by Margarita Mooney Suarez on October 28, 2011

This post originally appeared on the Black, White, & Gray blog.

Well, it looks like there is a ranking for everything. A USA today report recently ranked colleges for how well they use social media.

The report is informative, yet focused mostly on social media as outreach, rather than social media as a research tool. In the several years I  have taught undergraduate sociology of religion, I have realized that students get most of their information–including information about religion–from the internet. Although it is my job as a scholar to lead them to scholarly books and articles on religion, how can I as a scholar learn to embrace social media as a research tool for my students?  How can I teach my students about the strengths and weaknesses of using the media–including social media–as a research tool?

This year, for the first time ever, I will allow students to include newspapers, magazines, and online media in their research papers. To do so, however, they must follow several strict guidelines. First, they must only usenewspapers/magazines/online sources in addition to (not instead of) scholarly sources. Second, they can only search a limited set of newspapers/magazines/online sources which I as a scholar know provide generally good information on religion. Third, I worked with UNC’s research library staff to discuss with students how to analyze sources for credibility, accuracy and bias.

One of the challenges in using the internet for research is that most of what gets published on the internet has not been through the rigorous review of experts that is entailed in the peer-review process for scholarly books and articles. Magazines and newspaper may be better than the internet, but not always. When I asked my students how long it takes to publish a scholarly article, they guessed 16 weeks. When I told them it takes around 1 year, they were shocked. What percentage of articles submitted to peer-reviewed journals get published? My students guessed 80% were accepted, when in reality about 80% of articles sent to the top sociology journals get rejected. Now, that rejection rate got their attention.

Scholarly books take even longer to publish, I told them. I did two years of research for my book on Haitian Catholics, and the drafts of the dissertation and book were read carefully by about 12 scholars over a four-year period and then copy-edited by three experts. The total time from when I started my research until the book was published was 7 years. And I think all the effort of those 7 years paid off in a well-informed and well-written book on Haitian Catholics in Miami, Montreal and Paris.

Because I am concerned that my students don’t know how peer-reviewed work is (or at least should) be different from most of what they will find in newspapers/magazines/online sources. So here are the explanations I gave put on their assignment :

a)  For work published in a peer-reviewed academic source, you can assume the author is an expert on the topic. How do you assess whether the writer of online/newspaper/magazine source is an expert? How do you assess bias and reliability? (see this handout)

b) Peer review is time consuming, so online/newspaper/magazine sources may be more current. But for that same reason, arguments made in online or newspaper sources may not have been carefully scrutinized. Ask yourself: How well does the online/newspaper/magazine sources information match up with peer reviewed publications? If they are wildly different, be careful!

c)   Peer-reviewed articles and books publish research. Online/newspaper/magazine sources publish some investigative journalism with research behind it, but mostly they publish pieces based on small amounts of research or more speculative opinion pieces and book reviews. When reading online/newspaper/magazine sources, ask yourself: is this a piece of investigative journalism? If so, how much research was done? Is this an opinion piece? A book review? (for help, look at what sections of the paper/magazine/online source it is in)

Our scholarly research on new topics in American religion is vitally important, and I continue to support the peer-review process because it encourages rigor and helps make good work even better.

If peer review is so important, why even let my students use newspapers/magazines/online sources? First of all, religion in America is dynamic. New movements and organizations are founded weekly. For example, one of my students wants to write on multi-site megachurches, but there is little peer-reviewed research on that topic. Why not let her combine scholarly work on religious organizations with a few good magazine articles on multi-site megachurches?

Second, students find out about religion from newspapers, magazines, and online sources anyway. Why not let them use those sources to formulate questions, and teach them how to evaluate those sources and compare them to peer reviewed-sources on the same topic?

Third, numerous research groups are putting information up online that could be helpful to my students, so why not let them know about those sites and use them to help their research? Some good examples are the ARDA, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Research on Religion Podcasts, and the Social Science Research Council—The Immanent Frame, and of course, Patheos, which hosts this blog. Major newspapers like the New York Times have journalists like Samuel Freedman and columnists like David Brooks who read scholarly work on religion and report on it. The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger writes informative opinion pieces on religion, and the Washington Post has an On Faith forum.

How well will my students be able to sort through the admittedly long list of sources I allow them to use for their papers? How well can they integrate newspaper, magazine and social media reports on religion with peer-reviewed research? Will they be able to assess bias or inaccurate information? I’m not sure, but I know that as a scholar and a teacher, I will learn from trying to help them in this task.