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

Underground Resource Sharing

One outcome of the Netflix discussion that took place in the library community is that there seems to be general agreement that adhering to licensing agreements is the right thing for academic librarians to do for a number of good reasons. Not only is it a good way to avoid a potential lawsuit from Netflix or a movie studio, but it sets the right example for students and faculty. How can we expect them to abide by fair use guidelines and licensing agreements if the campus librarians are openly flouting them. We need to take the moral high ground, even if Netflix represents a reasonably good solution to the DVD distribution challenge.

So I find it interesting that this blogger is complaining about not having access to JSTOR as an alumnus of some college or university. Dr. Koshary writes:

I didn’t think this would happen, now that I’m out of grad school, but I’m feeling a fresh surge of hatred for Dear Old University. I tried to log in to JSTOR to look up an article, and found that I no longer have access to JSTOR through my DOU affiliation.

I’m pretty sure Dr. Koshary knows that JSTOR is a restricted database, and that most libraries are prohibited from allowing alumni to gain access (unless they make some sort of arrangement which likely isn’t cheap – and Dr. Khosary suspects his alma mater has such an agreement). At the end of the rant against his alma mater he asks:

I don’t suppose any of my readers has a better/cheaper idea for me to regain access to JSTOR?

Turns out they do, and most of those offering advice don’t seem too concerned about taking the moral high ground – or even abiding by their university or library’s guidelines for sharing accounts:

Do what everybody I know who’s been in your position has done: get a friend who has access to a research library and its databases to share their log-in and password with you. I know I’ve helped a few people out in this way, and I’ve done it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. Sure, it’s technically “wrong” but I’d argue that it’s more wrong to charge underemployed people money for access to scholarly resources.

I just ran into this, where my new school has some journal accesses but not many, and I crowdsourced it on facebook — some current Gradschooland students offered me their proxy server login, and another was already in the library and emailed me the pdf.

Everyone does it. Hell, I’ll give you MY login if you want

Virtually everyone I know who’s not employed by a top-tier R1 has a bootlegged EEBO account: through friends who are still grad students, advisors, or friends with cushier jobs.

Makes you wonder why we even bother with licensing agreements in the first place? As long as you can get it for free somewhere else that’s all that matters. Just how rampant is this practice? Wish I had a way to do an anonymous poll of faculty, grad students and alums to see how many think it’s all right to provide or take an account to give someone else free access to restricted resources. Based on this post – probably a lot more than we think. So much for setting good examples.

Caught Between the Old and the New

Over the past academic year I’ve worked on a research project with a colleague to study the ways that students do their scholarly work, similar to the project at the University of Rochester a few years ago. We finished with data collection for this year and are spending the summer analyzing our results. We’ve gotten an additional grant and plan to collect data at a few more sites next year; ultimately we’ll produce a comprehensive analysis of all of our data. But in the short term, we’d like to share our preliminary results and analysis from this year’s research.

Here’s my dilemma: the fastest and most efficient way to disseminate our results is to share them on the website we’ve set up for the project. When I was an archaeologist we wrote up an interim report after each field season and a final report when the project was complete, and I’m thinking along these lines. However, I’m also a junior faculty member on the road to tenure, and the currency of the realm is, of course, the peer-reviewed journal article.

A peer-reviewed article will take considerably more time to be published, up to a year or even longer, especially if our submission isn’t accepted on the first try (as seems true for most article manuscripts). I’m a strong advocate of open access publishing, and it just seems wrong to keep our data to ourselves for all that time. But I do value the peer review process, and while I hope that posting a report on our website would generate comments, there’s no guarantee.

Ideally I’d like to write both a preliminary report, to be posted online by the end of the summer, and a scholarly article, submitted around the same time and (hopefully) published sometime next year. I’m not sure that we have time for both, though. While the summer months are slower in the library, we’re still open, and there are classes and reference desk shifts to staff and programs to plan for next year. So we are probably going to have to focus our energies on just one publication.

As I’ve been thinking on this recently there’s been lots of other news in the world of academic publishing. The University of California proposed a possible faculty boycott of the Nature Publishing Group. And an unusual scholarly publishing project came out of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: Hacking the Academy, a book that gathered all of its submissions in just one week. I can’t help but think that we’re in an odd scholarly communication moment right now, stuck between old and new worlds of knowledge dissemination, and I’m not always sure how to chart my course.

The High Fidelity Challenge

Students no longer care about using high quality information.

Students are all too willing to satisfice for whatever content they can find along the path of least resistance.

Students are too dependent on search tools that facilitate their use of low quality sources.

These are common concerns we academic librarians have about our undergraduates. We lament that they’ve abandoned high quality library-supported resources for those that are easy to find and use but which offer lower quality content. As we’ve been told,convenience trumps quality, and our students often prove it’s true. Turns out that we are far from the only ones combatting this problem. I discovered a similar situation unfolding in an unexpected place, the hi-fidelity music industry. What’s happened is that the new generation is content to listen to music on mp3 players, but mp3s have the worst sound quality of any audio medium (e.g., CDs,DVDs,vinyl). Why is a new generation choosing to listen to poor quality music instead of opting for readily available alternate formats that offer superior quality?

In the literature of user experience, high fidelity refers to more than the quality of music. It refers to the practice of offering products or services that are high quality in nature, but which typically come with higher costs or less convenience. So why would anyone prefer high fidelity? It’s simple. Those who are passionate – or at least care – about quality tend to choose high over low fidelity. That explains the success of Starbucks in a world where cheap coffee is abundant. More academic libraries are exploring the creation of a great library experience. Some have added a new position with dedicated responsibility for the oversight of an improved user experience. There is no one user experience for academic libraries, but it’s likely we’d aim for an information seeking experience defined by “high fidelity”.

According to a New York Times article about the decline of interest in listening to music on high fidelity devices:

From 2000 to 2009, Americans reduced their overall spending on home stereo components by more than a third, to roughly $960 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. Spending on portable digital devices during that same period increased more than fiftyfold, to $5.4 billion. “People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner.

No one in the industry is quite sure how to change the way people listen to music or understands what would encourage them to move back to high fidelity music – in the way that appreciating music played on high quality devices was prominent in the 1950s. If anything, new research suggests that over time the younger generation is just adapting to lower quality sound. According to the article, Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, said he had conducted an informal study among his students and found that, over the roughly seven years of the study, an increasing number of them preferred the sound of files with less data over the high-fidelity recordings.

Is there a parallel phenomena in our undergraduates? Have they become so accustomed to retrieving an avalanche of information for just about any search they perform that they’ve lost the ability of past generations to distinguish between high and low fidelity? It’s a good question and perhaps one we need to explore further through research. But for now perhaps our best strategy is to follow the path of those who offer high fidelity experiences. They know they they can’t reach everyone. They know the majority will be satisfied with low fidelity. But they also know a minority of individuals, those with a passion for more, will continue to seek out a quality experience. It’s the minority that’s keeping them in business.

Discovery engines like Summon and EBSCO Discovery Service may be the modern equivalent of a low fidelity search system, like mp3 players that have lousy sound quality – but the vast majority pay it no mind. They at least are a step above web search engines so we can feel better about them and tell ourselves they make a difference (e.g., something is better than nothing), and that there is indeed a possibility they will lead a student to discover a resource about which he or she previously knew nothing. And what about the high fidelity resources and services we offer? We need to recognize the undergraduates and graduates who are passionate about research, and concentrate our efforts on introducing them to and helping them develop their passion for high fidelity. Just as there will always be music aficionados who appreciate better sound, we’ll have members of our community who appreciate better resources. Let’s not forget that we have something of value to offer them.

Impact Factors Adjusted for Reality

An interesting study forthcoming in the September issue of C&RL tackles the question of how our scholarship is evaluated by tenure and promotion committees. As a tenured librarian in a department in which half of the faculty are currently working toward tenure, this question intrigues me. Fortunately, my non-librarian colleagues at my institution do not take a bean-counter approach to assessing scholarship. I’ve served on the committee and have seen first-hand that there’s no talk of “impact factor” and having published a book is not a mechanical substitute for evaluating the significance of a faculty member’s intellectual work and potential for future engagement with ideas.

The authors describe the way Oregon State University has adopted Boyer’s definition of scholarship – which embraces not just discovery of new knowledge, but application, teaching, and integration. After examining what librarians have been doing, they concluded the problem isn’t being productive, it’s explaining the “breadth and impact” of librarians’ scholarly work. This includes not only traditionally-published research, but additional modes of communicating ideas.

Blogs are vehicles to teach and communicate to both broad and specific audiences. Their format precludes them being taken seriously as scholarship in current tenure review processes, but their content often demonstrates engagement and suggests impact in ways rarely seen in the print library journal. This raises questions about the concept of format and vehicle. Expanding acceptance of new forms of communication along with reconsidering what constitutes scholarship will benefit librarianship as a whole. A first step is accepting open-access, peer reviewed journals as outlets of high impact and validity. The next step will be integrating non-traditional peer reviewed work such as blogs that have an active readership and generate comments and commentary.

The outsourcing of faculty evaluation by peers – relying on university presses and journal rankings to determine whether a colleague is worthy or not – has contributed to the problem libraries find themselves in: having to somehow fund access to a bloated body of research, much of which is only produced to gain job security. (Two years ago an MLA survey found a third of institutions required progress toward publishing a second book. This, when libraries’ budgets can’t keep up with bare necessities.)

Maybe in a backhanded way the work we do, documented in a way that people in other disciplines can understand, could provide a model for sanity.

CC-licensed image courtesy of Kristina B.

Beware Of Overconfidence

I hope you took some time to take a look at the latest ECAR report on undergraduates and their use of and attitudes about technology. In addition to Barbara’s post and some good discussion over at COLLIB-L, I commented (on the discussion list) that I had brought up some of the same issues in my ACRLog post about the 2008 ECAR study, and that not much has seemed to change in two areas: (1) student use of the library website and (2) students self-reporting high levels of research and information evaluation skills.

Students reporting they have outstanding research skills is nothing particularly new, and it certainly shouldn’t surprise us because having an exaggerated sense of your own capabilities is just one more innate human failing. I recall a small study I performed for a research methods course I was taking in 1993 or so. At the time I was working at a library where we allowed students to search Dialog using the classroom instruction program. Now you would probably agree that searching Dialog is just a bit more difficult than searching the Web. But in a survey of students who used Dialog at least once a week, approximately 90% reported that their search skills were as good as or better than those of professional librarians. They either had a highly inflated sense of their own skills or they severely underestimated just how skilled the librarians were at searching Dialog. As part of the research project I had the students and librarians conduct the same searches, and the students came not even remotely close to doing as well as the librarians. But in their minds, the students thought they were just as good or better.

Part of the problem that afflicts all of us is a bad case of overconfidence. Maybe, just maybe, do you think that the economic collapse of 2008 may have been caused by a slight case of some financial gurus being overconfident in their ability to maintain control over a complex mix of investment and economic risks, as well as totally unpredictable human behavior. In fact, some recent research indicates that many high-profile disasters (think world wars, Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina, etc.) can be blamed on human overconfidence. You probably see this all the time. In almost any survey in which people judge their abilities, say on a scale of 1 to 10, everyone is above average. At a presentation I attended some years ago, the speaker shared the results of studies that suggested you could predict in advance that anytime people were asked to rate themselves on anything (e.g., how well do you drive) the mean would be 7.7 – and that it was statistically impossible for that many people to be above average. If we’re all above average drivers who is that person making a right-hand turn from the left lane?

But here’s the funny thing about overconfidence. Despite the inherent risks of overestimating your abilities at just about anything – and when students overestimate the quality of their research skills they can turn in a pretty dismal final product – the researchers who studied overconfidence believe there is a clear advantage to being overconfident. Not surprisingly you’ll find others who don’t see it this way, such as this NYT op-ed columnist who points out that government overconfidence is to blame for misguided thinking in the current handling of the executive compensation mess. Overconfident individuals, suggest the researchers, are likely to have a clear competitive advantage over ordinary individuals. “Overconfidence boosts ambition, resolve, morale and persistence…and the greater the risk the more overconfident individuals become.” That doesn’t sound like such a good thing to me.

Despite what the researchers have to say, I’m going to come down on the side of advocating we should beware of overconfidence, both in ourselves and our students. I don’t know to what extent it might be helpful to share the ECAR study’s relevant results with our students. Perhaps it never helps to try to warn someone of the dangers of being overconfident; we just can ‘t seem to help ourselves. But I do think it would benefit us professionally to be mindful of our own flaws when it comes to being overconfident. In Jim Collins’ latest book, How the Mighty Fall, he profiles companies that were at the top of their industries but subsequently went through the five stages of decline. Some were able to recover before becoming completely obsolete. In nearly all the cases the decline begins with overconfidence, too much risk taking, resting on one’s past accomplishments and thinking they could do nothing wrong. Did we academic librarians become overconfident about the ongoing loyalty of our user community? Did our overconfidence blind us to the almost certain likelihood that our users would become more enamored with search engines than what we had to offer them? Looking back at how academic libraries transformed from having a near monopoly on providing access to information for their communities to a state where we are now just one possible resource among many, and quite possibly not even the most valued resource, we may have allowed our overconfidence to lead us into thinking that our user community members would always be loyal to us and value our resources over all others. That’s not how it turned out and we paid the price. At one time few academic administrators or faculty would have questioned the need for an academic library. Now we find ourselves having to justify our right to exist.

So the next time you are asked to rate yourself on anything, or to rate your library’s importance to the user community be mindful of the dangers of overconfidence. Should you ask your students to rate themselves as information researchers – be prepared for some exaggeration. But as savvy academic librarians, I think we will find a way to turn it into a teachable moment.