The Use of Electronic Resources Among Undergraduate and Graduate Students
September, 2001


Summary of Key Findings for Student Interviews

Nearly all participants report that they use the Internet for personal, work, and school related reasons. Most participants have computing facilities as well as an Internet connection available to them at home.

The most common types of sites visited for school related reasons are databases such as library catalogues and databases with journal articles or books. In fact, many of the students reported that they only use sites that are linked to the school, with the assumption that this means the site or database is "approved".

Online library resources are an integral part of the research process for these students. After doing preliminary research such as speaking with their professor or looking at the references in class readings, students turn to online library databases to begin their research process.

These students seem to clearly understand the difference between an online database and a website. Furthermore, there is a much heavier preference to turn to academic databases rather than to do a general Internet search.

General Internet searches have a limited role in the research process. They are mainly limited to the initial phase when trying to gather broad information on a topic, or the end phase when trying to make sure nothing important was missed.

The students interviewed identified two main issues when using an online database: (1) the vast amounts of information that the search comes up with can be overwhelming, and (2) there is a need to sort through all this information and discriminate what is relevant and what is not relevant to their needs.

When doing a general Internet search, students complain of the same issues they have when using online databases, but also complain that there is the added necessity to determine the validity of the source.

Benefits of using electronic resources include: information being available 24/7, the ability to work from any location, the information being available all in one place, the diversity of resources provided, and the availability of resources that would they would not have access to otherwise.

Disadvantages of electronic resources are that they provide you with too much information, there is a need to sort through the vast amounts of information to find what is useful, it is easy to get distracted or lost on a tangent, and that it is hard to determine when to quit searching for information in order to start writing.

Students believe electronic resources improve the quality of their papers by allowing them to spend less time in the research phase and more time in the writing phase. Electronic resources also result in students obtaining more resources, a diversity of resources, and more up-to-date resources.

Electronic resources are more convenient and less intimidating than the library. While they don’t replace the library, they are a good supplement.



Individual one on one interviews were conducted in August and September 2001 with 20 Columbia University students. Of these participants, 7 were in the graduate program in International Affairs, 1 was in the graduate Political Science program, 4 were in the undergraduate Political Science program, 5 were in the PhD program in Earth and Environmental Science, and 4 were in the undergraduate Earth and Environmental Science program.

To qualify for participation in this study, participants had to:

Participants were recruited via a flyer posted throughout the International Affairs building, the Earth and Environmental Science department, and Lamont Laboratories. Interviews lasted approximately one hour each and were conducted at the Columbia University Morningside campus. Participants were reimbursed $20 for their time.


International Affairs/Political Science Students

Five participants were earning their Masters in International Affairs with the following concentrations: International Media and Communications and the Middle East, Finance and Business with a concentration in Latin America, International Media and Communications, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution. One student was earning his Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in International Affairs, and the graduate student in Political Science was studying International Relations and Comparative Politics.

Earth and Environmental Science Students

Major areas of interest within the Earth and Environmental Science graduate students were: geochemistry and petrology, climate studies, and marine geology and geophysics.


The objective of this study was to investigate:

Note: Findings for the International Affairs/Political Science and Earth and Environmental Studies students have been aggregated for this report. There were few differences between these two groups, however, where differences did exist it has been noted. The same holds true for any differences between undergraduate and graduate responses.


General Use of the Internet and Electronic Resources

Most of the students interviewed reported that they have a computer or a laptop at home. Those who reside on the Columbia campus have an Ethernet connection, so they typically access the Internet from home. Students who reside off-campus and who have a cable Internet connection also access the Internet primarily from home. Off-campus students whose Internet connection is through a phone line typically utilize school facilities to do most of their online work.

Nearly all participants reported that they use the Internet for personal, work, and school related reasons. It essentially pervades every aspect of their lives. As one student put it "it is like television….it has become my television. I don’t know what I would do without it".

The Internet is used by these students for many things, such as to look up information on events, get directions or telephone numbers, get information on products, and to shop. Nearly anything that needs to be done can be done on the Internet. This holds true for school related information as well. Literature searches can be conducted online, articles and books can be found online, and various facts can be found online.

Most students said they use the Internet everyday for a couple of hours. Use of the Internet for school related purposes varies depending on the time of the semester and the cycle of their course work. However, when working on a term paper or research paper use of electronic resources is very high.

For schoolwork, these students use the Internet as a portal for information. The most common types of sites visited are databases such as library catalogues and databases with journal articles or books. When using electronic resources, the most common place to start is by using Columbia’s CLIO, or one of the other online databases that Columbia has a subscription to, such as Jstor, Lexus Nexus, Georef, or ProQuest. Other popular electronic resources for International Affairs/Political Science students are news sites such as, institutional web sites, think-tank web sites, and government agency websites. Likewise, Earth and Environmental Science students seek out faculty and university web sites, and web sites or databases where they can find images related to their work.

These students learn about websites and databases primarily from other students, links that they happen upon while on another site, links they get from search engines, and sometimes through their instructors (although this is the least common method of learning about web sites and databases).

Student’s Approach to the Research Process

There are three main ways the students interviewed proceed with the research process for a term or research paper.

  1. The most common method is the traditional method of asking one’s professor or another expert in the field for resources relating to the topic at hand. This can include reprints of articles, or the names of other researchers in the field of interest. In addition, these students will look in the bibliography of class readings to learn of other relevant articles. Once the student has this foundation of relevant information, they typically turn to CLIO or another online database such as Jstor or Nexus-Lexus that the library has made available to them. At this point, they will look up articles that they have references to, and they will do keyword searches to see what other relevant articles or books they can find. Articles that are available online are downloaded for future reading (they are almost never read online). For articles that are not available online, students do make the trip to the library. However, most of the students interviewed do not find that this is necessary. Interestingly, it was more common for undergraduate students to comment that they will often go to the library to get articles and books even if they are available online.

  2. A few of the students said the first place they go when conducting a research paper is directly online to databases such as CLIO, Lexus-Nexus etc. Here the students will use the database search engine to do keyword searches. They may go to several of these databases and gather as many articles or books as they find. Undergraduates are more likely than graduate students to rely on books (rather than journal articles) as a beginning point in the research process.

  3. Two of the interviewees said they first go to a general Internet search engine such as Google and do a keyword search. This gives them a general idea about their topic. One student said that one advantage they found to doing a general Internet search first was that information comes up that you wouldn’t otherwise know or learn about.

Some of the students reported that they rely only on sites or databases that are linked to the school’s web site, with the assumption that these are approved resources. Students also reported a common tendency to gather too much information in this search phase, and then need to whittle down what they have in order to form a coherent topic.

Use of an Electronic Database Search in the Research Process

Students seem to clearly understand the difference between an electronic database and a website. Furthermore, there is a much heavier preference to turn to databases rather than to do an Internet search for web sites. The most common databases students reported using were reference databases such as Jstor, Georef, Nexus-Lexus, and CLIO. Although students overwhelmingly appreciate having this information available online, there are two main issues that doing research with an online database raise:

In order to deal with the issue of too much information being returned to them, most students only go through the first 1 or 2 pages of search results, because they figure that those are the most relevant. They also read the one line description and use this to decide how relevant the link may be.

Use of a General Internet Search in the Research Process

General Internet searches are often not conducted at all by these students when researching an academic topic. When they are done, it is more likely that an undergraduate student rather than a graduate student will conduct one. This may be because undergraduate assignments often involve more general topics where they might find general information available online. International Affairs students are also more likely to use the Internet than the Earth and Environmental Science students. This is because a lot of information that is useful to them is found on news sites, organizational sites or government web sites.

Internet searches seem used primarily in the following circumstances:

When doing a search on the Internet, most students realize the dangers inherent in the information the search engine retrieves for them. In addition to the same problems these students mentioned regarding electronic databases (too much information and the need to decipher what is relevant to their needs), these students also identified the problem of having to determine the validity of the sites.

These students have come up with methods for combating this issue:


Perceived Benefits and Disadvantages of Electronic Resources

Perceived Benefits of Electronic Resources:

The perceived benefits the participating students mentioned of electronic resources fall into two categories (1) the easy access to information, and (2) the comprehensiveness of electronic resources.

Electronic resources provide easy access to information:

"You can do things more independently and in the time frame you have allotted."

" It also gives you the ability to do work at the time of day (late at night) a student is most likely to do work."

"You can find information or an article just by doing a keyword search."

"You can find anything you want immediately."

"You can get exactly what you want in _ a second."

"Since the search goes faster, you can do more searches with more keywords and look over more information."



Electronic resources are comprehensive:

"Before you had to depend on books, journals, pamphlets, teachers, or newspapers. Now you have more information at your fingertips all in one spot."

" It provides you with unlimited information. You can go further and further, add more information, confirm your information."

"You can go to different resources and make comparisons."

"The Internet helps you find leads as to who has an interest in particular issues that you would have trouble learning about otherwise."

"It can get you connected to more and more diverse items. You end up at sources that you wouldn’t have found on your own (either via a search engine or by following a link)"

"It is a good resource to be able to get a feel for what you are going to write about. It gives you a feel for the breadth of your subject, and helps you to be able to narrow it down."

"I like to do a search and have a list of resources come back–this gives you an overview of what’s available all in one shot."


Perceived Disadvantages of Electronic Resources

The most frequently mentioned disadvantages students reported of electronic resources revolve around the issue of quantity vs. quality of information that is obtained. While many of the mentioned disadvantages also occur with traditional print resources, these students believed that the problems were more pronounced with electronic resources due to the abundance of information they are now dealing with.

"It makes enormous amounts of information available that is unstructured. This results in going through a lot of stuff without necessarily getting a payoff."

"A disadvantage is that it is easy to be undisciplined about Internet usage. It is easy to get distracted by all the links and irrelevant information. You end up spending a long time off on tangents."

"You have a tendency to want to look at every single result that comes up in your search. It is easy to get distracted by looking at irrelevant information."

"It provides a lot of time for procrastination. You keep looking and looking for stuff, without getting to the writing part."

"There is too much information. You need to stop searching and start writing."

A disadvantage that is specific to general Internet searches:

"The quality of information is doubtful. If you don’t know the subject it is hard to judge if it is valid or not. You have to make a judgment based on the source of the site."

" There is the potential for the quality of work to go down because you need to be able to sort through what is legitimate and what is not."

"You get too much information. It relies too much on your judgment to decipher what is valid and what is not."

The Affect Electronic Resources Have on the Quality of Academic Work

The students interviewed view electronic resources as being useful tools, but also recognize that the usefulness of electronic resources depends on the approach of the user. How one utilizes electronic resources largely determines whether the tool is beneficial or detrimental to the user.

Positive Effects on the Quality of Academic Work:

Overall, the students interviewed view electronic resources as an asset that positively affects their schoolwork. These students believe that electronic resources make doing the research a quicker process, which means they have extra time that can go into the writing and editing of the paper. Because it is so easy to look up a keyword in a database, students are more likely to try several different searches, and several different databases. This results in obtaining more resources, a diversity of resources, and more up-to-date resources. The end result is that the paper is more thorough and comprehensive, and the ideas in the paper are pulled together in a more coherent and well thought out manner.

"Your research becomes more sophisticated because you can do more easily. Since you are saving time, you can do more, and do a more comprehensive job."

"It saves time in the gathering information stage, and allows you to spend more time in the writing stage. You spend more time putting your paper together and making it more coherent. So in the end, you spend the same amount of time overall, but you get to spend more time writing."

"It is quicker with the Internet to do a paper, but the extra time you save is put back into the paper, so the quality of the paper is better than it used to be."

"It makes you more conversant with other issues that you might not have come across otherwise–especially things that have been left out of the mainstream."

Negative Effects on the Quality of Academic Work:

Some of the students interviewed expressed a concern that electronic resources could potentially have a negative effect on the quality of their work. This is mainly due to the information overload, and the resultant need to sort through what is relevant to their needs and what is legitimate. The final product might be negatively affected by including information that is superfluous to the topic at hand, by including illegitimate information, or by spending too much time in the ‘searching’ phase and not enough time in the writing phase. There is also the danger of not spending enough time in the ‘searching’ phase if relevant information is found right away and the student stops searching for information at that point.

Use of the Library

The students interviewed use the physical library much less than they have in the past. Some students still prefer to go to the library rather than to access the services remotely and some students prefer to go to the library to get journal articles or a book rather than printing it out from online. Some of the reasons for this are the fact that with a journal you can flip through the other articles and see if there are any others in that issue that look relevant to your topic. Also, since related topics are shelved near each other, you might find other books or journals with relevant articles. As for books, students do not like to download such a large text. They feel it is a waste of paper and the bound book is easier to carry around than 200 pages of loose paper.

Most students reported having received some form of instruction in the use of electronic resources from a librarian in either their freshman or sophomore year. For some this training was part of a classroom instruction in how to use the library. For others, it was one-on-one instruction initiated by the student.

International Affairs/Political Science students have better luck finding articles they need online. Earth and Environmental Science students report having to retrieve articles from the library more often.

Use of Electronic Resources Versus The Library

"It is less intimidating than a library. At a library it is hard to figure out where to start. On the Internet you just type in your keyword or go to a site related to your topic and you are all set."

"You can see all resources in one place–this makes it less overwhelming than the library. I usually go online first, and then to the library to get what I need. In this sense, I see the online part as an introduction to the library."

"If you have a fast enough connection you can connect to journal articles online very easily. It is more efficient to download the article than to come to the library to get the article."

"Sometimes I will download articles, but often I end up going to the library to get them. I will not download a book–I would rather have the bound copy of the book. Downloading the book is a waste of paper."

"You can get a quick overview of what is available. For example, you can look at library holdings all in one shot, and see what is available to you."

"There is less time discussing with the librarian what the best resources are–there is the tendency to just get what you can find."

"If I have a question for the librarian I often ask over email rather than in person."