Along with recent hair-pulling about fake news has come renewed awareness of the concept of “filter bubbles,” as many of us acknowledge the risk of political information “bubbles” following the US presidential election. Where we once bemoaned “filter failure” – or the challenge of sifting out relevant, quality content in the face of information overload – we now find ourselves considering the concept of the bubble as “fully functioning city state” (perhaps on a sliding scale of seriousness).
With all this talk lately about the global state of information – and worries about information curation, misinformation and information abundance – I’m left wondering what this means for scholarly information professionals, and our collective responsibilities around learned resource discovery.
Do we, as academic publishers, librarians, and technologists, owe our readers the filters and curated databases they demand to efficiently seek and retrieve information within the topical spheres defined by institutions of higher learning and research? Or do we instead withhold tools that potentially keep readers within their learned “bubbles”?
Mainstream search results and news feed alerts trade on demands for immediacy, serving up bite-sizes of information at the point of need. Retail information systems are largely focused on providing simple and fast answers, often with little regard for the original source, let alone its values or reputation. There is no longer one standard set of “true” Google search results, as our search experience is iteratively personalized based our individual usage – a major conduit for the information bubble we surround ourselves with.
That leaves us with the rather chilling thought, that we really only see what we want to see – logically, this would extend to our academic information practices. Are today’s students entering into their academic information experiences with expectations for living in a scholarly filter bubble?
Librarians and publishers have struggled with how to best facilitate the discovery of authoritative scholarly content – how much do we comply with open-web indexing rules, despite recent evidence of how Google can distort our information seeking pathways? Should our own search engines emulate the Google experience and to what extent? Do the likes of subject browse pages and recommendation features run the same risks for academic publishing as personalized search results and social media algorithms do for journalism?
In our collective responsibilities to facilitate the education and research processes, are we beholden to encourage researchers to consider implications of their work when viewed from the perspective of other fields? If so, how is this done in practicality? Is academic serendipity achieved with semantically-related recommended readings from TrendMD? Or interactive concept graphs from Google or Yewno, sitting alongside classic full-text search results with subject filters?
An unqualified approach to information is untenable within the rigors of scholarly research and learned publishing, yet our community is struggling to champion lifelong information literacy habits and adapt our products to the norms of the open web. Is that even possible? What can be done when our readers may not be applying Bayesian inference over traditional methods of evaluating the quality and accuracy of information they find? How do we fare in today’s information culture and how do we establish trust in our brands? Are the root problems – and therefore, the solutions – purely technological? I think not!
Relevance, accuracy and authority of a resource ranks higher with many students and faculty, who are less inclined to follow a link simply because of popularity. Therefore, the algorithms required by academics go beyond mainstream user expectations of search engines and society media. Does this point to a way to avoid the scholarly filter bubble? How do we satisfy these elevated information needs of academic users, who are undoubtedly influenced by mainstream information channels?
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” However, in an academic setting, we are called to look beyond our own individual preferences or cultural status quo, we are expected to push ourselves beyond our spheres of comfort, to challenge the bounds of what is understood to be true.
But are filters for relevance, accuracy and authority entirely objective? “Truth” and “fact” can be seen on a sliding scale of subjectivity these days, which inevitably impacts the dynamics of authority within the academic publishing supply chain. I believe data scientists like Sebastien Dery who say that “there is still no universal algorithm for parsing and distilling a thorough, non ambiguous, understanding of text.”
All this adds up to my own professional conclusion, that academic information professionals are obligated to strike a healthy balance between what Eli Pariser calls “information vegetables” and “information dessert” – providing both the information we need to be rooted in scholarly principles and to push the boundaries of science, as well as the information we want within the confines of our organization or field of study.
As organizations vested by the value of knowledge and accountable to accuracy, we must uphold the standards of academic research and proven, documented fact preserved in the scholarly record. We must champion a culture where computational text analysis is a tool we apply in the course of our critical thinking and research analysis, but not one we rely on solely as a source of truth. We must exercise our own critical reading and push ourselves beyond the bubble occasionally, to consider diverse perspectives and question our assumptions and bias.
This community has an obligation to ensure human cognition compliments computer code, rather than technology trumping the type of intellectual judgement needed to exercise information literacy.
I would agree with my Chef peers who suggest that, as we conclude an unpredictable year that challenged our faith in the news media and introduced “post-truth” politics, we must consider how we respond to a culture that has valued emotion above proven, objective facts. Publishers, librarians, and all information professionals in the business of disseminating academic resources and research literature are, ultimately, dedicated to the maintenance of an informed democratic society, empowered with a wealth of knowledge, rooted in the scholarly record, and wise enough to burst their own bubbles from time to time.