Monday, June 30, 2008

Search is a combination what you know and who you know

In my first years of academic librarianship, it struck me as really odd that I would have faculty call me up and ask me to teach their undergraduate students how to use the library indexes. Some of them would even confess that they really didn't know how to use these tools themselves.

In time, I came to realize two crucial points. First, faculty keep up with their research by regularly reading their personal journal subscriptions and keeping track of what the most important researchers in their field are doing. When they do use library-provided indexes, they tend to search by author and by following citations. Google Scholar recognizes this; when you search for Hamlet you get an article written by D. Hamlet as the first result returned.

The second point is that the process of learning who the key figures are in a particular field is part of the transformation from beginner to expert. The trouble is, our existing indexes are designed for librarians - not for students who are making this transition from undergraduate to graduate.

Rarely are students told that research is a reiterative process and that it is often necessary to perform a number of literature searches for a paper as one discovers gaps in coverage or realizes that there is something worth dwelling into more detail. But as seasoned librarians and educators know, even if you tell them this hard won nugget of wisdom, most students will still just grab the first set of articles that match their topic (which can be quite random especially if the database sorts results by date) and then try to mash these citations into their paper, often the night before its due.

So then how can we point these students to the best articles on a particular topic ?

One solution is to point beginning researches to sources of review articles. At the reference desk, I try to check Annual Reviews whenever I get a student who can't narrow down their research question to anything beyond their topic. You know the ones: "I need articles on anorexia." Another solution would be for us to take matters in our own hands. Here's my idea: we should buy the ten most popular textbooks for undergraduates in a particular domain, like Biology. Then we should make note of all the citations in the texts and add them into a searchable database.

These two examples still rely on the work of editors and experts to select the research that made a difference and to put such work in context. TopCited tools from Scopus and Web of Knowledge have been developed to automatically quantify the value of articles and researchers by the rate and number of times papers have been cited.

I believe that the adoption of social networking software into the academic sphere will eventually provide another means of establishing who are the experts in a particular field and what pieces of writing and research are the ones that have made the most impact. It very well might replace the traditional way we search and research and keep up with our fields.

Reading blogs is a case in point. You read library blogs on a regular basis rather than searching for the word 'library' in Google on a regular basis, don't you?

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