Don’t be Fooled by the Factor

Today’s Wall Street Journal (free) has a good overview of the many techniques that scientific journals can use to manipulate their impact factor, such as blatantly asking authors to cite more studies the journal has already published to limiting citations to outside journals. Thomson Scientific is releasing new impact factors this month, and it’s important to not be too slavish in basing collection develoment decisions on impact factors, as well as to remember that it’s not only Google that can manipulate what knowledge rises to the top.

For a recent stinging rebuke of citation citing in the humanities, see Harvard University Press executive editor Lindsay Waters’ Lure of the List ($) in the Chronicle. Waters takes the journal Critical Inquiry to task for using “very likely bogus social-science tools” and substituting “accounting methods for critical judgment” in order to rank the most important literary theorists.

Where Academic Librarians Are Having – And Can Have – An Impact

Two news stories in today’s Inside Higher Ed, neither of which is about academic libraries, got me thinking about ways in which our libraries are having and can have ongoing positive impacts on our faculty and students.

Let’s consider the impact our academic libraries do have on higher education. The first of the two articles reports a new National Bureau of Economic Research study titled “Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge?”. In this study three scholars examined evidence that the Internet — by allowing professors to work with ease with scholars across the country and not just across the quad — is leading to a spreading of academic talent at many more institutions than has been the case in the past. In other words, being a top researcher in one’s discipline is no longer dependent on where the scholar works as in the past. The study, which focused on finance and economics, found that in the 1970s being at a top 25 university had a direct impact on faculty research productivity. By the 1990s, owing largely the the distributive and connective power of the Internet, the top university edge had largely disappeared. There are two factors at play. The one that is more prominently discussed in the report relates to the ability of faculty at almost any institution to more easily connect and communicate with peers. The report shows that the co-authoring of authors from elite and non-elite institutions nearly doubled between the 1970s and 2004. It appears that affiliation with a top institution is no longer a key factor in achieving research productivity. I’d also like to think that the productivity of researchers at non-elite institutions has been largely impacted by the academic library’s ability to provide high quality research databases. There’s no question that in this area the technology playing field has leveled. Certainly, well resourced elite universities have more robust collections of research databases, but owing to consortia deals and statewide initiatives many more non-elite libraries have greatly increased the breadth and depth of their electronic collections. At my own small university library we can now provide our faculty electronic access to nearly 20,000 full-text journals, many scholarly in nature, something unimaginable just 10 years ago. There is more than ample anecdotal evidence that this promotes research productivity. I haven’t seen the actual NBER paper so I can’t say what is does or doesn’t report about the role of the library in promoting research productivity at non-elite institutions, but if it doesn’t say much it seems we should take it upon ourselves to conduct similar research aimed at showing how academic library electronic collections (and our added value in making them accessible and teaching others how to get the most out of them) – and not just the Internet – have contributed to the leveling of the playing field.

The other story reports on the outcome of administrative hearings into the “rampant and flagrant plagiarism” by graduate students at Ohio University’s mechanical engineering department. According to the Inside Higher Ed report an internal investigation concluded that three faculty members either “failed to monitor” their advisees’ writing or “basically supported academic fraudulence” by ignoring the dishonesty. The report by the two-person review team called for the dismissal of two professors, and university officials said they would bring in a national expert on plagiarism to advise them. I question if national experts are needed when Ohio University’s academic librarians could collaborate with the faculty in this and other departments to develop mechanisms to prevent and/or detect student plagiarism. As some commenters to this story will no doubt ask, why are the faculty members being punished when the students are the ones who committed the crime. Since it appears the plagiarism in this department was significant, long term and deeply embedded in the student culture, perhaps “here’s how to prevent plagiarism” workshops by librarians would be challenged to provide a solution. Still, how many of the students didn’t know how to properly use material from prior dissertations, how to paraphrase, properly cite other’s work or lacked the skills that librarians can teach that would have helped to prevent accidental or intentional plagiarism? The awareness and skills that both students and faculty need to help prevent plagiarism are found within the academic library (often taught in collaboration with our teaching and learning center colleagues). This seems like an area where we can do more to make a difference in preventing future plagiarism scandals like this one.

Trends in the Humanities: Periodical Studies

We’ve focused a lot on technology and administration so far in this blog, but ACRL is full of reference and subject librarians who also need to keep up on general trends in scholarship in the academic disciplines in order to perform liaison work, answer reference questions, and build rich, up-to-date collections.

The March issue of the Publications of the Modern Language Association includes an article about the emergence of a new field directly relevant to academic libraries: periodical studies. (Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies” 517-532.)

The idea behind periodical studies is that a scholar examines the complete contents of a periodical as a whole instead of viewing periodicals as containers for individual articles. A researcher in this field would look at what articles, essays, stories, letters, advertisments etc. were published in a periodical and why, and how the periodical and its readers shaped and were shaped by the broader culture of the time.

One force driving this new field is large-scale digitization projects. Digitization projects of runs of periodicals include both those that are freely available such as the Spectator Project and the Modernist Journals Project; and those by huge corporations such as Thomson Gale’s archive of the London Times, and ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers and British Periodicals.

The authors of the article point out some of the challenges of searching these digital archives (not enough metadata, errors in the full-text make for problematic full-text searches) and bring attention to “the hole in the archive” problem: the complete omission of advertisements, which for scholars in cultural studies are often more interesting than the articles. The authors offer these guidelines for digital archiving:

– Start with the original issues.
– Present images of all pages from cover to cover.
– Generate metadata for advertisements along with other features.
– Include the verbal parts of advertising as text for searching to the extent that typography allows.
– On the visible pages, highlight hits in searches.

The RLG-OCLC Merger: Research Library Perspective

When our blog team heard about the RLG-OCLC merger news last week we thought it deserved some commentary at ACRLog. Seeking a colleague with more RLG expertise, I asked Beth Picknally Camden, Director of the Goldstein Information Processing Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt Library, to share her thoughts about the merger, organizationally,from the perspective of the research library, and personally, as a longtime RLG constituent. Here is Beth’s reflection on the merger:

When I first heard about the RLG-OCLC merger on Wednesday, my reaction was a feeling of surprise, but not surprise. RLG holds a special place in the hearts of research libraries that may not be well understood by non-members. My perspective is from one who has worked in institutions on both sides of the fence. Unlike OCLC (which claims to be a member organization, but whose large size make it more accurately a vendor) RLG’s small size has allowed it to truly work for its membership on the very issues which make research libraries unique. RLG encouraged innovative developments and supported special-purpose cataloging for its members.

RLG was the leader in including non-Roman languages in its catalog. Starting with Chinese, Japanese and Korean scripts in the early 1980s, and adding Cyrillic, Hebrew and Arabic scripts by the early 1990s, RLG was well ahead of OCLC for many years (and light-years ahead of local system vendors). Later, RLG provided Z39.50 access to not only its bibliographic database, but also its authority files. For many years (perhaps still), the RLIN authority file was the only source of Z39.50-accessible authority records—an incredibly useful tool for members and non-members. More recently, RLG’s RedLightGreen project ( ) demonstrated the power and promise of FRBR as a user interface tool for library catalogs.

RLG’s support of archival and manuscript cataloging made it the preferred choice for institutions with this type of collection. Rather than limiting the record length, field length and number of total fields, RLIN allowed for the richness and complexity needed to fully describe unique archival and manuscript collections (while OCLC’s database rules forced unsatisfactory truncation of the same records).

The most distinct difference between OCLC’s WorldCat and the RLIN Union Catalog is the use of record-clusters. OCLC’s master record forces a one-size-fits-all approach to cataloging that works just fine for a good percentage of items, but falls short when the master record lacks call number or subject headings. For workflow reasons, many OCLC libraries choose not to enhance or enrich records, leaving each library to supply the missing data (the most costly part of cataloging). In contrast, RLIN record clusters show all member libraries’ records, allowing other libraries to quickly find one which includes the data which may be lacking from the initial record. Unlike OCLC, enriched records from RLG tape-loading libraries are also included in the cluster. So, record upgrades are not lost by choosing a more efficient workflow. (The downside of the record cluster can be the time spent picking and choosing the perfect record to meet your needs).

I began by saying that this announcement gave me a feeling of ‘surprise but not surprise’. This sense of not being surprised was echoed in many of the conversations that I had with other librarians last week. Colleagues commented that they had ‘predicted this’ or they had ‘just been discussing this possibility’. This comes from a growing sense of disenchantment with RLG, due to the frustrations of the RLIN21 upgrade. In my institution, and perhaps in others, staff have ‘voted with their fingers’ in using the utility which allows them to keep up with production levels.

In some ways, it’s the feeling you have when the mom-and-pop grocery or neighborhood pharmacy goes out of business due to competition with a new “big box” mega-store. You’ll miss the special services, and the sense of being known (or a part of the family), but you also know that you’ll spend less and have more variety. The RLG-OCLC merger gives me the same sense of loss, but as a business decision, it makes perfect sense.

Thank you Beth for your contribution to ACRLog!

Censorship at the Department of Education?

For the past few years, many ACRL members have been concerned about changes to the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education and with the direction of federally-supported programs like the National Library of Education and ERIC. For those who have not followed these issues, let me recommend the EBSS ERIC News site and a brief story that appeared in Education Week (“Basement No Bargain for Agency Library,” January 29, 2003).

The March issue of Educational Researcher carries a disturbing essay by Alan H. Schoenfeld (UC-Berkeley) on the possibility that the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences may have been involved in an attempt to squelch the publication of essays critical of one its recent innovations, the What Works Clearinghouse.

From the abstract:

“An early version of this article . . . was written for the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), which funds WWC, instructed WWC not to publish it. An expanded version, written at WWC’s invitation for a special issue of an independent electronic journal and a book to be published by WWC, argued that methodological problems rendered some WWC mathematics reports potentially misleading and/or uninterpretable. IES instructed WWC staff not to publish their chapters – thus canceling the publication of the special issue and the book. Those actions, chronicled here, raise important questions concerning the role of federal agencies and their contracting organizations in suppressing scientific research that casts doubt on current or intended federal policy.”

Talk about an “open access” problem!

For those following the direct link above, please note that there are additional materials (including a response from WWC staff) available from the home page for the March 2006 issue.