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Five Things No One Tells You About Library Research

90% of everything is crap . . .

Theodore Sturgeon is a science fiction author famous for saying that "90% of science fiction is crap." (OK, he actually used the word "crud," but the less PC version of his quote is more famous.) Of course, he wasn't actually bashing science fiction, because he went on to point out that 90% of everything is crap/crud. This sentiment went down in history as Sturgeon's Law

Of course, by doing research in a library you've got a few filters in place to help weed out the crap. Librarians try to spend their limited budgets only on good stuff, and academic publishing has the built-in filter of peer review (though it has its critics). But no filter is perfect, especially since much of the crap is mixed in with the non-crap, sometimes on the same page of a book or article. So almost by definition, the bigger a library gets the higher percentage of crap it has.

. . . and that percentage is growing.

As usual, the internet complicates things. Back in the day when books and journals were printed on expensive paper, every author had to convince an editor or peer review committee that her work was worth chopping down a bunch of trees and paying typesetters... or cough up a few thousand bucks to a vanity publisher. And even with that barrier in place, 90% of what came out was crap.

But now we have e-publishing, and anyone with an internet account can self-publish. On the plus side, there's a boom in low-cost open access academic publishing, which many hope will break the cycle of spiraling journal costs. On the minus side, every yahoo on the planet can now "publish" their old family recipes, conspiracy screed, or erotic fanfic. There's even a whole new breed of "predatory publishers," companies who go a step beyond the old vanity presses with aggressive and misleading marketing and/or rampant plagiarism.

Of course libraries do their best to avoid this kind of stuff, but when this much crap is flooding the world it occasionally slips by and shows up in academic databases. Even top libraries (yeah, that would be us) have been known to accidentally buy books which turn out to be Wikipedia articles printed out.

Result: You need to become an expert crap detector.

This actually isn't a new thing. Even in pre-Internet days, half of becoming a good scholar meant developing a finely honed sense for bullshit. It's actually a big part of the reason for all those footnotes and bibliographies you have to include in your papers. It's so that your readers can trace back the ideas and evidence you're using so they can double-check that your paper isn't based on crap.