Three weeks and three papers, and I would get three credits. It sounded looked fairly straightforward. It was my first time taking a summer class and it sounded easy enough. How hard could it be to write about plants? As it turned out, it was pretty hard. The ten-page report on stevia was turning out to be more difficult than I had imagined. The problem was not simply that most people have never even heard of stevia, but rather that the information I was expected to discuss was nowhere to be found. Not only was I researching an little-known plant, but the specific details that I was looking for were beyond obscure. For example: “Describe the perianth structure of stevia.” I couldn’t find the androecium structure of any plant, let alone one that, unless on the topic of sweeteners, goes largely unnoticed. Textbooks were no help. I tried searching Google for every imaginable keyword, but I was getting very few results.
Finally, I decided to get a bit more scientific with my searches. Instead of typing in “stevia,” I searched for its genus and species names. This time, I saw some promising hits. I followed up on them and traced their sources. One of the links was a governmental report on stevia. Another link led me to PubMed, where I lost the article source but was able to trace it through PubMed’s search tools. In both cases, the material I found was extremely technical. It was filled with jargon that I had never heard of. I found myself copying and pasting every other word into, only to get an equally obscure definition. I began searching each word that I did not understand on either Google, Wikipedia,, and sometimes all three. I had to figure out not only what the gibberish meant in its actual definition, but also how it fit back into the article and related to stevia. Most websites I had to read were full of words I had never heard of. There was no easy way to interpret the articles or the definitions I found for the articles’ vocabulary. I spent hours deciphering everything. I had to teach myself the intricacies of plant anatomy and physiology. I learned more about stevia’s structure than what is known by botanist. After hours of painstaking work, I was finally able to decode the two articles I found.
From this research experience, I found that the “massive collective brain” was largely unhelpful. I had to turn to technical websites that were designed for very specialized fields. For specific information, it seems like Google and even Wikipedia are not useful. It takes a lot of time and hard work not only to uncover, but also to understand information when it gets to be more detailed. My search had been unproductive until I thought to search for the information using more technical terms. It was then that my investigation hit a turning point and I was finally allowed into the inner sanctuary of scientific research.