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.

More On Learning What Users Really Want

Previously ACRLog has discussed the use of new methods to better understand our users and what they really need – as opposed to what we think they need. The use of ethnographic research for this purpose was reported in the computer industry and in a library. Last week’s issue of BusinessWeek featured an article titled “The Science of Desire” about the growth of ethnography in the corporate world. As one expert put it, “Ethnography has escaped from academia, where it has been held hostage.” The article profiles a variety of firms that are using ethnography to study their customers and then use what is learned to improve existing products or develop new ones. From the article:

The beauty of ethnography, say its proponents, is that it provides a richer understanding of consumers than does traditional research. Yes, companies are still using focus groups, surveys, and demographic data to glean insights into the consumer’s mind. But closely observing people where they live and work, say executives, allows companies to zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires.

You might not get that excited reading about a company that used ethnography to perfect a tool to help consumers do a better job of clearning their bathroom, but with so many companies – and service industries such as hotels – using ethnography to transform how they think about their users and develop services for them – it might get you thinking that ethnography might just be a powerful tool for improving how academic libraries deliver resources and services to their user communities.

A Real 21st Century ALA Conference – At Last

ALA announced today that it has contracted with the New Orleans Convention Center to offer wifi connectivity throughout the entire convention center for the duration of the annual conference. Wifi will be offered everywhere except the exhibit hall. The press release states:

In order to use the in-house wifi you must have a wifi-enabled device. Simply open your browser and you will be logged on to the center’s server, and you will then be free to browse just as you would in other public wifi situations. This service is provided for basic internet use like browsing and checking email. This is not meant for use with VPN or other point-to-point communications.

That should make it easier for all the bloggers to instantly post their program reports. Now, if ALA can next do something about the minuscule number of desktop computers provided to attendees at the convention center it will begin to feel like we’ve got some real technology in the house.

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.

Is This New OCLC Report Worth It?

When the OCLC Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources report first appeared in December 2005 I pointed out some of the findings about college students included in that report. I suggested that although the overall conclusions of the report were somewhat dismal, I was encouraged that college students, when compared to the general population, appeared more knowledgeable about their institutional library; for them it wasn’t just about books. Now OCLC has issued a version of the Perceptions study, a subset of data, that examines the information-seeking habits and preferences of international college students. This data comes from just the 396 college students who participated in the study. I guess the question is, given that much of the data is a subset of the original report, how much do I gain by getting a copy of this new report. Will I discover any new and eye opening revelations?

The page describing the new report does indicate there are new graphs and additional analysis. That could certainly be helpful. What I liked about the original is that comparisons between college and public library users could be distinguished reasonably well. Afer looking over some of the new report’s sections I would say OCLC has retained the comparisons in a good way. I found it easy to see that college students report going to libraries daily and weekly far more than public library users, or that they use the library web site at twice the rate of other respondents. On the other hand, when it comes to choosing an electronic resource to start research, college students differ little from the general public; they all use search engines first according to this report. For what else could I use the report? Well the next time a faculty member asks me why I think it is he or she who should be promoting library resources moreso than librarians I could pull out this report and show them that students report learning about electronic information sources from faculty far more than they do from librarians. So faculty can play a crucial role in helping to educate students about the library’s electronic resources.

So I think I will get a copy of this new report even though I have a few copies of the original Perceptions report. I think it will make it easier to read and find the data I need. Oh, and I’m also going to get a copy for my boss. I wouldn’t have thought of handing him a copy of the original report, but I think this one is just right for academic administrators.