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.]

Assessing Undergraduate Research Experiences

As part of some work I’ve been doing this summer for several different projects, I’ve started compiling a list of papers related to the assessment of undergraduate research experiences.  These papers include works that do simple surveys of student attitudes and papers that try to measure student learning outcomes (which is more difficult).

In order to share this list and hopefully get other folks to add to it, I’ve created an open group on Mendeley.

A collection of articles that discuss assessment methods used to describe a variety of undergraduate research experiences, including course-based research and traditional mentored research. Assessment methods include indirect surveys of student attitudes, direct methods of assessing student learning outcomes and many other strategies.

So far, the list has a modest 11 citations, but I’ll probably be adding a few more over the next few days.

So, if you’re using Mendeley, join the group and add resources to the list.

If you’re not using Mendeley, why not?


How will undergraduates navigate a post peer-review scholarly landscape?

With all of it’s flaws (and there are many), faculty at the moment can tell students to find articles that pass one crucial credibility test: peer review.

This is pretty easy for students to do, given a bit of instruction.  Many databases will indicate if something is peer reviewed (although they don’t always get it right), and most primary research articles are peer reviewed – you just need to be able to recognize one.

But peer review is changing.  It isn’t going away anytime soon, but through a variety of trials and experiments and advocacy, it is changing.  Cameron Neylon has argued in favor of doing away with the current peer review system altogether.

This may require a more informed readership, readers who understand what various metrics mean, and a greater reliance on understanding the general reputation of a journal (however this is measured).

All of this creates problems for your typical undergraduate.

When they are just starting out, students don’t have the required scientific knowledge of concepts and methods to adequately evaluate the quality of a journal article on their own – that’s what they are in college to learn.

So when their professors ask them to write a paper or complete a project using high quality primary research articles, how will students filter the signal from the noise if the simple “peer-reviewed” credibility test no longer works?

I can think of a few things that may help them out, although it won’t be quite as simple as it’s made to seem now. This may also require a bit more instruction to bring students up to speed on these concepts.

  • Use the databases as a filtering tool.  Databases like Scopus and Web of Science and SciFinder select which journals to include.  Theoretically, they wouldn’t include content from the really poor quality journals.  Of course, this doesn’t stop bad papers from appearing in good journals.  Faculty could limit students to articles found in a particular database.
  • Increased prevalence of article level metrics on publisher websites.  Some journals already make this information prominent (like PLoS ONE) and more are doing so.  This would require more education (for both faculty and students) about what these metrics mean (and don’t mean).  Faculty could ask students to only use articles that meet some minimum threshold.
  • An expansion of rating networks like Faculty of 1000.  We don’t have access to this resource at my institution, but we may see undergraduates relying more on this (and similar networks) to help them get a sense of whether an article is “worthy” or not.  Students could be limited to using articles that had a minimum rating.

All of this is limiting.  Hopefully, by the time students reach their senior year, faculty could stop making arbitrary requirements and simply ask for high quality material, right?

What are some other techniques for evaluating scholarship that undergraduates may have to master as peer review changes?

Getting students on the same page with their research skills

Most semesters I teach a few upper level biology seminars.  I’ve talked in the past about the kind of things I teach them, but one particular challenge has been on my mind lately:  getting all of the students on the same page.

Getting everyone to the same starting line can be tricky.  Image courtesy of Flickr user Andi Sidwell
Getting everyone to the same starting line can be tricky. Image courtesy of Flickr user Andi Sidwell

At the moment, information literacy instruction (through me) is not systematically incorporated into the biology curriculum.  The number of biology students has increased drastically in the past few years, so many of the assignments that used to require library research have been scaled back in an attempt to keep grading under control.

As a result, by the time they get to their senior seminar, some students have had experience in finding the primary literature, and some have not.  Some students can easily distinguish between a review article and a primary research article, and some cannot.  Some have experience using databases like Scopus, and some do not.

This creates challenges when designing an instruction session for these students.  Do I start at the very beginning, and never get to some more advanced topics, in order to get everyone up to speed?  Or do I just skim over the basics, hoping that the students will catch enough to enable them to do what they want to do?

My approach to this tends to depend on the desires of the course instructor.  Sometimes they are just looking for the basics.  Other times they are looking for something more.  I often have some of my own ideas, and we tend to meet in the middle.

One approach that I always use for this problem is to simply push the research consultation service that we have, and to encourage students to contact me with big or little questions.

Until we have a more systematic approach to information literacy instruction in this department, we will continue to miss students at the crucial sophomore and junior levels, and we will keep playing catch up in the senior seminars.  We’re working on it.

Assessing Information Literacy Skills in First Year Students

A new open access journal, Communications in Information Literacy, recently published an article about assessing library instruction for first year students.  The paper caught my eye because I’m working on some similar things here at Geneseo.
The study sought to determine if students’ information literacy skills and confidence with research improved more with a greater number of librarian-led information literacy sessions.  The author used a pre-test and a post-test to examine students’ attitudes and stated behaviors.  She used likert-style questions to assess students’ previous use of information sources and their confidence with various information related tasks.  One group of students received the typical one-shot information literacy session in a first year writing and critical thinking class.  Another group received two or three information literacy sessions over the course of the semester.

The author is very clear about outlining the challenges we all face in trying to assess information literacy instruction.  Most notably, it is almost impossible to control for the wide variety of variables that have an impact on student information literacy skills:

  • Prior information literacy instruction in high school or other venues
  • Prior practice doing scholarly research
  • Student intelligence and creativity
  • Opportunity to practice skills learned in an information literacy session (and differences in the assignment requirements)
  • Differences in scholarship between various disciplines

Some information related to the factors listed above is relatively easy to obtain (although perhaps not so easy to quantify).  Course faculty can be a source of information about assignment requirements, and will set the standards for more or less practice information literacy and research skills.

On the other hand, getting information about prior instruction and practice normally relies on students’ self reporting, which is not always accurate.

In addition to the likert-style attitudinal questions, the author analyzed student bibliographies.  She looked at the different types of sources used, and whether they were available through the library or through other sources.

The latter question is challenging.  Typically, a student doesn’t need to use a library database to access the full text of articles if they are on the campus network.  As a result, they could easily have used one of many search engines and not even realized they were using library resources.  On the other hand, use of library databases that resulted in articles requested through Interlibrary Loan would not count as library sources.  We emphasize ILL at my institution, however, so perhaps it isn’t used as much at other institutions.

All of this begs the question – are the information literacy sessions we teach an effective way of teaching students research skills?

The author of this paper concludes that there is some positive benefit to the increased number of information literacy sessions, although the data seem a bit more mixed to me.

I wish that the author had actually tested students research skills.  While it may be much more difficult to evaluate, student confidence does not necessarily correlate with student skills.

Julie K. Gilbert (2009). Using Assessment Data to Investigate Library Instruction for First Year Students Communications in Information Literacy, 3 (2), 181-192

How to Choose the “Best” Student Poster Presentations

Yesterday was SUNY Geneseo’s “GREAT Day” – a celebration of student achievement in the form of posters, presentations and performances.  There were 165 poster presentations and a similar number of oral presentations and performances.  Students presented research findings, class projects and original art.  It was amazing – our students are really quite smart and talented!

Great Day 2010
Geneseo Recognizing Excellence, Achievement, and Talent

Each year, the library selects a small portion of the posters to hang in the library for the following semester as an example of student work and research at Geneseo.  This year, the posters will also be displayed at a “Best of GREAT Day” event for college donors and board members.  The only issue is that these posters aren’t really the “Best of GREAT day.”  Librarians have 2 hours to review 20 student posters each and talk to the students involved.  We can’t really pick out the “best.”  (Next year, I think the event will have a name change to “Selections from GREAT Day.”)

So how do I make my selections?

Step 1: Delete the word “best” from the description.  Don’t worry about it.

Step 2: Talk to the students.  Do they know what they are talking about? Do they know how their research fits into the grad scheme of things?

Step 3: Find the interesting things.  Which posters showcase the variety of research being done?  Which posters have pretty pictures of students in exotic places?  Which posters have an interesting interdisciplinary appeal?

Step 4: Does the poster meet some minimum requirements for looking good?  I am not particularly concerned about how pretty a poster is, but I would like to see a certain level of competence.

Step 5: Stop dithering and make a decision already!  It is very difficult to narrow down my selection to just 25% of the posters presented.  At some point you just have to decide.

Have a look at some of the great things our students are doing – the GREAT Day program (PDF) is online.

A Different Approach to Plagiarism Prevention

First, we don’t call it “Plagiarism Prevention.”  In the approach I developed with a collaborating faculty member from biology, we teach students about “Citation Best Practices.”

Most students never have instruction on what plagiarism is or how to avoid it.  Library instruction about citation often focuses on creating the citation, not how to incorporate in-text citations into your document.

Wikipedian Protester
Wikipedian Protester. From the web comic xkcd.

The faculty member I work with decided that she would be willing to give up a bit of content time to discuss these issues with the students.  One of our major goals was that we didn’t want this instruction to be punitive – we didn’t want to focus on how bad plagiarism is.  Like many other plagiarism prevention strategies, we wanted to be positive and proactive.

We decided to focus on teaching students how to do citations properly – something they had probably not been taught before.

I spent some class time teaching students how to construct a proper citation, and how to tell what type of item they are citing (for example, how to tell the difference between an article or article abstract found through a Google search and a web page).

Then I discuss best practices for doing in-text citations.

First, I remind students that the articles they are using for their papers had authors – real, live people who did the experiments and wrote the papers.  When they cite their sources in their paper, they can acknowledge this in the language they use.

Biologists Smith and Jones (2005) discovered that something really exciting happened.

I provide some examples of how they may use their sources in different ways when writing their paper, and provide some sample language for incorporating the citations:

  • Using a source as background information
  • Using a source as an example
  • Criticizing or analyzing a source
  • Comparing two or more sources

At the end of a brief lecture discussing some of these issues, I provide students with sample paragraphs with citations. (See a sample power point lecture and sample paragraphs.)  Each paragraph uses some citations well, and others poorly.  We ask students to determine what is done well and how each sample could be improved.

In our class discussion about the examples we talk about:

  • How often do you need to insert a citation?
  • Citing sources at the beginning or ending of sentences.
  • Use (or not) of quotations in scientific papers.
  • What is implied if no citation is included?
  • What is considered common knowledge?

Does this cover all aspects of preventing plagiarism?  No.  We don’t touch on a lot of details, and we don’t go into the implications of what happens if you do plagiarize.  We don’t touch on cross-cultural issues of plagiarism, and we don’t go into detail about how to paraphrase or take notes so you don’t accidentally copy.

But by providing this type of instruction, we can help students write better papers, give them some strategies for avoiding accidental plagiarism, and make the connection between the term papers they are writing and the scientific literature.