Library Day in the Life

Round 4 of the Library Day in the Life project is today.  Here is what I spent my time doing:

8:15am – Arrive at work.  Check email, resolve some scheduling issues regarding March CHEM 216 (Organic Chemistry) information literacy classes.  Thank my non-sciencey colleagues profusely for helping me teach seven 2 hour sessions in one week.

9-10am – Head down to a “satellite” library to look at Department of Agriculture documents with the Government Documents librarian.  We discuss what to keep and what to ditch and what to catalog.  Brief discussion of unused library space and the use of USGS documents and the scanning of NYS Museum docs.  Run into a biology faculty member.  Remind myself to stop by and see him when I am next in the Integrated Science Center.

10am – Tea.  Because life is better with tea.

10:10-11:45am – Work on a lesson plan for an upper level math class I will teach later this afternoon.  Teaching students about how to determine the intended audience of a particular article, resources to help spark research topic ideas, and basic search strategies.

11:45am – Tea and lunch and phone calls.  Talk with director of the Teaching and Learning Center about having a brown bag luncheon about open access.  He likes the idea, now I just have to find folks to come and get the thing organized.

12:15pm – Spend 15 minutes shopping online trying to find a dress for a wedding in May.  Give up.

12:30pm – Fix an IM chat widget for our new libguides implementation.  At least, I think it’s fixed. [Discover later tonight that it wasn’t fixed. Hmmm.]

12:45 – 2pm Organize and plan for a series of information literacy sessions in three biology classes with one professor.  Three different sessions are later this week.  Create survey about the primary literature to send to students to see if they can pick out a primary research article when they see one.  See poll

2pm – Discussion with associate director about library support for scholarly activity and why librarians need to stop going to library conferences.  He wishes there was library representation at this conference.

2:15pm – Tea

2:30 – Review lesson plan for this afternoon’s math information literacy session.  I know the less about the math and computer science literature than the natural sciences, so preparing for this session takes longer than normal.

3pm – Work on a blog post for the Milne Library News Blog.

3:15pm – Work on a blog post for this blog.

3:30pm – Download the latest podcasts and update my iPhone so I have something to listen to on my way home.

3:50pm – Head to the classroom for my information literacy class to set up tabs on computer.

4pm – Teach a session on understanding audience, finding a topic and finding literature for an upper level Math seminar class.

5:15pm – Go home.

7:00pm – Receive a thank you email from the Math professor regarding our class earlier in the day.  Do a little happy dance that it went well.

Adding value to a basic journal article PDF

Publishing journal articles online opens up a wide variety of options: hyperlinking references, including video and audio, archiving data along with the article, etc.  (You can see some ideas about future scientific articles from Elsevier and Cell here).  Most of these options are not normally exercised, and most users still view journal articles as online PDF’s, which they then either save or print.

Sometimes these PDF’s including an often annoying page at the front or back re-stating copyright information or indicating that the material was downloaded through a particular institutions subscription.

Just today, I downloaded an article from an August issue of Science and was pleasantly surprised that this ‘cover page’ actually included some useful information.  In addition to providing the normal article metadata, the links provided may actually be useful, at least to those with a subscription.

SciencePDFinfo
Information included on the "cover page" of a recently downloaded article from Science.

I especially noted the first item in the list of links informing readers that there had been a correction (in this case a relatively minor correction to a figure), and links to articles cited by this paper, including those articles available for free.

I wondered if a similar method was used when a paper was retracted.  A brief search turned up the PDF of a retracted paper published in 2006 and retracted in 2007.  Across the first page of the article in red letters was printed:

Retracted

At the end of the PDF of the 2006 article was the text of the “Editorial Expression of Concern” published 7 months later, and the official retraction of the paper published 9 months after that.

So here, in one PDF document, we have the history of this paper.

This is vital for the undergraduate students I serve.  Without this, a student would have no idea that an article had been retracted for any reason.  This is just one more tool to help novice scientists get into the world of their scientific disciplines.

The not-so-sciencey part of “Undergraduate Science Librarian”

Crucibles
Not this kind of crucible, courtesy of Flickr user Andy.Schultz

I work at a predominantly undergraduate institution where all the librarians have to be generalists at least part of the time.  As a result, some of the instruction I do falls outside of the sciences, and some of my additional projects aren’t directly related to the departments I serve.

For example, this week I will be teaching a one-shot session for a first year writing seminar.  The overall topic for this seminar is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. A couple of weeks ago I taught a session to some local high school students who were looking for information on contemporary poets.

Back in library school, I took a class on “reference sources in the humanities”.  While the actual reference sources covered haven’t been especially useful to me, the insights into the research culture of the humanities was very helpful.  Did you know that books are much more important to scholarship in the humanities than they are in the sciences?

While I get nervous when students come to the reference desk looking for poetry information in the same way some of my colleagues probably get nervous when a student comes to the desk looking for NMR spectra, I have the skills to help most of them find the resources they need.

And when they have in-depth, senior-thesis, primary-sources-in-history types of questions, we have a well established research consultation service at my library so that I can refer them to one of my amazingly capable colleagues for the help they need.

My own personal “Chemistry Week”

Chemoluminescence
The image "Chemoluminescence" is courtesy of Flickr user "everyone's idle"
The official, American Chemical Society “Chemistry Week” was last week, October 18-24th.  Lots of exciting events took place in lots of wonderful locations.

But this week, October 26-30, is my own personal Chemistry Week.  This week, I will teach 4 two hour information literacy sessions to organic chemistry students, provide the lesson plan and all in-class content for three additional sections of organic chemistry, and teach a session on evaluating resources and expanding your literature search to senior seminar students.

I recently gave a presentation about what types of things we talk about at the various levels.  I enjoy teaching theses sessions, and I believe they are useful to the students.

This year I’m trying to focus on assessment – are the students actually learning what we want them to learn?  Do they already know it before our session?  Do they think the sessions are useful?

Each student in the organic lab is completing a brief follow up survey, so we can get a sense of how useful the session is and whether the students actually learned what we wanted to teach them.  For this follow up survey we are asking a few questions about learning outcomes, plus a couple of attitudinal questions.

In the upper level seminar, students are filling out a brief survey about their previous research experiences, to give me a sense of their comfort level with certain resources (Scopus or SciFinder) and to allow them the opportunity to ask any research questions prior to our session (I’m not anticipating that they will have many).  While students are normally not very good at assessing their own weaknesses, this will give us some information about student attitudes toward research.

I’m excited about seeing the result – hopefully they will allow the chemistry faculty and I to continue to improve the way we teach about the chemical literature and literature searching.

Information Literacy in Upper Level Undergraduate Biology

One of our library classrooms
One of our library classrooms

Over the next couple of weeks, I will be teaching information literacy sessions in three different senior-level undergraduate Biology seminar classes.  Although the topics differ, the content that I discuss is fairly similar.

Finding (and understanding) a topic

I don’t discuss this in every class, but in a class where students have (mostly) free range to select a topic, I try to give them some resources that will help them narrow the field.

I point them to relevant science news sites and blogs.  ResearchBlogging.org is one of my favorites because it leads the students directly back to the primary literature.  I discuss the merits of browsing a journal’s table of contents, and provide them with links to appropriate journals for their field.  This is all normally done with an in class exercise that gets them to look at some of these resources.  Hopefully they may come away with a topic idea.

Do students appreciate this guidance?  I’m not sure.

Review of primary vs. review articles

Most of the faculty I speak with say that their Senior-level students already know the difference between a review article and a primary research article.  I find that some students can tell them apart, but the majority can’t identify a review article when they see it.  Some students have had information literacy sessions in sophomore and junior level classes where I discuss this in detail (throwing in science news and blogs too) but I don’t see all of our Biology majors, so it is kind of hit-or-miss.

As a result, I normally spend the first 10 minutes of a 50 minute session reviewing the difference between these article types.

I ask students to examine two different articles and for each I ask them:

  • How is the article organized?
  • Whose research and experiments are the authors writing about?  Their own? Or the research of others?

This isn’t rocket science, and at the senior level, these questions are fairly easy to answer for these students.  They just may not have been asked to look at these before.

After we identify the review and primary research articles, we talk about how each of them can be useful.

  • Can you use either for this particular assignment?
  • If you can’t use a review article for this assignment, how can it still be useful to you?

Finding appropriate articles

This section is normally the main reason why the faculty member contacted me in the first place.  I normally focus on a few basic principles:

  • Choosing an appropriate resource for the topic you are searching
  • Selecting appropriate language and terms to use for your search
  • Understanding the nature of citations and how tracking them forward or backward in time can help you find additional information.

Students sometimes have topics already chosen, sometimes they don’t.  The session will involve some hands on time searching an appropriate resource (often Scopus).

And of course, we talk about how to get their hands on the actual full text of an article.

What I don’t spend time on

It may be controversial, but I don’t spend time teaching Boolean logic, unless I have more than one session with the students (and even then I don’t call it by name).

I don’t get into specifics about citing sources unless we have more than one session, although I will recommend the use of Zotero or another citation manager.

I haven’t really talked much about open access, open science or other emerging forces in scientific communication.  I do want to find time to work open access into the conversation in the future – perhaps in the bit about how to get the full text.

Is any of this similar or different than what other librarians talk about in upper level biology classes?

Things I need to learn

Multidendritic sensory neurons from Flickr user Balapagos
Multidendritic sensory neurons illustrating Green Fluorescent Protein from Flickr user Balapagos

Sometimes I feel as though I need to know about everything.  When I teach an information literacy session, I feel ill-prepared if I don’t know about the topic of the class.  As a result, I have learned a little bit about a lot of things over the past couple of years:

  • Green fluorescent protein
  • Markovnikov reactions
  • Epigenetics
  • siRNA and miRNA
  • North American trees
  • Synoptic climatology
  • The evolution of snake fangs
  • Trematode parasites

The nature of my job requires me to learn a little bit about all of these topics so that I can help students find the relevant literature.

Unfortunately, I’m only human, and I still get lost in many things that are outside of my geology background.

Fortunately, I know enough about the literature and scholarly communication of these subjects to help students with what I need to help them with.  I can lead them into the world of scholarly communication in its various forms that they are just discovering.  At the same time their professors are leading them into the world of their disciplines.

When the partnership between faculty and librarians works well, it can be incredibly powerful.  Students can learn to explore the record of the scientific enterprise while learning enough about the discipline to understand what they find.

Helping undergraduate students understand the context of the research articles they find

Students can almost always find something about their research topic. However, they don’t always understand the nature of what they find in a couple of important ways:

  1. They may not understand the nature of the item they find – website, article, news item, review, conference proceedings, blog post etc.
  2. They aren’t yet knowledgeable enough in their field to understand the context in which a particular item stands.

I try to help students with the first item in a lot of the classes I teach.  Prior to any discussion about which databases or citation styles the students will want to use, we go back to the beginning and talk about the difference between various types of articles that they may find:

  • How to tell apart a review article and a primary research article (it isn’t hard, but many of them have never thought about the difference before)
  • What a news article looks like and how it can help lead you to peer reviewed articles
  • How to identify an article abstract when you find it through Google

But up until now, I haven’t spent a lot of time helping students figure out the context of the articles they provide.

Even upper level undergraduates are still novice scientists, and they don’t yet have a sense of what is happening in a particular field.  They aren’t yet sure which researchers are the established authorities in the field.  Students don’t quite have the background to know how a field has progressed over the last 5 or 10 years.

Helping students understand the context of their research topics is largely the job of the department faculty – teaching them the subject knowledge to understand where things fit.

However, there are tools and tips and tricks that librarians can teach these students to help them understand the context for their subject matter.

First, we can introduce them to appropriate reference materials that may provide some background.  Wikipedia isn’t a good source for their research paper, but it may help them understand terms and disciplines they aren’t yet familiar with.  Specialty encyclopedias that often get dusty on the shelves can be brought into the classroom to help students understand how their topic fits in with everything else.

Second, we can help them utilize the built in tools in many of our databases to analyze the search results they find, to see when research on their topic was being done, who was doing it, and how well individual articles were received by other scientists.  Many databases have tools that allow users to retrieve the keywords used by papers from a particular results set – what are the most common terms that arise?  Citation databases like Scopus or Web of Knowledge help students see whether later researchers found a particular paper to be useful.  Users can often examine the publication years from their results set – was this a hot topic 10 years ago?  Is it popular now?

Teaching students about these resources and advanced analysis features can help them bridge the gap from novice to expert scientist, helping them out until they have the knowledge to say “Didn’t someone publish a study contradicting this idea just a few years ago?”