The “Wikipedia” effect on the research industry

25 Sep 2015 12:00 am

Access to information has never been more freely available.  The development of the open internet and the creation of search engines to sort information for users means that anyone can get their hands on any information.  What does all this mean for the traditional research function within an organisation?

Growth and democratisation of information
The growth and democratisation of information is broadly good news.  It is hard to believe that only one generation ago, researchers had to apply, for example, to receive a printed copy of a company's Annual Report to understand more about how the company was performing and what its key objectives were.  Information which historically could take weeks to secure is now available at the touch of a button.  However for the research community the wealth of information now available can cause a number of issues that need to be carefully managed.

Everyone as their own researcher

One of the primary challenges for research professionals is that everybody now believes they have the tools at hand to carry out research.  This could potentially threaten the role of the researcher within an organisation but also means that research is not carried out in an effective way.  How often have people used a public search engine to look for a statistic or figure to back up an argument, rather than using the relevant information to build a business case?  One of the unfortunate side effects of the public internet is that information is available to back up any point of view if people search hard enough.

What information to trust?
A further complication is the validity of information.  Popular encyclopaedia site Wikipedia can, famously, be edited by anyone in the world and a many public figures have been subject to (well-meaning or otherwise) edits of their information on the site.  But this is not simply an issue with one website.  The open internet is full of information that is either plain false or seriously misleading.  This does not include information that was, at one point, correct but is no longer valid for any number of reasons.  

Sourcing sorcery
All of this is complicated further by the issue of sourcing.  If information is not sourced can it be considered valid?  It may have come from a trusted source but it may also have been sourced from an unreliable route.  Good researchers are trained to find two independent sources of information to validate information.  The challenge posed by so much information being available is whether it is possible to verify a source as independent from another?  So much material is referenced and re-referenced on the open web it is difficult to decide what is a trusted source and what is not?

All of this adds up to a challenging environment for research professionals.  But it is also a significant opportunity.  No serious organisation would conduct research that could impact on business decisions through open search engines or the web.  In these circumstances the role of research professionals becomes even more critical to an organisation.  The role will become one that involves a greater emphasis on critical analysis of data than collecting the data in the first place.  Access to information is easy – interpreting what that data means is still a job for research professionals.

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