Are recent developments in scholarly communication relevant to undergraduates?

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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.”

Faculty Outreach


Originally uploaded by Aidan Jones

Apparently, our day-long meeting last Tuesday started out as a collection development retreat.  Somewhere in the planning, our collection development librarian realized that we needed to take a step back and talk about how we communicate with faculty in general.  The topic is related to collection development through the library liaison program (or lack there of).

And so, as a result, almost all of the librarians at my library gathered off campus for a full day of discussion about what we are currently doing to reach out to faculty, what we wish we were doing, and what will be possible for us to do in the future.

I am one of the few librarians at my library with a very firm group of “constituents” – the science departments.  We have never had the staff to develop a complete library liaison program and have concentrated our energies on information literacy instruction, rather than hiring subject-specific bibliographers.

In our day-long retreat about faculty outreach, we were able to identify areas where we have been successful at reaching out to faculty (instruction), areas that we need some improvement in (collection development), and areas that we haven’t even dipped our toes in yet (scholarly communication).

After a lot of discussion, we were able to come up with a few goals for faculty outreach for the library as a whole:

  • Organize a faculty luncheon for department chairs, faculty reps, and other interested parties to discuss library issues (especially resources).
  • Improve and update our social networking presence.

We also decided to set a few goals for ourselves.  I wanted to set myself a few modest, concrete goals that I could check off (or not) at the end of the year.

  1. Contact each of my departments about visiting a department meeting for 10 minutes to discuss library resources and services
  2. Meet with Chemistry faculty to talk about changes to our chemistry information literacy program.
  3. Advertise our science-related library workshops to the science faculty

This is in addition to my normal reference, instruction and web design duties.  Perhaps I will write another post at the end of the year to see if I was able to meet my modest faculty outreach goals.

What impact is the impact factor measuring?

I recently read a very interesting article in PLoS ONE examining various measures of the scientific importance of particular journals:

Bollen, J., Van de Sompel, H., Hagberg, A., & Chute, R. (2009). A Principal Component Analysis of 39 Scientific Impact Measures PLoS ONE, 4 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006022

The article isn’t breaking new ground in its criticism of the impact factor, calculated by Thomson Scientific.  However, the statistical analysis comparing multiple measures of importance sheds new light on the relationship between the various measures.

The authors analyzed 39 different impact measures that fall into two main groups: those that look at citation counts and those that look at online usage data (page views and downloads).  A few additional measures that take account of online social networks were also included.

Schematic representation of PCA analysis
Schematic representation of PCA analysis. JIF is the normal Journal Impact Factor from Thompson Scientific

In general, the usage measurements cluster more closely together than the citation measurements – they are measuring approximately the same thing.

As a result of this analysis, they were able to differentiate measures that looked at immediate (“rapid”) use vs. longer term use (“delayed”), and to distinguish measures that look at how popular a resource is vs. how prestigious a resource is.

All of this leads us to repeat the problem posited by the authors:  we don’t have an accepted definition of what “impact” really is.

Publications, institutions, and tenure committees all have different needs and requirements.  For example, the faculty at one large research institution may be more concerned about prestige, while another may need to market their programs and examine their popularity.  I think this analysis shows that folks can and should be a bit more choosy when selecting the measure they use to judge their competitors, their research, and their colleagues.

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.

SLA 2009 Biomedical and Life Sciences Division Contributed Papers Breakfast

As this is my first time at the Special Library Association conference, I didn’t really know what to expect.  This early morning session set a wonderful tone with some great talks that makes me very excited to be here!

Presentation slides and descriptions can be found on the DBIO website.

The first talk was by librarians from Cornell and the University at Florida about creating an online space to encourage research collaboration by allowing researchers to easily find collaborators.  This talk couldn’t have come at a better time.  Right now, at my institution, we are looking for ways to encourage collaborative research.  In our first meeting about the subject, we discussed the fact that our current website makes it very difficult to find out what anyone else is doing.  Could the Cornell model be possible at our institution?

The Cornell system creates researcher profiles, and is searchable.  Faculty, alumni, prospective students  can easily search or browse the site to see what research is being done at Cornell.

One of the main strengths of the system described, Vivo, is that much of the data is automatically harvested:  you don’t need to rely on faculty to edit their own profiles (although that is possible).  The system harvests data from HR, publications, grants and other sources to automatically populate researcher profiles.  Their software is also open source.

The second talk of the breakfast meeting focused on a survey about the use of ebooks by faculty and graduate students. While graduate students were more likely to use eBooks than faculty, the message was simple:  make them easy to use and discoverable (get them into the catalog).

The final talk was all about instruction, and paralleled (in some ways) what I’ve been doing in chemistry and what we are hoping to develop in biology.  I got some good ideas for practice assignments and strategies for teaching about the different types of literature.

No more print textbooks

No more print textbooks?

Originally uploaded by Amin Tabrizi

Because Arnold Schwarzenegger says so.

This isn’t exactly a new prediction, but two recent news stories seem to confirm the downfall of the print textbook.  First, the NY Times reports on a high school that ditched their algebra textbook in favor of a curriculum designed by the teachers.  Then, the big news from California that Gov. Schwarzenegger has declared print textbooks to be old fashioned, and educators should start looking on the web for material to meet their needs.  (My favorite headline about Gov. Schwarzenegger’s comments:  Arnold Schwarzenegger says hasta la vista to textbooks.)

While California is hoping that the state will save money by not purchasing books for K-12 students, I hope that this trend extends into higher education.  Wouldn’t it be great if students didn’t have to shell out $200 for their organic chemistry or introductory biology textbook?  Instead, they could rely on free material on the web that their professor picked out?

Update: There is a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about one university’s experience with eBook textbooks.