Stop saying “print” when that’s not what you really mean

At the reference desk, I occasionally see students who are looking for only “print” resources. Their professors have asked them to find journal articles or books, but are requiring them to use “print” resources. The challenge here is that their professors don’t really mean “print.” Most often, they want their students to find formally published, peer-reviewed, or scholarly sources, not blogs, wikis, or random websites. They use the term “print” because in previous decades, these types of sources would have been found as physical copies. I understand what they are trying to tell students, but students don’t understand this no-longer-relevant distinction.

I would guess that about 97% of all the journal articles that the students at my institution have access to (not including ILL) are only available to them online. Of the print journals available at my institution, the majority of these are older volumes that we haven’t (yet) replaced with online back-files. If students stuck to the terminology used in the assignment, it would mean a vast body of research was unavailable to them.

Of the online items, some journals still publish a print version, but many do not. Some high quality journals were born digital and many have stopped publishing print versions due to decreased demand.

The requirement of “print” only resources, would also exclude eBooks. My institution has access to 35,000 eBooks, and we will soon be getting a collection of 25,000 more. Are these excluded because of the mode of access?

An undergraduate student, particularly a first or second year student, is still trying to figure out the difference between scholarly and not-scholarly sources. It takes some practice for them to understand the different types of sources that are available online. Asking them to figure out if a particular source is the kind of thing that may have once been published in print is not practical.

So instead of asking students to use “print” resources, be more specific.

“For this project, you may use peer-reviewed scholarly sources and published books.”


“For this project, you may use scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers, or books.”

[Rant over.]

Library publishing services: share what you’re up to

I should have posted this before, since the deadline for submissions is tomorrow, but my library is working with the Monroe County Library System to put together a Library Publishing Toolkit.

A working printing press in one of the labs at the FHTW in Oberschöneweide. CC image courtesy of flickr user tölvakonu

Proposals are due tomorrow (February 15, 2013), but all we are asking for right now is a 300-500 word abstract about the services and strategies that your library. 24 hours is plenty of time to write 300 words!

If you are doing some interesting or innovative things related to publishing, think about sending in a proposal. Some questions we are hoping to answer include:

  • What programs and services are offered by libraries to writers?
  • Does your library help users develop curated content to publish either in print or digital form?
  • What strategies are being used to select items for digitization?
  • Has your library identified unique print materials to be digitized and potentially sold?
  • Has your library developed partnerships with other agencies to support digital publishing?

If your abstract is selected (and you’ll know pretty quick), the final brief papers (just 2-5 pages) will be due on April 22nd.

See the complete call for papers on the Library Publishing Toolkit website. Submissions are accepted via email to

iPhone Apps for Research and Collaboration

I recently posted an entry on my library’s blog about some iPhone apps that might be useful to undergraduates for research and collaboration.  I thought some readers here might find the same information useful.

You may also be interested in a list of more science-literature-related iPhone apps that I published last year.

Check out the following free apps to help you search the literature, cite your sources, and organize your work.

iPhone Apps
iPhone apps for research and collaboration

Ebsco Databases – Ebsco provides access to a large number of databases via one app (ERIC, Georef, American History and Life, MLA International Bibliography, Business Source Complete, Academic Search Complete and lots of others).  Because access to these databases is paid for by the library (with your tuition dollars), you need to log in to Academic Search Complete via your library’s website first.  At the bottom of the screen you’ll click on a link that will send an email with an activation code.  After downloading the app, open your email on your phone and click on the link.  You will then have 9 months of access.  I’ve found this process to be pretty simple and easy – no need to log in every time.  The app will connect you to full text articles within the Ebsco databases, and even Geneseo’s “Get it” service (our version of OpenURL) for articles found elsewhere.

SciVerse Scopus Alerts – A search app for the interdisciplinary database Scopus.  I’ve reviewed this app before, and there hasn’t been a major update since then.  This app can do keyword searching, citation tracking, and alerts for the science and social science literature.  Scopus is an outstanding database, but the app has some issues.  The biggest problem is getting it to work.  You need to remember your Scopus username and password (not your Geneseo username), and even then there can be trouble.  While the tech support is responsive, it just isn’t as easy to get started as the Ebsco app above.

Evernote – I recently started using this piece of software on my computer for note taking during meetings and lectures, lesson planning and writing.  I am in love with its simplicity and universal usefulness.  Take class notes on your computer, then download the iPhone app to access them anywhere.  Record voice notes on your phone and automatically sync them to your laptop.  Take pictures with your phone and insert them into the notes you’ve already started, or start a new note.  The iPhone app syncs with the desktop application so that you never have to guess where a certain piece of information is.  Share notes with others via shared notebooks or simple weblinks.  I love this app.

Dropbox – Along with the Dropbox website, this tool allows you to easily share files among friends (with shared folders), or between your computer and phone.

EasyBib – An app from the popular website.  This app allows you to scan the barcode of a book and create a formatted citation (which you will, of course, check against the style manuals for accuracy).

Merriam Webster Dictionary – There are lots of dictionary apps out there.  This one is free, and has a nifty voice search function.

Mendeley – This app works with Mendeley Desktop and the Mendeley website.  It allows you to store and organize your PDF journal articles and book chapters.  It’s like iTunes for journal articles: Mendeley will organize your folders for you and you can create folders (playlists) of articles.  You can share those folders with others to help you collaborate on group projects.  The desktop version integrates with Microsoft word to help you cite your sources.  This mobile app allows you to access the journal PDFs you have synced to the web, as well as the ability to search your personal library.  This is one of a few applications that is always open on my laptop, and I love the ability to quickly look things up on my phone when I am away from my computer.

Since I don’t have an Android phone, I can’t comment on the availability or usability of these apps on that platform.  Perhaps in another post.

What apps do you use to get your work done?

Strategies to help students find a project topic

Sometimes, one of the hardest parts of writing a term paper is just starting out: What on earth do I write about?

Faculty sometimes provide a very narrow set of topic choices, but students are often given wide latitude to select a topic of interest to them.  Then they just need to decide (a) What are they interested in? and (b) How can that be a term paper topic for my upper level science class?  Easy enough, right?  Not for many students.  I actually remember a mild panic setting in when I was an undergraduate given unlimited options about what to write about.

Thick arrow made from jigsaw puzzle pieces
Thick arrow made from jigsaw puzzle pieces. CC image courtesy of flickr user Horia Varlan

In a couple of disciplines, I have done informal sessions outlining strategies to help students find a topic.  I present some resources and give students time to poke around.  I’ve done this as a modified jigsaw activity with good results.  With the professor and the librarian present, the students can ask questions and get clarification about their topic or resource choices.  End of semester survey results indicate that this seems to be helpful for students.

All of the strategies I present basically show students a variety of resources to help spark their ideas – they don’t have to think of a topic off the top of their heads.

Examine Science Blogs and News Sites

Advantages: Articles are written in easy to understand prose and their brevity make it easy to scan multiple topics quickly.

Disadvantages: You will have to translate the topic idea from the news article/blog into the primary literature.

Look at Relevant Journal Table of Contents

Advantages: You are going directly to the primary literature, and once you find an article, expanding your search can be very easy by tracking down citations.

Disadvantages:  Article titles are notoriously difficult to comprehend for undergraduates.  Something that might be particularly interesting might be hidden behind overly complex scientific language.

Searching Relevant Databases

Advantages:  If you have a general idea of what you might want to do, this might be very useful for helping you narrow down your topic.  You also make a very quick leap to the scholarly literature.

Disadvantages:  A search for “the evolution of fish” might turn up so many results that you can be overwhelmed.  And scanning journal article titles can sometimes lead to more confusion, not less.

A unique conference – alumni, undergraduates and faculty

Every three years, my alma mater, St. Lawrence University, hosts a unique conference experience for its current and former geology majors.  Alumni return to campus while classes are in session to present research related talks, discuss career paths and network with current geology students.

I had an opportunity to attend one of these conferences when I was an undergraduate. The ability to chat with recent grads about the realities of graduate school was incredibly useful.  The opportunity to see what kinds of careers the alumni had pursued was helpful for me to answer that ever present question – what exactly can you do with a degree in geology?

As an alumna, I have a great opportunity to talk to current undergraduates about the opportunities available in librarianship/information science.  I also have a chance to catch up with some friends from college.

Some highlights of this conference:

    • The variety of talks from practicing professional geologists.  Although academic presentations still outnumbered the more practical ones, the talks given by professional geologists were engaging, interesting and very informative (perhaps more so than the academic presentations?).  I think they were very helpful for the students.
    • Giant chocolate chip cookies from the “Pub”, one of the on campus eating establishments.
    • A chance to chat briefly with the new president of the University who wrote an excellent article describing libraries as “the most dangerous building on campus“.

      Intellectual chain reactions exist in an air of danger, daring and human hazard; transforming elements of thought require the chase, the hunt, and the adventure of traversing narrow cliff-side paths and box canyons.

        • Talking to a former classmate whose old nickname was based on the beer he drank about potty training and the challenges of having a newborn baby at home.
        • The opportunity to chat with old friends and current students.  Seeing my friends is great, but it is wonderful to chat with highly intelligent and motivated young people about what they want to be when they grow up.  And I love giving advice, so that is fun too.

          This unique conference will happen again in 2013, and I’m already looking forward to it.

          Science publishing: the humorous side

          I spend a lot of my time teaching students to respect the scientific article.  We talk about why the peer reviewed article is the epitome of scholarly publishing, and why it deserves more esteem than other types of scientific publishing.

          But as all practicing scientists know, the peer reviewed journal article is not without fault.  There are problems with the review process, complaints about the quantity of articles being published, and major concerns about rising costs.

          So with all of these concerns in mind, lets laugh at the system.

          First, let’s discuss the truly awful prose of many research articles.  Kaj Sand-Jensen discusses this topic in his excellent paper, “How to write consistently boring scientific literature.”  Among his recommendations:

          • Leave out illustrations, particularly good ones
          • Avoid originality and personality
          • Quote numerous papers for self evident statements

          Sand-Jensens paper hits home for me because of an experience I had in graduate school.  I was reading an article about the chemical kinetics of the dissolution of kaolinite (a clay mineral).  Now, my chemical knowledge wasn’t too advanced, so I had struggled through many similar papers.  At one point I read and re-read a paragraph in the discussion section.  I reconfirmed that I understood what every word meant, and what every concept was.  Then it hit me:  this was just a very poorly written paragraph that completely failed to express the authors intent.  More importantly, my difficulty in understanding the article wasn’t my fault!  This was a very exciting realization.

          Next, we can look at the horrors of trying to respond to criticism of a scientific article.  Rick Trebino’s excellent based-on-a-true-story satire of the comment/response system is worth a look, “How to Publish a Scientific Comment in 1 2 3 Easy Steps.”  This stands in contrast to some well known examples of how articles were commented on and retracted as a result of blog posts and the resulting blogosphere commentary.  (See this story about a recent article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry that was quickly debunked.)

          Finally, lets poke fun at the citation behavior of scientists (the study of which has filled many PhD dissertations).  E. Robert Schulman demonstrates some of the strangeness of these decisions in his excellent piece in the Annals of Improbable Research, “How to Write a Scientific Paper.”  I teach students to track down citations in the papers that they find relevant to their project, which can occasionally result in wonderful resources.  Or just more filler.  As Schulman states,

          The real purpose of introductions, of course, is to cite your own work (e.g. Schulman et al. 1993a), the work of your advisor (e.g. Bregman, Schulman, & Tomisaka 1995), the work of your spouse (e.g. Cox, Schulman, & Bregman 1993), the work of a friend from college (e.g. Taylor, Morris, & Schulman 1993), or even the work of someone you have never met, as long as your name happens to be on the paper (e.g. Richmond et al. 1994).

          As an addendum, I certainly can’t leave out the horrible nature of many scientific lectures and presentations.  In order to help young scientists prepare truly horrible presentations, Alexander Kohn laid out some suggestions in his article “How to Make a Scientific Lecture Unbearable” also in the Annals of Improbably Research.  I have sat through many boring presentations, and I have stayed awake through most of them.  I did fall asleep once in a class where the professor was utilizing a slide strip (‘beep’ – advance to the next slide) that discussed dolomitization.  I have no regrets about that.  I whole heartedly endorse Kohn’s final suggestion, “It has been suggested that the listeners should organize themselves in a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Listeners and present the speakers with rules and regulations (and sanctions) before they start talking.”

          Incidentally, if you are aware of addition scientific publishing satire, please let me know.  The system is way too serious to not make fun of it.

          I hate footnotes

          I’ll admit it.  I am a librarian and I hate footnotes and endnotes.

          I have often lamented the wide proliferation of citation styles.  I really wish publishers could all agree on one style of citation, but that probably won’t be happening anytime soon.

          This afternoon I am trying to read an article that seems very interesting, but it has endnotes, making my preferred style of reading a journal article much more difficult.

          For example, normally I start to read the first few paragraphs of the introduction, then skip to the references section to see who they are citing.  A nice neat alphabetical list makes this easy.

          Footnotes, on the other hand, make it very difficult to scan the references cited.

          Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde
          Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde uses footnotes for comedic effect

          Today, when I wanted to check on a particular reference, I turned to the end of the paper and found endnote #90 and read “Ibid”.  I kept looking up the list to see “Ibid. Ibid. Ibid.” until eventually I found an author and article title at endnote #85.  But then I have to keep going back up the list (of over 100 endnotes) until I saw a complete citation. In this case, I didn’t find it because it was buried in one of several paragraph long notes (note #76).  I had to turn to the “search” feature of my PDF reader to actually find the complete citation.

          This is not user friendly.  I argue that a nice list of alphabetical references and author date in-text citations are the most user friendly (although my colleagues in the humanities may disagree with me vehemently).

          I grant that footnotes or endnotes can occasionally be very useful for text explanations, but most of this explanation could often be done within the text.  And of course, there are authors who use footnotes to humorous effect (Jasper Fforde being one of my favorites).

          OK, rant over.