Wanted: Alive or Not Deceased

9 Oct

This morning’s process evaluation meeting involved a lengthy discussion about a particular field in one of the sources from which we’re collecting data for the study. It involved talking about “flags flipping” and logic statements. It involved looking at the code that someone else had written and figuring out (trying to, at least) what the variable associated with the field in question really meant. It involved data regarding a patient’s status and it turns out that we can be one of THREE things. Really. Three. Alive (check), dead (makes sense) or null. Null? What does “null” mean? A person is either alive or deceased. There’s a category, “Null”? And from there, the discussion went.

This experience would have struck me a lot more ridiculous had it not been for one pretty glaring fact – it happens everywhere. And all of the time. To people at every level of work from the corner convenient mart to health care research studies to Congress. Everyone is talking, but is anyone being heard? People are publishing facts and figures and reports and stories, but is anyone reading them? It’s as if everything has become the instruction manual that nobody ever bothered to read.

I have attended more meetings lately where the discussion is either directly or implicitly about communication; specifically, where it fails. At the same time, though, it seems that too often, the solutions offered to solve a communication problem do little to change the situation that causes the poor communication in the first place. Here’s an example:

  • Problem: A website is poorly designed, making it quite difficult to identify particular resources that students, faculty and/or researchers need.
  • Solution: Ask users of the site to tell you what they use and how they find it. Redesign the site accordingly.

Now, at first glance and in what has become standard practice, this makes a lot of sense. People way smarter than me have spent a whole heckuva lot more time on usability testing and website design than I have. I won’t argue that. What I will argue, though, is this… at what point in accommodating users do we forsake “good” behavior and/or reinforce “poor” behavior. In other words, if a person can’t find something in a logical manner, we believe in creating a solution that allows him/her to find it using their logic, whether it’s logical or not. Rather than instruct an individual on how to do something, we’ve opted (because we can and because it’s so darned easy) to look at the behavior and create an easy way to accommodate it. [Tangent: It’s like my former neighbor, a college professor, who once told me that there’s no point in assigning certain lengthy readings to students anymore, because they don’t read them. Instead, assign them things that they will read. What?!]

I’m not against progress, by any means, nor am I one resistant to change, but I find myself questioning our patterns and practices for problem solving, particularly in regards to improving communication. Is it possible that we have created a situation in which it is SO easy to communicate, we’re lessening our effectiveness at it? It’s so simple to compose an email, to shoot off a text, to build another subject guide, to write another line of code… it’s so easy to do all of these things in our work nowadays, we’ve perhaps lost (or are losing) the ability to sit, plan, purposefully draft and talk through with others the implications of our decisions, and document what we’re doing. That last bit it key. Particularly in research.

Even the best research projects in the best labs seem to fall to the temptation of poor documentation. We read about it in the news. We see it in retractions of journal articles. It’s everywhere.

Today, I taught a class of first-year students in our Clinical and Population Health Research doctoral program. My job was to teach them good strategies for searching the literature. I did my usual spiel about the importance of putting together a plan, writing things down, thinking through the different relevant terms for the search, listing them, etc. I told them how it’s a skill to build a good search, one that will yield you the results that you want and need. I hit all of the highlights and covered all of the important pieces.

And then I went to one of several bibliographic databases (take your pick) and had to explain how everything that I’d just taught them was completely undermined by the simplicity of what’s become the default for pretty much every resource we use nowadays.

Now let me pause and be clear – I love Google. I use it every single day of my life (when I’m online). It is effective and efficient and I’m not about to climb on the librarian bandwagon that beats it down (to no avail). It’s a GREAT resource. Google is a wonderful thing in our world. So wonderful, in fact, that it’s reinforced every notion, every dream, every desire for simplicity that seems hardwired into our human wiring. It is easy. It is fast. And it works good enough.

But here’s the thing. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To a Google user, every search is a simple one. Every search yields a good enough answer. AND… every search is fast. And to me, this is the danger.

Searching for information, along with every other thing we do that technology has made so much easier and so much faster, is a double-edged sword. For everything that we do easier and faster, we reinforce doing everything easier and faster. For how easy and fast it is for me to send a text, the more texts I send. And the more texts I send, the less time I ever spend thinking about (or heaven forbid, editing) them. And the more texts I send, the more I receive. And the more I receive, the more I answer. And the more I throw this information back and forth and back and forth, the less time I ever spend reading any of it. And THEN, all of these tools we’ve created to connect us to one another, to help us communicate… well… you tell me.

I asked the folks on the study team how in the world they would ever do a study like they’re undertaking now without computer programs, with codes for switching flags on and off, automatically putting certain pieces of data in one shoot or another? How would it even be possible? The programs are essential, but unless we sit and think and talk about and document what we’re doing, they generate more work than they ever save.

The ability to generate and gather so much data, so easily, is intoxicating. I wonder if one role the informationist might play is that of the designated driver. Give us the keys before you start collecting data, and we’ll help you get home safely.

5 Responses to “Wanted: Alive or Not Deceased”

  1. Patricia Devine October 9, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    “Designated driver!” I like that as a role for librarians. So much of the planning needs to take place before anything happens, and that’s hard to reinforce.

  2. Vasumathi Sriganesh October 9, 2012 at 9:42 pm #

    Brilliant! When I teach literature searching, and people ask me why any resource like Pubmed or Cochrane Library is not as easy as Google, I tell them (in what I think is a context they will get) – “The old telephones were very easy to operate. You only needed to dial. Today’s smart phones have a 100 features. To make your life *easier* you need to learn / figure out those features. That is what I taught you to do”!!!

  3. pfanderson October 9, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    There is a part of this that takes me aback. That is the assumption that a Google search is easy. I know folk believe that, I know. I used to use an advanced Google searching course as a foot in the door to communicate database searching principles. I’d show them how to do fancy stuff in Google, and then I’d immediately transfer over to Pubmed.

    I do some pretty complicated searches in Google. It is not unusual for me to hit the upper limit of allowed characters in a single search string. (Drives me BUGGY!) I spoke yesterday with the gent who teaches the Google Searching MOOC and he says they are going to have an Advanced Google Searching MOOC in January. So far he’s had ~154,000 students in his basic Google Searching MOOC. What that tells me is … searching Google well ISN’T SIMPLE!

    Example search:
    (facebook OR youtube OR flickr OR twitter OR “social technology” OR “second life” OR “web 2.0” OR “social media” OR slideshare OR “Open Research” OR “Open Science” OR “Open Source Science” OR “Research 2.0” OR “Science 2.0” OR “Science Commons” OR “Science FOO” OR SciFoo) engineering ~education

    Example search:
    ((“health record” management) OR HIPAA) (legal OR ~law) ownership site:.ahima.org

    Example search:
    (“scrotal swelling” OR “testicular pain” OR “testicular abnormality” OR “testicular anomaly” OR “scrotal pain” OR “scrotal abnormality” OR “scrotal anomaly” OR “swelling * * testes” OR “swelling * * scrotum” OR “pain * * testes” OR “pain * * scrotum”)

    (PS – ❤ Vasumathi's analogy!)

    • Vasumathi Sriganesh October 9, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

      Oh I completely agree about Google Searching not being easy. And that it is only a perception about it being easy. Sometimes I do wonder if Google has successfully fooled people about simplicity. This – by having a clean page and allowing people to have only a search box and minimal else. They have actually more or less hidden the Advanced Search option.

      As is mentioned in the blog, it seems to give a message – “Don’t think. Don’t look for Advanced features because you then have to think. (That’s lots more work you see). And then when it throws up pages that seems to have relevant stuff, by showing up search terms in bold in the result summaries.

      I wonder how much time the 154000 (and obviously your students, my students and more) wasted before figuring out that searching is more complex than keying words into the “oh so simple” search box.

      The scary thing is that there are tons more people who still don’t know what they don’t know

      (And once again, I do LOVE Google for several things it does and is “meant to do”)!

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