely ignore any one, including professors, who say otherwise.  When professors say “I do not want you to memorize, but to understand” that is both partly true, and very misleading for students.  But nevertheless, mindless fact collectors rarely do well in philosophy classes. 

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