Tag Archives: citations

Finding Footnotes and Chasing Citations

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes an essay by Alexandra Horowitz straightforwardly-titled Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?, in which she laments that footnotes become endnotes when books move from paper to screen. Horowitz suggests that while this change means that the main text of a book may be more easily read from start to finish, something is lost when the intrusive interruption of a footnote morph into the more easily ignored endnote. After all, how many people actually read endnotes?

This article reminded me of one published last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about link rot and footnote flight (paywall alert), which made some of the same points for academic texts that Horowitz makes for popular books: electronic writing may suffer from both losing footnotes as well as from link rot, in which hyperlinks go dead over time as the site or page linked to is moved or abandoned.

Both the conversion of footnotes to endnotes and link rot can affect anyone reading a text, scholars and students alike. For scholars, I have to assume that if the information is valuable enough to be used in a research project, the researcher will have the tenacity to track down the necessary sources, whether that means jumping back and forth between endnotes and the main text or searching for the new home of a page at the dead end of a link. While it can sometimes be annoying to have to spend time chasing citations, I think many scholars actually enjoy this kind of work (or maybe I’m just looking at the task through my librarian-glasses?).

Students are busy, so I’d bet that they’re less invested in reading endnotes in electronic texts (and even footnotes in print books), and more likely to see them as an aside or as unnecessary. Of course students are very familiar with jumping from link to link on the web, and now that web browsers support tabbed browsing the process of moving between hyperlinks and the main text can come very close to the experience of reading a print volume with footnotes. And what about Wikipedia, where hyperlinks and endnotes abound? It’s easy to draw parallels between the Notes and References at the bottom of most Wikipedia entries and the same in scholarly texts. Maybe electronic texts can effectively be used to encourage students to chase down those citations and read those extra words in footnotes and endnotes.

Citations Needed

Yesterday there was a fascinating article on Inside Higher Ed about a presentation at the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication. The presentation reported on research undertaken by composition faculty members Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson in their Citation Project, which focuses on understanding how students approach their research writing to help instructors help students avoid plagiarism. Their research team reviewed 160 introductory English Composition papers from 16 diverse colleges and universities and found that the student papers they examined were full of “patchwriting” — the term they use to describe improper paraphrasing that’s essentially inadvertent plagiarism — and very short on true summarizing.

While the ways in which students incorporate sources into their writing was the primary focus of the study, the researchers also examined student understanding of sources. Here the evidence is equally bleak: students relied heavily on brief documents that were less than five pages long, and most of the material they cited could be found in the beginning of the source, within the first few pages. The Citation Project team found little evidence that students were engaging deeply and thoughtfully with their research sources, rather they were, as the IHE article is titled, skimming the surface.

As many librarians commented when this article link made the rounds on Twitter yesterday, this hardly comes as a shock to us — many of our encounters with students at the reference desk and during instruction sessions corroborate these findings. Still, I admit to a tiny bit of surprise that it seems like librarians were only barely mentioned at the conference presentation:

“Whatever else the Internet has done,” Jamieson continued, “it has made it easier to find sources and harder to tell what’s junk.”

Some in the audience said the findings point to the need to place greater emphasis on teaching students how to select proper sources. “It’s probably not far off to say that their sources are the first hits on Google,” one audience member observed.

Another commenter was not prepared to give up on the 20th-century expectations of student research and citation. “There’s some value to reminding students about the authority on certain subjects that are not in a digital archive,” she said. “What we’ve forgotten is that libraries were the repositories where people made judicious claims about what sources are worth reading.”

What does this mean for academic librarians? While I’m glad we were mentioned tangentially, it hurts a bit to see a faculty discussion about how awful students’ research sources are that doesn’t include librarians. At the recent ACRL Conference I heard lots about our relationships with faculty, which many of us still find to be unsatisfyingly one-sided. There are a variety of strategies we can (and are) try(ing), but everyone’s local conditions are different, and there doesn’t seem to be one silver bullet.

Two other relevant readings I came across yesterday might help. Kim Leeder on In the Library with the Lead Pipe shares practical advice in her post outlining five steps for collaborating with faculty. And Bobbi Newman lets us know about the Great Librarian Write-Out, in which Patrick Sweeney is awarding $250 to a librarian who writes an article about libraries that gets published in a non-library publication.

What other strategies could we try to collaborate with faculty to increase student engagement with research sources? Are there any strategies that have worked well for you?