My own personal “Chemistry Week”

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. 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?”

Are recent developments in scholarly communication relevant to undergraduates?

Originally uploaded by

On a weekly basis, a new article or editorial comes out discussing the shifting paradigm of how scientists communicate with one another.  According to many, the journal article – the mainstay of scientific communication – is about to undergo a major metamorphosis as blogs and new journal concepts affect how science is done.  A recent report from the Science Online London 2009 conference exemplifies this.

I am very excited about these changes, and I spend some of my time checking out real-time science blogs like Useful Chemistry, participating on online science networks like Nature Network, and exploring what PLOS ONE has to offer.

But how relevant are all of these new changes to the average undergraduate?  Do they need to know about them?  If they don’t need to know now, will they in the near future?

Most of the writing assignments I’m seeing are still asking students to find traditional scholarly articles as the only sources for their papers.  Most of the faculty at my small undergraduate institution are still very traditional with regard to scholarly communication.  A (very) few faculty still have to be convinced that an online journal is acceptable, and I wrote an email a few months ago explaining that PLOS Medicine is a highly regarded journal.

Until a consensus develops around what is scholarly and what isn’t in the online world, how are undergraduate students (who still need help telling apart a review article and a piece of original research) supposed to navigate these on-going changes?

In the short term, I don’t think that undergraduates need to know a lot about these developments, beyond their own personal interest in science blogs or online science news.  For the time being, a science student can successfully navigate his or her undergraduate education without an awareness of the scientific blogosphere or the concept of open science.

As much as I would love to share my excitement of all of these fascinating changes, I don’t think students need to know about them.  At the moment, I teach students about the basic differences between review articles, primary research articles and news articles.

In the future I will probably talk about blogs and social networks and how to access primary data sets – I’m looking forward to it.

Libraries and the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2013

The ever popular Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2013 has been published, once again making me feel old and young at the same time. Several items on the list pertain specifically to libraries:

4.  They have never used a card catalog to find a book.

This is excellent! Despite the many deficiencies of our current OPACs (and the deficiency of the acronym OPAC), our online catalogs are infinitely superior to their paper predecessors.  We have spent a lot of time in our library trying to our OPAC, and we will soon be directing our users to Worldcat Local instead of our own catalog because Worldcat Local has a much better search interface.

14.  Text has always been hyper.

For our incoming freshman, born in 1991, the internet has pretty much always existed.  They didn’t have an A ha! moment when discovering for the first time, thinking about how it changed book buying.  These students have probably always assumed that information could be found online, and the idea of a CD-ROM encyclopedia is probably pretty funny.

34.  They have always been able to read books on an electronic screen.

Although eBook readers have taken off in recent years, especially with the introduction of the Kindle, the ability to read a book on a computer screen has been around for ages.  Recent developments in book standards from SONY and other eBook manufacturers, Barnes and Nobles release of an eBook store without a stand alone reader, and many other recent developments in the eBook market make this a time of quick change in how books are accessed and read.

72.  Migration of once independent media like radio, TV, videos and compact discs to the computer has never amazed them.

I think that students will have less tolerance for the way that different types of information are segregated.  We have traditionally segregated books, articles, reference materials etc. physically and online by telling our users to use different search tools to find different materials.  Why?  How often does it really matter?  Certainly some assignments ask students to find X number of articles, books etc., but often they just need appropriate information.  Shouldn’t we be able to search across all kinds of material and make decisions about appropriateness of the format once we find it?

Read the list – it will make you feel old as you think “I remember that!” and you may feel young if you look at items and think “Hmm, I didn’t know that existed.”

How many places do we need to look?

The abstract 64/365

Originally uploaded by Blue Square Thing

I’ve been thinking a lot about discovering resources lately.  There have been a lot of announcements related to online resources:

The question is, can our students find a copy of a paper or a book they are looking for?

For example, a student searches Scopus for information.  They find the citation to a paper (or a book) that will be useful to them.  How might they get their hands on that paper or book (legally) without paying for it?

  1. The openURL button within Scopus takes them directly to an open access full text article on the web
  2. The openURL button within Scopus takes them directly to an article purchased for them by their institution
  3. The student finds a copy of the article deposited in PubMedCentral
  4. The student finds a copy of the article using the institutional repository of the lead author
  5. The student finds a copy of the article using OAIster (a union catalog of institutional repositories)
  6. The student finds a PDF of the article linked from the authors’ homepage after doing a Google search
  7. The student finds the book a local library (academic or public)
  8. The student gets the book through ILL
  9. The student finds an electronic copy of the book on Google Books
  10. The student finds an electronic copy of the book on the Internet Archive.

I’m sure I’m missing something.

A student won’t know whether a journal article is open access, or archived, or only available via subscription.  How can we make sure that the student can get to the information they need as easily as possible?  I think libraries better figure it out quick, before someone else does.

Assessing Information Literacy Skills


Originally uploaded by mia!

This year, the librarians at my library worked together to assess the library instruction portion of our freshman writing course.

All freshman take this writing and critical thinking class, and faculty are required to bring their students in for one 1-hour session on library skills.  Most faculty fulfill this requirement.

Last summer, we spent some time revising the goals and objectives for this one 50 minute session.  Based on the ACRL information literacy standards, our goals are rather modest: it is difficult to learn very much in 50 minutes.  After revising our goals and objectives, we developed a brief test to assess this objectives.

We were able to test some of our incoming freshman during the first few weeks of their college career.  We also have the results of the test from students at the end of their first semester, and for other students at the end of their first year.

The results are in, and I have spent some time analyzing them.  After sharing the results with the librarians, we will meet again to decide if we need to revise our original goals and objectives.  To me, this is the most important part of the assessment process.  Good assessment requires you to go back and look at your original goals.  Have you met your goals?  If so, do they need to change?  If not, what can you do to acheive those goals.  Simply collecting data without re-examining the original goals is a waste of everyones time.

So have the students met our goals?  Well, mostly.

  • Most students continue to think that our OPAC contains journal articles
  • They can’t seem to tell the difference between a book review and an article, but at least the book reviews they find are on-topic, and more students can successfully find something at the end of the year than at the beginning
  • Students can easily interpret records in our OPAC, but aren’t as good at evaluating a results list, although this improves with time
  • Worryingly (since I’m the library webmaster), students can’t seem to find our resources by subject lists at the beginning of the year or at the end.

The “undergraduate” part of a science librarian

I keep up with my professional colleagues through blogs, listservs, twitter and social networking sites. Many of the science librarians I connect with have the advantage (or disadvantage) of being the library liaison to just one or two academic departments. As the sole science librarian at a largely undergraduate institution, I am the liaison to many academic departments:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics and Astronomy
  • Geological Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science

I can’t be an expert in everthing, and the past few years have been a learning experience. I have a masters degree in Geology, so I am the most comfortable with the subject matter in that department, but I have been doing most of my library instruction sessions in the Biology and Chemistry departments.

In addition to learning about organic chemistry and vertebrate zoology, I am slowly learning about the culture of the various sciences.

For example, the emaphsis on primary, peer reviewed literature is stronger in Biology than in Geology (where technical reports make up a large part of the literature). Physicists are more receptive to Open Access models of publication (as seen in the dominance of the preprint server) than their counterparts in Chemistry (which has strong disciplinary ties to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries). And I just read a very interesting article discussing the tendancy of Computer Scientists to publish via conference presentations more than peer reviewed publications.

Learning about the publication cultures of the various scientific disciplines has been one of the most interesting parts of this job, and I feel as though I have only skimmed the surface.