Category Archives: Research Issues

Use this category for posts related to research projects, research conducted by librarians, the need for certain types of research, research in higher education

ACS Solutions: The Sturm und Drang

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sue Wiegand, Periodicals Librarian at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.

A chemical storm recently blew up across the blogosphere, involving the American Chemical Society journals, the serials crisis of unsustainably high prices, and one brave librarian, Jenica Rogers at SUNY Potsdam, who said “Enough!” The atmospheric conditions that caused this storm: high journal prices, clashing with low library budgets. Not a surprise, as these storms blow up frequently before subsiding, but the response to Jenica’s blog post thundered through the online community of librarians and scholars. Why? Because she implemented an unusual solution. She cancelled the high-priced “Big Deal” ACS package, after consultation with their Chemistry Department. Others have cancelled Big Deals, but Jenica cancelled ACS journals, when ACS is also the accreditor for Chemistry. She made sure SUNY Potsdam Chemistry scholars and students would still get access to the research they needed, they would just get it in different ways. Controversy swirled like the winds of change.

Other “serials crisis” storms have come and gone over the years: in 2010, the University of California threatened to not renew Nature Publishing Group journals; in 2012, thousands of scholars and librarians signed a petition to boycott Elsevier. Going back further, decades of complaint from librarians resulted in, well, even higher prices. So, cancelling is the direct approach—the action alternative to what hasn’t worked.

As both Periodicals Librarian and liaison to the Chemistry Department, I knew that the answer at SUNY Potsdam would be different from what we could do with the resources we have available here at Saint Mary’s College. Our consortial arrangements are different, our mission is different—we’re a small liberal arts college, not part of a state-wide system. A suggestion from others here was to try to persuade the Chemistry Department to give up their ACS accreditation, but I didn’t want to do that. I’ve worked closely with Chemistry faculty, not only in collection development for their journals, but on college-wide committees—I know they are reasonable people, and they are also shocked at unsustainably high pricing for scholarly articles. I reckoned the department and the library could work together to figure something out. The other librarians agreed: the time was right. Discussion ensued.

Some history: way back in 2002, after an interesting discussion of the new digital era for journals, a senior Chemistry professor came to me with a scenario based on what I’d told him was possible if he wanted to make a deal: cancel some Chemistry journals to use the money available to get SciFinder Scholar, the indexing and abstracting database. ACS was offering a deal: a “3 for 2” split with 2 similar institutions, so we could pay 1/3 of the cost of the SciFinder index. So we worked out which journals to cancel, which to keep, and we added SciFinder, a client-server product at that time, while keeping the necessary number of print ACS journals to keep our accreditation. The scenario accomplished this at no cost increase because we cancelled some print titles they didn’t want as much as they wanted the comprehensive, discipline-specific indexing.

Soon after, our state consortium offered an ACS “Big Deal” package: convert our ACS journals from print to online at the same price we were paying for print (the “historical spend”) and get many more journals for every library in the consortium. We converted. As with all Big Deals in the beginning, we marveled that we could get so many online journals at the same price we had been paying for our print subscriptions. I configured SciFinder to link our new titles, closed the catalog holdings, and shelved the print on the lower level, with signs on the Current Periodicals shelves: “This title is now online!” We added links. For Chemistry journals and indexing, at least, we were set for the brave new millennium.

Every year, the consortium negotiated small price increases, and more journals were added. Every year our budget stayed stagnant or went down while, subscription prices to other periodicals also went up. Faculty members in Chemistry were happy with the access they could get to the high-quality ACS journals, and frequently told me soWhen SciFinder became a web product, replacing the client-server model—even better (I was happy about that, too, in spite of the hassle with passwords and creating accounts that it entailed.) But the librarians thought the cost per use was too high for our small Chemistry Department. Then came Jenica’s blog post.

At Potsdam, librarians and Chemistry faculty decided to continue the ACS Legacy Archive, plus use Interlibrary Loan, add journals from the Royal Society (the Royal Society Gold package), and continue both STNEasy and Elsevier’s ScienceDirect database, which we don’t have at Saint Mary’s. Our mix is slightly different—after much discussion with Chemistry faculty and my librarian colleagues, we kept only the subscription to Journal of Chemical Education from ACS. We renewed the ACS Legacy Archive, and also kept our one Royal Society title (Chemical Society Reviews). The department agreed to use Interlibrary Loan when needed (as Jenica notes, ILL is also not free, but it is doable). We had post-cancellation access rights to 10 years of ACS content (next year, we must subscribe to another ACS title or pay an access fee to continue that).

We also kept SciFinder Scholar, still the single most important element to our faculty in Chemistry—they made this very clear from the first meeting I had with them. SciFinder is the indexing piece of the puzzle—it searches the Chemistry literature as a whole, not just the ACS journals, so it’s one place for them to search, and they like that. They already get non-ACS, non-subscribed journals from ILL, and they know it works well. We also, as did Jenica and the SUNY Potsdam librarians, encouraged faculty to use their ACS membership titles first for needed full-text found via SciFinder, and to consider having students also become members, since Society membership includes 25 “free” ACS articles, and student memberships are inexpensive.

The other solution I explored to complete the picture for us was to try using a document delivery service called FIZ AutoDoc, from FIZ Karlsruhe. FIZ (Fachinformationszentrum) is a not-for-profit German company that partners with the ACS, provides their document delivery, and also provides the STN databases. Implementation of the FIZ AutoDoc service required an incredible amount of mind-boggling documentation-reading, collaboration, copious emails, technical discussions, a webinar demo, a trial, and much angst. The sturm und drang, was not FIZ’s fault—they were extremely easy to work with, even though based far away in Germany. We just needed to figure out what we wanted and how to configure it to work with SFX, our link resolver, and our ideas about how to do this—how our workflow should go, who should do what, should it be mediated or unmediated, how it would look to the end-user—required much discussion. Eventually, we thought we had it—mediated by ILL would be best. No, wait! Maybe there is another way… The debate raged.

Ultimately, we did go with mediated by ILL, with the SFX link also in SciFinder. We added an SFX note about using free ACS membership articles if possible, and provided a list of ACS titles for use by ILL student workers. The account was set up with 2 passwords so the ILL Department can experiment with unmediated seamless access through SFX, so there is room for further improvement when the technical details are worked out. Meanwhile, requests for ACS articles are passed through to the ILL form, which is handily pre-populated by SFX from wherever they originate (since some ACS titles are also indexed in Academic Search Premier). ILL takes it from there in their usual efficient way.

So where do the philosophical questions come in? Is it ok for a library to purchase an article for just one person? What about sharing library resources? What about Fair Use? What about Open Access?

I have to say, I love the idea of Open Access, always have. I told the Chemistry Department that chemists everywhere should get together and start a subject repository like arXiv for Physics—this was quite humorous, apparently. In 2010, the University of Prince Edward Island’s library director, wanting to cancel Web of Science because of the high price, proposed an even more radical idea: librarians collaborating to build an index to scholarly literature that would be free and maintained by librarians. We all know the scholarly communication story by now. No one should be constrained from scholarly work by lack of resources wherever they are or what resources are available. Libraries are about sharing, at no cost to the users. Scholarly collaboration and library sharing shouldn’t have to be in competition, with large amounts of money at stake for access to published research. Yet, those devilish arguments go on.

Meanwhile, the ACS says it wants to work with researchers: “In the future… publishers will deal more directly with contributors and rely less on libraries as middlemen.” They have introduced ACS ChemWorx for research, collaboration, and reference management. In another example from a scholarly society, the Modern Language Association (MLA) is also working with researchers, but by making their author agreements more friendly to authors’ rights to self-archive, and by developing a platform for sharing: “members join the association less in order to receive its communications than to participate in them, to be part of the conversation, and to have their work circulated with the work being done in their community of practice.” They plan to emphasize their society role in “validation and credentialing”, developing new forms of peer review and scholarship in the MLA Commons.

This is the kind of action we can endorse and applaud. As librarians, let’s encourage scholarly societies to share scholarly work as the communities of practice they are at their best. Other collaborative platforms in various stages of adaptation include Zotero, Mendeley, Academia.edu, ResearchGate.org. There are also repositories, institutional and subject-based. The world is converging toward networking and collaborative research all in one place. I would like the library to be the free platform that brings all the others together.

Coming full circle, my vision is that when researchers want to work on their research, they will log on to the library and find all they need—discovering research ideas, the ability for seamless literature searching, accessing and saving citations for books and articles of interest in one place, downloading what they need, finding research collaborators through a network of scholars all over the world with similar interests, finding project management, having the ability to write and cite their research in a seamless way, sharing it informally, having it peer reviewed then formally published in a archived scholarly version of record, having it showcased and celebrated at each institution, then preserved for future scholars to discover and continue to build on. Walk in or log on, we could say to scholars and students alike—the library is the one place that has all you need to get your scholarly work done.

Let’s all, like Jenica, say enough with the old way! Let’s try some new ways and keep trying until we find or create something that works. This storm could help clear the air.

Waiting on Wikipedia

Recently while I was teaching a class the instructor asked me whether I thought that Wikipedia would ever come to be considered a generally trustworthy, credible source. I always talk about Wikipedia in my one-shot instruction sessions, especially with first year students, but this was the first time I’d ever gotten a question along those lines. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

In my classes I point out to students that most of us — students, faculty, librarians, everyone — use Wikipedia all the time. My usual strategy for talking about Wikipedia in library instruction is likely similar to many librarians: I show students how to use it for brainstorming and background information, suggest that they mine the references, and point out the View history link to show them how the entry has changed. I end by noting that Wikipedia is a great place to start but that students shouldn’t cite it in their assignments because it’s much too general, just as they wouldn’t cite a general print encyclopedia. Instead, they should use Wikipedia to point them to other resources that are more appropriate for use in college work.

But I do wonder when Wikipedia will cross the line into acceptable-for-use-as-a-cited-source territory. Will it ever? Has it already?

Full disclosure: I cited Wikipedia in a scholarly journal article I wrote last year. I had what I thought were (and still think are) good reasons. I was writing about using games in information literacy instruction, and I used Wikipedia to define several specific genres of videogames. I felt that the Wikipedia definitions for those types of games were more current and accurate than definitions I found in other published sources. In this case the fluidity and impermanence of Wikipedia were assets. Genres and micro-genres can evolve and change quickly, and I think that most Wikipedia entries on popular culture (in which I’d include videogames) are probably written and edited by fans of those topics. There’s an argument to be made that those fans are the subject experts, so it’s the information they’ve put together that I was most confident in citing. While one of the peer reviewers did note the Wikipedia citations, the journal editor and I discussed it and agreed to keep them.

Of course, Wikipedia won’t always be the best source. Right now I’m working on writing up the results of a project and needed to find the construction dates for campus buildings at one of my research sites. After scouring the college’s website with no luck, I stumbled upon the information in Wikipedia only to come up against a dilemma I’m sure our students face all the time: the information seems true, it’s not blatantly, obviously false, but there’s no citation for it. In this case I didn’t feel comfortable citing Wikipedia so I emailed the college archivist for more information, which she quickly and graciously provided. But what do our students do in a situation like this? There won’t always be a readily identifiable person or source to check with for more information.

According to this recent article in the Atlantic, Wikipedia seems to be moving into a more mature phase. The rate at which Wikipedia articles are edited is decreasing, as is the rate for adding new articles. What does this slowdown mean for Wikipedia? Is it really “nearing completion,” as the article suggests? And when Wikipedia is finished, will it then become a citable source?

Enabling the Research ‘Flow’ and Serendipity in Today’s Digital Library Environment

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Bohyun Kim, the Digital Access Librarian at Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat (http://bohyunkim.net/blog) and can be found at @bohyunkim (http://twitter.com/bohyunkim) in Twitter. She also writes regularly on ACRL TechConnect blog.

Today’s library users do not carry pencils and notebooks to a library. They no longer want to be isolated to concentrate on deep study or contemplative reading when they are at a library. Rather, they have the dire need to be connected to the biggest library the human race ever had, the World Wide Web, always and even more so when they are at a library walking through the forest of fascinating knowledge and information. The traditional library space packed with stacks and carrels does not serve today’s library users well whether they are scholars, students, or the public visiting a library for research, study, or leisure reading. As more and more library resources are moved to the fast and convenient realm of the World Wide Web, libraries have been focusing on re-defining the library space. Now, many libraries boast attractive space almost comparable to trendy, comfortable, and vibrant coffee shops. The goal of these new library spaces are fostering communication, the exchange of ideas, and social learning.

How the loss of book stacks and carrels affects library patrons

However, some library patrons complain about this new and hip research and reading environment that libraries are creating. They do not experience comfort and excitement, which today’s libraries strive to provide in their new coffee-shop-or-makerspace-like library space. These patrons rather miss the old dusty moldy stacks packed with books, many of which were left untouched except by a handful of people for a very long time. They miss the quiet and secluded carrels often placed right outside of the stacks. They say that browsing a library’s physical collection in those stacks led them to many serendipitous discoveries and that in those tiny uncomfortable carrels, they were completely absorbed into their own thoughts reading away a pile of books and journals undisturbed by the worldly hustle and bustle.

This is an all-too-familiar story. The fast and convenient e-resources in library websites and the digital library collections seem to deprive us of something significant and important, that is, the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation and the experience of serendipitous discovery from browsing physical library collections. However, how much of this is our romantic illusion and how much of it is it a real fact?

How much of this environment made our research more productive in reality?

What we really love about browsing book stacks at a library

In the closing keynote of 2012 ACCESS Conference last Sunday, Bess Sadler, the application development manager at Standford University Libraries noted the phenomenon that library patrons often describe the experience of using the physical library collection in emotional terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ characteristic to our right brain whereas they use non-emotional terms such as ‘fast’ and ‘efficient’ to describe their use of a library’s online/digital resources. The open question that she posed in her keynote was how to bring back those emotional responses associated with a library’s physical collection to a library’s digital collection and its interface. Those terms such as ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ and ‘beautiful’ are often associated in a library user’s mind with their experience of serendipitous discovery which took place while they were browsing a library’s physical book stacks. Sadler further linked the concept of serendipitous discovery with the concept of ‘flow’ by Csikszentmihalyi and asked the audience how libraries can create such state of flow with their digital collections by improving their interfaces.

One of the slides from Bess Sadler’s Closing Keynote

This was a very interesting question to me because I have been mostly thinking about the concept of flow in the context of library services (and more specifically, gamification applied to libraries) and the usability of the systems that serve a library’s online resources.

The most annoying thing about the e-resources that today’s libraries offer is that the systems where these resources reside do not smoothly fit into anyone’s research workflow. How can you get into a zone when the database you are in keeps popping up a message asking if you want to renew the session or demands two or three different authentications for access? How can you feel the sense of smooth flow of thought in your head when you have to navigate from one system to another with puzzling and unwieldy interfaces in order to achieve simple tasks such as importing a few references or finding the full-text of the citation you found in an e-book or an online journal you were reading?

Today’s research environment that libraries offers with its electronic resources is riddled with so many irritating usability failures (often represented by too many options none of whose functions are clear) that we can almost safely say that it is designed anything but for the ‘flow’ experience. The fact that these resources’ interfaces are designed by library system vendors and light years outdated compared to the interfaces available for individual consumers and that librarians have little or no control over them only exacerbate the problem. So I always associated the concept of flow with usability in the library context. And considering how un-user-friendly the research environment offered by today’s libraries is overall, asking for ‘joyous,’ ‘immersive,’ or ‘beautiful’ appeared to me to be a pretty tall order.

But more importantly, the obstacles to the ‘flow’ experience are not unique to online resources or digital libraries. Similar problems do exist in the physical collections as well. When I was a grad student, the largest library collection in North America was available to me. But I hated lugging back and forth a dozen periodicals and monographs between my apartment and the university just to get them renewed. (This was the time before the online renewal!) After the delightful moment of finding out in the online catalog that those rare scholarly books that I want are indeed available somewhere in that large library system at Harvard, I grumbled at the prospect of either navigating the claustrophobic rows and rows of stacks at Widener Library in order to locate those precious copies or running to a different library on campus that is at least a half mile away. At those times, the pleasure of browsing the dusty stacks or the joy of a potential serendipitous discovery was the last thing that I cared for. I was very much into my research and exactly for that reason, if I could, I would have gladly selected the delivery option of those books that I wanted to save time and get into my research flow as soon as possible. And I did so as soon as my university library started moving many books to an off-site storage and delivering them on-demand next day at a circulation desk. I know that many faculty at academic institutions strongly protest against moving a library’s physical collection to an off-site storage. But I confess that many times when the library catalog showed the book I wanted as located on the stacks and not at the off-site storage, I groaned instead of being delighted. I won’t even discuss what it was like to me to study in a library carrel. As an idea, it is a beautiful one to be immersed in research readings in a carrel; in reality, the chair is too hard, the space is too dark and claustrophobic, the air is stale, and the coffee supply is, well, banned near the stacks where those carrels are. Enough said.

The point I am trying to make is that we often romanticize our interaction with the physical stacks in a library. The fact that we all love the library stacks and carrels doesn’t necessarily mean that we love them for the reasons we cite. More often than not, what we really like and miss about the library stacks and carrels is not their actual practical utility to our research process but the ambiance. Strand, the used bookstore in NYC is famous for its 18 miles of books. Would you walk along the 18 miles of books even if you know in advance that you are not going to make any serendipitous discovery nor find nothing directly useful for your research topic at hand? Yes you bet. Would you walk by the stacks in Trinity College Library in Dublin, UK even though you are not doing anything related to research? A very few of us would say ‘No’ to such an invitation.

Can you resist walking between these stacks? Our desire doesn’t always correspond to its practical utility.

But the fact that library stacks and browsing them may contribute very little to the actual research output doesn’t mean that the stack-browsing is therefore not useful. To borrow the words of Saint-Exupéry, something is truly useful because it is beautiful (The Little Prince, Ch. 14). Let me explain.

The library book stacks as high as the walls filling up the whole floor generate the sense of awe and adventure in us because it gives us the experience of ‘physically’ surrounded by knowledge. It is magical and magnificent. It is amazing and beautiful. This is where all those emotional adjectives originate. In the library stacks, we get to ‘see’ the knowledge that is much bigger than us, taller than us, and wider than us. (Think of ‘the sublime’ in Kantian aesthetics.) When our sensory organs are engaged this way, we do not experience the boredom and tediousness that we usually feel when we scroll up and down a very long list of databases and journals on a library web page. We pause, we admire, and we look up and down. We are engrossed by the physicality of the stacks and the books on them. And suddenly all our attention is present and focused on that physicality. So much so that we even forget that we were there to find a certain book or to work on a certain research topic. It is often at these moments that we serendipitously stumble upon something relevant to what we were looking for but have forgotten to do so. Between the magnificent tall stacks filled with books, you are distracted from your original mission (of locating a particular book) but are immersed in this new setting at the same time. The silence, the high ceiling, the Gothic architectural style of an old library building, and the stacks that seems to go on forever in front of us. These are all elements that can be conducive to a serendipitous discovery but “if and only if” we allow ourselves to be influenced by them. On the other hand, if you are zooming in on a specific book, all of this visual magnificence could be a nuisance and a bother. To a scholar who can’t wait to read all of the readings after physically collecting them first, the collection process is a chore at best. To this person, neither a serendipitous discovery nor the state of ‘flow’ would be no doubt more difficult to happen in between the stacks.

If this is a relatively accurate description of a serendipitous discovery that we experience while browsing the physical collection on library book-stacks, what we really miss about the traditional library space may well be the physicality of its collection, the physical embodiment of the abstract concept of knowledge and information in abundance, and its effect on our mental state, which renders our mind more susceptible to a serendipitous discovery. And what we are most unhappy about the digital form of knowledge and information offered by today’s libraries could be that it is not presented in the space and environment where we can easily tune our mind into the content of such digital knowledge and information. It is the same Classical Greek text that you see when you pull out an old copy of Plato’s Meno in the narrow passage between tall book-stacks at Widener and when you pull up the text on your computer screen from the Perseus Digital Library. It is our state of mind influenced by the surroundings and environment that is different. That state of mind that we miss is not entirely dictated but heavily influenced by the environment we are present. We become different people at different places, as Alain de Botton says in his book, The Architecture of Happiness (Ch 1). Who can blame a library user when s/he finds it hard to transform a computer screen (which takes her to many digital collections and online resources from a library as well as all sorts of other places for entertainment and distraction) into the secluded and sacred space for thought and contemplation?

Using Perseus Digital Library is way more efficient for research and study the classical Greek texts than using the physical collection on your stacks. However, we still miss and need the experience of browsing the physical collection on the stacks.

How to facilitate the ‘flow’ and serendipity in today’s libraries

The fact that today’s libraries no longer control the physical surroundings of a library patron who is making use of their resources doesn’t mean that there are nothing libraries can do to make the research environment facilitate serendipitous discoveries and the state of ‘flow’ in a researcher’s mind, however. Today’s libraries offer many different systems for library users to access their online resources. As I have mentioned above, the interfaces of these systems can use some vast improvement in usability. When there are as few hindrances as possible for a library patron to get to what s/he is looking for either online or at the physical library space, s/he would be able to concentrate on absorbing the content more easily instead of being bogged down with procedures. The seamless interoperability between different systems would be very much desirable for researchers. So, improving the usability of library systems will take library patrons one step closer to obtaining the flow state in their research while using library resources online.

As far as the physical space of a library is concerned, libraries need to pay more attention to how the space and the environment of a library emotionally affects library patrons. Not all research and study is best performed by group-study or active discussion. Baylor University Libraries, for example, designate three different zones in their space: Silent, Quiet, and Active. While libraries transform more of their traditional stack-and-carrel space into vibrant group study rooms and conversation-welcoming open spaces, they also need to preserve the sense of the physical environment and surroundings for library patrons, because after all, all of us desire the feeling of being in a sacred and dedicated space for contemplation and deep thoughts from time to time. Such space is becoming rarer and rarer nowadays. Where else would people look for such space if not a library, which the public often equate to a building that embodies the vast amount of knowledge and resources in the physical form.

Facilitating the serendipitous discovery in browsing a library collection in the digital environment is more tricky because of the limitation of the current display mechanisms for digital information. In emulating the experience of browsing books in the physical form on a computer screen, the Google WebGL Bookcase has made some progress. But it would be much more efficient combined with a large display mechanism that allows a user to control and manipulate information and resources with gestures and bodily movements, perhaps something similar to what we have seen in the movie, Minority Report. However, note that information does not have to be bound in the form of books in the digital environment and that digital books do not have to be represented as a book with pages to thumb through and the spine where its title is shown . If we set aside the psychological factors that contribute to the occurrence of a serendipitous discovery, what is essential to efficient browsing boils down to how easily (i) we can scan through many different books (or information units such as a report or an article) quickly and effectively and (ii) zoom in/out and switch between the macro level (subjects, data types, databases, journals, etc) and the micro level (individual books, articles, photographs, etc. and their content). If libraries can succeed in designing and offering such interfaces for digital information consumption and manipulation, the serendipitous discovery and the efficient browsing in the digital library environment can not only match but even exceed that in the physical library book-stacks.

 

Responding to Change

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Courant, Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, and John Unsworth, vice provost for Library and Technology Services at Brandeis University, speak on The Hathi Trust, Google Books, and the Future of Research. The event was the part of the BNN Symposium on the Future of the Academy sponsored by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP), the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), and the Boston Library Consortium (BLC).

The theme of the day was institutional responses to technological change: how do we keep libraries relevant in supporting research? How can emerging technologies enable new kinds of research using traditional materials? How can we take advantage of changing technologies while preserving our values and services? This event was a great opportunity for thinking about these questions from a big-picture perspective.

Courant had a few central messages to his talk, which I summarize and comment on below. His words, paraphrased, are in italics, and my thoughts and questions follow.

  • Technology is a set of mechanisms that get you from input to output. Libraries produce value by making things reusable and sharing them; that’s a technology. We’re all using technology; there’s no such thing as a “technophobe.” Hardware and software, devices and databases, are all tools that function within this technology. Books are a technology: they move ideas along, from authorial input to reader output.
  • In a disrupted world, build things to see what works. Don’t wait for all the ducks to line up in a row. Dedicate time and energy for new initiatives, but don’t require that they be perfect, or have buy-in from an entire organization. Create and support spaces that enable experimental projects. (Is the Harvard Library Lab still operational? Are there others?) Learn from the things that don’t work.
  • The old system doesn’t tell you what to build. What do we do because we’ve always done it? Are there traditions (services, functions, processes) that we preserve for their own sake? What is worth preserving and what can we leave behind?
  • Look to purposes, not to things, although things can be the only way to some purposes. Is a traditional reference desk the only way to provide drop-in research help? What are other ways that we can provide time-of-need assistance? Must we be in the physical space of the library to provide this kind of help? Or does having a physical service desk in the centralized public space of the reading room encourage patrons to use librarians’ services? Does the presence of a reference desk enable user interactions that wouldn’t happen otherwise?
  • The library isn’t there for itself; it’s there to enable scholarship and learning. This is one of the “no-brainers” that I forget sometimes, especially with collection development. Creating an ideal collection with its own integrity can be very rewarding, but so can assembling connections to materials that enable and enrich research, teaching, and learning.
  • Preserve outcomes, not business models. Use the language of learning outcomes to help shape the direction of new projects. What do we want users to be able to do as a result of this service or product? What do users want to be able to do? How can we meet those needs using the resources we have?

Evaluating Research By the Numbers

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bonnie Swoger, Science and Technology Librarian at the State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo. She blogs at The Undergraduate Science Librarian.

Last week I taught an information literacy class to a group of senior Chemistry students. We didn’t talk about databases or indexes, we talked about numbers. We talked about impact factors and h-indexes and alternative metrics, and the students loved it. Librarians have used these metrics for years in collection development, and have looked them up to help faculty with tenure and promotion packets. But many librarians don’t know where the numbers come from, or what some of the criticisms are.

The students in this class needed to select a research topic, and the professor was tired of reading about obscure and “uninteresting” topics. He wanted his students to be able to find out what’s “hot” right now in chemical research.

At this level, the students are just starting to develop a sense about the nature of chemical research. It is hard for them to look at a journal article and know if that item is “hot” (or not). Librarians are often in the same boat. But there are some strategies for helping non-specialists do this. One is to look at science news sites such as C&E News, and the news wings of Science and Nature.

Another strategy is to make use of the metrics used to quantitatively assess journals, authors and articles.

We started the class by talking about the Journal Impact Factor (JIF) developed by Eugene Garfield and Irving Sher almost 50 years ago (see this article for the history of the JIF). It is a simple calculation:

JIF = Number of Citations/Number of articles

I had asked the students to read a brief commentary prior to class discussing the use (and abuse) of this metric, and in class we discussed some of criticisms of the number:

  • The numerator and denominator count different things (commentary articles are included in the numerator but not the denominator, so a journal can get an extra boost if commentary-type articles are cited)
  • The publication of review articles can quickly increase the impact factor because they are more likely to be cited.

These students were particularly interested in how the JIF could be manipulated and intrigued to learn about the story of how a single article increased the impact factor of Acta Crystallographia – Section A from 2 to 50 in a single year.

Importantly, we talked about how the impact factor was never meant to assess individual articles or authors.

So we explored alternatives.

The h-index was first suggested by physicist Jorge Hirsch, and and is now sometimes used to assess the influence of particular authors.

It works like this: Let’s say that professor Jane Smith has published 5 articles. Each article has been cited a different number of times:

Article Citations
Article 1 9
Article 2 10
Article 3 4
Article 4 2
Article 5 1

The h-index is the number that fills in the phrase “x number of articles have been cited x number of times.” In this case, we can easily say that 3 of Jane’s papers have been cited at least 3 times, so she has an h-index of 3. The major citation indexes (Scopus, Web of Knowledge) can calculate this number easily.

Like all other measures, h-index isn’t perfect. It never decreases, even as a researcher’s influence in their field decreases. It favors fields that tend to have larger numbers of authors on each paper (like high energy physics), and it can easily be manipulated by citing your own papers (or those of your friends and relatives). It does provide a way to try to sort out those authors who just write a lot from those authors who write a lot of good stuff.

We then turned to a brief discussion about some of the alternative metrics now being proposed by various journals and publishers. Some of the simplest measures in this category are the number of on-site views of an article and the number of times a PDF has been downloaded. Other tools include article ratings, comments, and how many times an article has been bookmarked. I think these developments are exciting, and it will be interesting to see how scholars react as more publishers offer these services.

Of course, none of these numbers are useful without context. Is an impact factor of 12 in organic chemistry considered good or bad? What about an h-index of 7 for a cancer researcher? And when an article is downloaded 457 times, what does that actually mean?

At the end of the class, I gave students an article citation and asked to students to determine if the research topic (and the article) was “hot” or not. They were asked to find some of the relevant metrics, and asked to provide a bit of background to give some context to their numbers. They had fun exploring the numbers, and I think they felt more confident in their ability to determine how important or buzz-worthy their prospective research topics might be as a result of our in-class discussion.

The numbers without context aren’t very helpful. But if you can find the numbers, and gain a sense of context, they can help non-specialists gain a sense of perspective about particular journals, authors and articles.