Pay Some Attention To The Research

Academic librarianship’s mainstream research journals are looking more like prizefighters in the twilights of their careers. They’ve gone through a long period of trying to stay on their feet while the world is passing them by and have taken a whole lot of hard knocks. As far as attracting readers, it seems like they’re about to go down for the count at any moment. If some blogger isn’t pissing all over the content of research journals by attacking it as boring drivel, then the research literature is being mocked as irrelevant, outdated before it’s printed and nothing more than an excuse for librarians on the tenure track to write about something for which no one cares and that no one will read. Well, if that’s what you think, that’s just a damn shame.

Is every article in every scholarly journal a masterpiece of writing and research? Of course not. Are some research articles repetitious, void of originality or suffering from a case of “you had to do research to tell us something that blatently obvious?” Absolutely. But there are probably dozens of forgettable and downright awful blog posts for every scholarly article that’s published. I say the scholarly literature is still a field of gems worth exploring. Every now and then an article will emerge from the pack that will grab your attention and have you kicking yourself for not coming up with that idea. In other words, you might actually learn something important. I came across two such articles recently.

The first is found in the October 2007 issue of portal: Libraries and the Academy (disclosure – I am on the editorial board) and it’s titled “Portals for Undergraduate Subject Searching: Are They Worth It?” If you are beginning to think that your Facebook profile isn’t really helping you to connect with students – especially in ways that truly matter – like helping them to achieve academic success – then you might need a new approach. Perhaps it’s time you considered strategies for connecting with students in their courses. That’s what students really want, and that’s what the research from this article tells us. The authors relate how they started to create discipline specific portals, which sounds like a good idea, but it didn’t turn out that way. Seems the students really wanted course specific resources. The findings from this well-written piece come just at the right time for my library as we’re exploring ways to better integrate the library resources into the curriculum. If the students prefer course-integrated and assignment specific library resources that’s where we’re headed.

The second is found in the November 2007 issue of College & Research Libraries and it’s titled “Undergraduate Use of Federated Searching: A Survey of Preferences and Perceptions of Value-Added Functionality.” While the title is hardly inviting, a closer look yields some interesting findings. Yes, students prefer federated search systems to individual native mode database systems because the search is easier and saves times – nothing too shocking there. But you might be saying “yeah, but the students are paying for convenience with worse results.” Well, it depends on who is judging the results. This study performed a detailed analysis of the search results, and when both librarians and faculty members analyzed the search results very little difference was found between the quality of the federated and non-federated searches. The faculty, more so than the librarians, found the federated search results to be of reasonably good quality. So if you’ve been putting off looking into federated search for your library because of concerns that it dumbs down searching and produces low quality results, think again. Based on student comments obtained during the study, while federated search was perceived as an improvement it appears that no students are deserting their favorite Internet search engines for federated search.

So if you’ve gotten away from keeping up with the scholarly literature of academic librarianship, keep in mind that your colleagues aren’t just making a bid for tenure (at least the ones on the tenure track) when they write these articles. They are also endeavoring to communicate new ideas and discoveries that serve to advance our knowledge of the resources we use and the communities we serve.

12 thoughts on “Pay Some Attention To The Research

  1. I subscribe to all the opinions in your first paragraph. I regular scan more than 20 major library journals and the number of articles I actually read it very few. The number that I read and end up being worth the time is even less (so many promising abstracts with no follow through) (I also picked out the two you mention and read them). I think, over the years, I found much more of worth through library blogs than library journals. The short blog post often seems to encapsulate in a very brief amount of words what articles often take pages to get around to.

    A key difference to consider, in this age where scholarly communication is such an issue, is that the blogs are free and open for anyone to read and discover. Most of the library journals are not so. Sure if you are in a large institution you can get access through your library, but that won’t hold true for smaller and non-academic libraries.

    I also see the blogs as creating more of a sense of community and interaction than library journals.

    I’ll keep scanning the journals, but I wouldn’t feel bad if some of them disappeared, a culling of the number of articles published might increase the percentage of quality.

  2. It may seem that there are few gems among the rubble in any one issue of a journal, but that’s partly based on what we’re interested in. If an article speaks to something that’s been on my mind, it’s going to be more likely to seem worth reading.

    For me, the big difference between a good article and a good blog post is the evidence presented. It’s not all that common for someone to conduct a large-scale study and then post the results in a short, informal blog posting. The longer, more deliberate, peer-reviewed, and slower format of articles seems to invite longer, slower, more data-driven original work. There’s room for both, and there’s even room for blending – posting ideas in a blog, then considering responses as you write up your research. (The blog Siva Vaidhyanathan is keeping while working on a book on The Googlization of Everything is an example.)

    If authors were more diligent about self-archiving and journals were more open to open access, the subscription limitations would not doom journals and research-based articles to obscurity. In most cases (except for publisher like Haworth and Emerald) it’s just a matter of will.

    Which reminds me – if you haven’t discovered the newish open access Communications in Information Literacy, take a look. You’ll find interesting articles – and be cheered to learn we’re living in the golden age of IL! Good stuff there.

  3. More and more, my pattern is that I read articles published in scholarly journals…

    …after they’ve been recommended and commented on in blogs, such as this post right here.

    Basically. my professional reading can be useful in two different ways: “huh, that’s interesting” and “ooh, I’ve gotta do something with that.” In terms of time and money, the blogs are a better investment for me for finding interesting things. In terms of peer review, the blogs give me a better idea about what ideas and findings are gaining traction in the field.

  4. Good point! And another argument for making articles linkable and accessible regardless of whether you or your institution subscribes or not.

    Discovery has a huge part to play in the impact of research, and blogs are a terrific discovery tool – especially when you can hop right to the article rather than try to remember to go look it up.

  5. I do read a good number of articles, but that is part of my “keeping up” routine. I do agree with the sentiments on this post that a lot of the literature is, and I will say, not worth the effort. I have even written about it in my blog at one point or another. It’s basically a matter of either a) by the time I see it in the journal, it’s old news, or b) it’s just a restatement of the obvious.

    The article in _portal_ I may have to take another look. I think I looked at that issue at one point. The other one, I would be more skeptical. We are right now in the process of reconsidering a federated search tool we have, and it looks like we may do away with it. In part because, contrary to what the article suggests (going by your description), students are not finding that quality stuff (and I am going by the actual student feedback here). Which is another thing I often notice in the literature: just because it works at some large research campus with lots of funding, it does not follow it works out here in the smaller settings with less resources.

    And overall, the literature does often seem like nothing more than the exercise for my tenure track brethren to meet their quotas. I wonder if we did away with tenure, and “publish or perish” was not the rule, if the quality of the material would change. And I do second Derik B’s thoughts, if some of them disappeared, I would not miss them either.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  6. Hm. The examples you cite don’t realy help your case.

    Portals were current in 1995 and were still relevant as late as 1999, but are not today considered viable in the world of content syndication, social networks and personal blogs.

    And comparing Federated searching with only individual database searching is a terrible straw man, leaving out as it does the entire realm of aggregator-based (Google-like) searching.

    The problem with such outdated, and if I may say, biased research, is that it misleads. If, for example, you decided, based on a journal article, to create a portal supporting a federated search, then you would be creating a resource that would be less than useful to students.

  7. StephenD – Thanks for your comment, but you may want to actually read the articles mentioned in the post – not just the post. The whole point of the first article – which isn’t my research BTW – is that librarians are better off to collaborate with faculty to integrate resources into specific courses where they can do students the most good. The article actually states that the portal wouldn’t be as effective. And it actually does make sense to compare federated to non-federated searching because that’s a choice students are presented with in today’s library environment. It has nothing to do with ignoring the existence of internet search engines. The articles are neither biased nor outdated. And to bring up a portal for federated searching as some sort of example of what the research might lead a library to do – well – put simply – that makes no sense.

  8. Barbara said above: “The longer, more deliberate, peer-reviewed, and slower format of articles seems to invite longer, slower, more data-driven original work.”

    The problem with library research is it often does contain small sample surveys presented as journal worthy research. Many of these types of articles would be better off posted on a blog. A self selected group of 50 does not a statistically sound sample make, at least that’s what I’ve always been taught.

  9. Angel,
    you’re the second person I’ve heard lately talk about their institution getting *rid* of their federated product. I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon, and I’d love to hear more about it.

    I’m firmly skeptical about federated searching, and MPOW is currently discussing getting the tool. The closest thing I’ve seen to being a convincing ‘pro’ argument is that CR&L article, and I still felt that nothing in the article made me think the product was worth the money — it saved students no time, and as many were happier with it than were happier with subject databases. I’d call it a wash, not a vote for the tool! (which is interesting in and of itself! Steven saw the article as a vote for federated search, and I saw it as a declaration that federated makes no difference at all in student or faculty research happiness)

  10. Hi Rudy. I am still learning some of the ropes in MPOW, as I am new onboard (experienced librarian, just new here). Anyhow, the WebFeat tool we are currently using is not proving to be satisfactory based on feedback, and it is not getting as much use. Part of the issue, at times at least, was problems with linking results from the tool to full-text, as in it would say something was full-text, only to get some error. So we are leaning towards taking it out. However, let’s label it a “work in progress” for now. Personally, as an experienced instruction librarian, I lean to the idea that it really makes no difference to the students in their happiness, so to speak. I think we often don’t give students enough credit. If you show them how to use a good research tool, they will learn. It may take some time and perseverance, but they can learn.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  11. I agree with your comments on the first article. However, I believe that we as educators need to go beyond providing students with “answers” to specifiic assignments and questions. In large univeristy libraries where contacts with individual students are limited that may be difficult if not impossible. In my opinion, portals are not a replacement for personal and continuing conact with students. Furthermore, we must do whatever we can to make students aware of the broader world and its complexities without overwhelming them.

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