So your keyword is “marijuana”?

It’s the beginning of the term and you’re met with a room of freshmen students who’ve been given an assignment asking them to research a controversial topic. You watch as students rack their mind about what is controversial and to whom. Inevitably, a student might come up with some mention of “marijuana” and you, the instruction librarian, do your best to assist the student with their research topic. You might ask, “what exactly do you want to know about marijuana?” And they might answer that they would like to know more about decriminalization. 

If you’re in Colorado, this topic is one we expect, and I have been an educator long enough in Colorado to see it go from a topic Instructors will absolutely not tolerate, to one they, often time begrudgingly, allow. But that negative attitude towards this specific topic can be seen elsewhere: it’s in the very tools we ask students to use in their research. Kevin Seeber and Rachel Stott’s article Cannabis is a blue state word: marijuana decriminalization, keyword development, and considering political context in search results illustrates how the key aspects of research we illustrate in early research methods are ones that aren’t impartial. 

In their library instruction, Seeber and Stott noticed that students would inevitably use the word “marijuana” as a keyword. When asked to form synonyms, they would continue to introduce a vast array of terms but would require some gentle assistance to get to the word “cannabis.” Now, it’s becoming increasingly more common to use search engines like Summon in freshmen English courses because we recognize students are not working in a discipline specific course. Using such a search engine, Seeber, Stott, and the students, all noticed some differences in the search results when comparing these specific keywords. Their results revealed that there are big differences in who is using “marijuana” in their articles, versus who is using “cannabis.” Their research points to the fact that “marijuana,” which is primarily used within the United States, is found within articles with a negative view on the drug, whereas “cannabis,” used mostly in the Europe and the U.K., does not share an overt negative perception of the drug. There are big differences here. Yes, “cannabis” is the scientific term, but the scholarly research students find is primarily done using the term they know and use, appropriately, I might add: “marijuana.” 

For many students, scholarly resources are unbiased and full of facts. Instructors are quick to point out the importance of using peer-review sources in their research and to, above all things, stay within that limited scope and stay away from anything they deem “popular.” Seeber and Stott elucidate how failing to talk with students about these tools and having conversations about political context can serve as a disadvantage to students. 

Now there are some obvious arguments against Seeber and Stott’s research, including the notion that if they had simply taught subject specific databases then this would not be an issue. This argument doesn’t take into consideration that students usually hone their research skills in cross-disciplinary courses using search engines. Also, many students who are transferring from community colleges, for instance, likely have limited access to subject specific databases, and so even though they may have research skills, they also require some element of transition. 

Although many instructors would prefer for us to “just teach the tools,” there is real reason to consider the historical and political context in keywords. And it’s common knowledge that students need to critically evaluate sources they find on Google, for instance, but why is it less common for them to be asked to evaluate scholarly resources? So, the next time you enter a classroom and a student wants to research “marijuana,” consider how brilliant that student is for using one word to quickly dismantle a major problem of scholarly communication: the types of conversations it privileges. And, of course, this issue goes way beyond the word “marijuana.” Can you think of others?

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