Zotero assignment revisions

So, in the end the Zotero assignment worked very well on the Zotero side, and less well on the information literacy side.  So I’m spending this week revising it and designing some new activities.  A few quick takeaways:

The assignment was trying to do too much.  It was the main way to assess:

  • Students’ ability to recognize different source types and explain where the fit into the scholarly process.
  • Students’ ability to track down those different source types.
  • Students’ understanding of what the scholarly and creative output of their department (and by extension the scope of intellectual activity within their discipline).
  • Students’ ability to use research tools to organize and manage their sources.

Way too much.  Illustrated mainly by the fact that there were a few students to managed to do all of those things in their work.  That made it very clear what others were missing and made me want to figure out a way for all students to be able to get to where the few did in this class.

So here’s the thing – the first two outcomes up there were the problem, not the technology or logistics of syncing libraries and the like.  The bibliography project should really be about the 3rd and 4th outcomes.  The collaborative nature of the bibliography (and ability to see the breadth of what our faculty produces) was lost on students who had to work to hard to meet all of the format requirements that were in place to measure the first two outcomes.  All of the format requirements I put in to meet the first two outcomes took away from the authenticity of the experience, and of the evaluation and contextualization I had hoped the students would be able to do.

So this term, I am planning to get at those first two outcomes in different ways, and then make some changes to the bibliography assignment:

  1. drop the number of sources required in the annotated bibliography from 5 to 3.
  2. increase the emphasis on evaluation (and multiple methods of evaluation) in the annotations.
  3. change the workflow a bit – have students create a broad, pre-evaluated body of resources in a personal library and then have them select their 3 sources from that larger pool, annotate them and add them to the collaborative bibliography.
  4. build in a required conference so that I talk directly to each student about the process fairly early on.
  5. drop the format requirements altogether and allow students to add any 3 resources they want (while increasing their responsibility to justify those choices in multiple ways in their annotations).
  6. push the due date for the sources up a week, add a week between the final sources due date and the final reflection due date, and target and focus the scope final reflection essay significantly.

(Big hat tip to my students.  Many of these changes were also articulated by them when I asked them to help – in some cases their input was what really allowed me to put my finger on the problems).

What about the tech?

In the end, syncing did cause problems for a few, and Zotero hurdles did cause problems for a few.  Students who were, for whatever reason, not able to spend a focused amount of time at some point earlier in the term learning the mechanics of Zotero found it very challenging to manage finding sources and figuring out Zotero in the context of a last-minute scramble.

I had thought that my students would have to do the bulk of their Zotero work at home because of having to re-download and sync Zotero every time in the classroom.  MY Zotero library was still very difficult to sync in the classroom (I assume the hugeness is a factor) but the students rarely had to wait for more than 2-3 minutes.  Clearly, I can and should rely a lot more on classroom time as a place where students can be working with Zotero.

Most students were very positive about Zotero.  A few found it cumbersome.  There was a clear pattern though that I found interesting, but troubling in that there is nothing I can do with it.  The pattern was this — those students who had reason to use Zotero for real, for a real research project, during the term were much, much clearer in their evaluation of its value.  And by extension, I believe that they are the ones most likely to keep using it.

My class is a 1-credit class.  I can’t assign an authentic student-y scholarly research project that would take that little work.  But whether or not they have reason to use it in another class is nothing I can control.  It’s troubling because it points to a deeper issue about this class’ place within the major – issues we all know about but aren’t sure how to fix.

Yes, we did write that up

Finally!

Kate and I finally got an article related to our LOEX of the West presentation (from 2008!) finished and published.  This peer-reviewed article delay had nothing to do with publishing cycles and everything to do with writing process.  But it’s available (in pre-print) now, and I pretty much like it.

Beyond Peer-Reviewed Articles: Using Blogs to Enrich Students’ Understanding of Scholarly Work

Critical Literacy for Research – Sort of Peer-Reviewed Friday

Unexpectedly it’s Peer Reviewed Friday.  Well sort of.  Harvard Educational Review is a student-run journal, with an editorial board made up of graduate students deciding which articles get published.

I was teaching a class in our small classroom – where I never teach – so I went up early to make sure that I still knew how to work the tech.  It’s on the 5th floor, where the L’s are shelved, so I was flipping through the Fall 2009 issue while I waited for them to show up.  This article caught my eye — well worth reading, both for the content/ideas and because it is very enjoyably written.

Harouni, Houman (Fall 2009). High School Research and Critical Literacy: Social Studies with and Despite Wikipedia. Harvard Educational Review, 79:3. 473-493.

It’s a reflective, case-study type description of the author’s experiences reworking his research assignments in high school social studies classes. There’s a ton here to talk about – the specific exercises he developed and describes, the way the piece works as an example of critical reflective practice — but mainly I want to unpack this bit, which I think is the central theme of the work:

If students do not engage in the process of research inside the classroom, then it is natural for them to view the assignment in a results-oriented manner — the only manifestation of their work being their final paper and presentation.  It is not surprising then, that they are willing to quickly accept the most easily accessible and seemingly accurate information that satisfies the assignment and spares them the anxiety of questioning their data.  And when their final products did not meet my expectations, the students responded not by rethinking the research process itself but by simply attempting to adjust the product in light of what they perceived to be personal preferences. (476-77)

(emphasis mine)

Basically, the narrative he lays out says that his research projects had been unsuccessful for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed his students’ heavy and consistent reliance on Wikipedia as a source that he started digging into why, what that meant, what he really wanted to teach, and what he really wanted students to learn.  And he changed stuff based on those reflections.

Harouni’s thinking about information literacy (which he calls “critical literacy for research”) was initially sparked by students who were not evaluating sources or showing any sign of curiosity as they researched, but it was further sparked when his first attempts at addressing student gaps didn’t work, sparked by students who were trying, and failing, to evaluate texts they weren’t yet ready to evaluate.

Along the way, he talks about the limitations of a checklist, or “algorithmic” approach to evaluation — limitation he discovered when he reflected on what his students actually did when he tried to use that approach in his classroom:

Two observations confirmed the shallowness of the learning experience created through the exercise: first, the students did not apply their learning unless I asked them to do so; second, they remained dependent on the list of rules and questions to guide their inquiry. (480)

In other words, they could do the thing he asked them to do (apply the checklist to information sources) but it didn’t affect their actual practice as researchers, nor did it change how they viewed the information they were getting from Wikipedia.

And also why it is important to help students understand the openness and dynamism of Wikipedia, but that that itself is not enough:  “knowledge of the uncertainties of a source does not automatically translate into an awareness of one’s relationship with the information (477).”

This piece is, I think, essential at getting at what I think is the real value of his insights and experience — many of our students want to find certainty in their research processes.  They want to know that a source is good or bad.  Wikipedia bans feed that.  Checklists feed that too, especially when they are not taught as an initial step in an evaluation process, but as the process itself.  What we really want students to be able to do when they research is to manage uncertainty — to say I know this is uncertain and I can figure out what it means for me as I try to answer my real, important, and complex question.

Harouni’s process his is an excellent reminder of how teachers want clarity too – and how they have to be willing to embrace uncertainty themselves if they are to guide students through a process of authentic inquiry:

In teaching critical literacy for research, I have had to separate research from its dry, academic context and consider it as an everyday practice of becoming informed about issues that have an impact on students’ lives.  I must value not answers but instead questions that represent the continued renewal of the search.  I must value uncertainty and admit complexity in the study of all things. (490)

In this, he knocks on the door of a question that I frequently have as an instruction librarian (one which I think many instruction librarians have — how much can I really accomplish as a teacher on my own).  If the classroom instructor – the person creates, assigns, explains, and evaluates the research assignment isn’t actively engaged with the students’ research process – are there limits to what I can do?  I do think there are.  I don’t think those limits means that I should do nothing, far from it – but I do think those limits affect what I think I should be trying to accomplish on my own and affect the other ways I should be thinking about furthering my goals for students, inquiry and learning.

At the end of the day, one of Harouni’s basic assumptions is that it is part of his job as a social studies teacher to foster inquiry and curiosity in his students, “[f]or two semesters, research projects remained a part of my curriculum — not because they were wonderful learning experiences, but because I could not justify, to myself, a social studies class that did not work to improve the way students navigated the ocean of available information (474-5).”  In other words, he believes that teaching information literacy is an essential part of what he does.   And that is key.  You can’t have that perspective and also value coverage – of content information – above all else.  It’s one or the other.  (is it?  Yeah, I think it is).

Every faculty member isn’t going to have that idea of what their job is.  And every librarian isn’t either – but I think maybe for instruction librarian it should be.  It is true that rules and clarity make coverage easier.  There was a question on ILI-L yesterday from someone (responding to an ongoing discussion about teaching web evaluation)  asking “how do you even have time to talk about web evaluation when you have to cover all this other stuff.”

Rules make it easier to “cover” web evaluation.  Faculty want us to “cover” lots of different tools.  WE want to “cover” lots of different tools.

(N.B. I am not suggesting that everyone who engaged in the “web evaluation” discussion just “covers” it and doesn’t teach it.  Nor am I suggesting that the people who worry about covering what the faculty want them to cover are only interested in coverage.  I do think though that the pressure to “cover” is as true for us as it is for people in the disciplines and these discussions spark reminders of that)

But if we want students to think about research as a process, if we want research to BE a learning process, then we have to engage in teaching the process.  And that’s extra hard for us – we can’t do that in the one-shot by ourselves.  And we can’t do it if we’re worried about coverage — about covering everything the library has to offer.  And I’m not just saying that about “we can’t teach everything about the library in a one-shot” — I think we all know that.  I think I am saying that it can’t be about that at all – that the point has to be about the process, about authenticity, about this -

I now understand that whatever research strategies students use in their day-to-day lives, which no doubt will vary depending on who the learners are, must be investigated and taken into account by their teacher.  Neither this goal nor the goal of improving these strategies can be attained unless students have time to engage in research while they are in the classroom.  And inviting students to the computer lab and remaining attentive to their interaction with online sources is as important as accompanying students to the library. (490)

And maybe this means not worrying about teaching research as a recursive learning process in the one-shot.  Maybe this means rethinking what and where we teach and maybe it’s work with faculty that gets at that overarching goal.  I don’t know.  I do know, though, that I have some great ideas for rethinking my credit class next term.

Classroom activities to promote critical literacy for research:

1. A (relatively innocuous) vandalism example demonstrated in class.  He didn’t change the content of pages, just the accompanying photo to illustrate the process of editing.

2. Students work in pairs to evaluate a Wikipedia article on a topic they know a lot about (for example, one student used the article about her former high school). Through this exercise he was able to teach about:  skepticism & its place in the research process, identifying controversial claims in a text, citations and footnotes, and verifying claims by checking outside sources.

3. Judging a book by its first sentence. He brought in 5 history textbooks, showed the covers and provided the first sentence.  Then he asked students to describe what they could figure out about the book from that first sentence.  With this exercise he was able to teach: authorial bias or point of view; finding the author’s voice.

4. Research beyond the first sentence.  When they tried to apply these critical skills to the texts they found in their research projects, though, they still had trouble because they didn’t know enough about the stuff they were researching.  So he looked for a way through this problem. Enter Wikipedia.  He provided a list of pages identified by Wikipedia editors as biased or lacking a neutral point of view, and asked the students to choose an article on a somewhat familiar topic and write a brief essay, with specific references to the text, with suggestions for improving the piece to meet the Wikipedia’s neutrality standard.

5. Contributing as an author.  Similar to other projects like this, it was one option for his students as a final project.  Interesting in that he collaboratively developed the assignment and rubric with interested students.

Zotero assignment update

So the first mini-deadline on the Zotero assignment has come and gone, and I’m pretty happy with the results so far.  They’re not very impressive to look at, but when you compare what is actually happening with what I thought could happen, I think we are well on our way to getting this done.

For the first section, which has 21 students:

  • 11 successfully added a scholarly source to their Zotero library AND successfully synced to the group library.  Another one got the sync to work, but what got saved isn’t in very good shape yet.  Three more are waiting on ILL to decide which article they want to save to the bibliography.
  • Of those 11, 6 have added an original annotation and tags.

There are a few who added something in another format (and I’m not sure if that is a result of still not knowing how to find a scholarly article for their person, or if it is a matter of the best sources authored by their person not being scholarly articles)  I’ll find out more about that in class this week.

In the second, which has 24 students registered:

  • 13 successfully added a source to their Zotero library AND successfully synced.  Another one did the sync okay, but what got added was wonky.  There is one person who has added two things.  There is also an example article that I added still in there.
  • And there is a weird article from the medical literature that is still mysterious.  The author doesn’t share a last name with one of our target authors, so I am thinking maybe it was left in one of the classroom computers’ Zotero libraries and accidentally got dragged into our group library?
  • Nine have added original annotations.
  • Another handful are waiting on their articles from ILL.

Most of these have wonky notes/ attachments from the databases, and some need some of their metadata cleared up.  Batting 500+, though, was more than I expected at this point.  Why?  A few reasons, actually -

  1. First, these students have never used Zotero before at all.  Most of them have never used any kind of Firefox plugin.  That whole process of downloading and installing Firefox, then the plugin, was conceptually something new.  I expected this to be a hurdle in and of itself, before we even got to the the group library and syncing piece of the puzzle.  And it was, for sure, for some.  But not for most – most got themselves set up with Firefox no problem, and got the plug in working just fine.
  2. I want to be really clear here – it’s not that I thought these students weren’t intelligent enough to do this nor did I think it was really hard – I just thought it was going to be new and made more difficult by the fact that I asked them to do most of this new thing on their own on their own computers.  I did this mostly because I wasn’t at all certain that syncing the classroom computers to the Zotero group library would work with any kind of reliability.  So it comes down to -  I thought that showing them in class and then asking them to do the work at home was not necessarily setting them up for success (for all that that is how homework usually works).
  3. I really didn’t give them much instruction on how to do this at all.  We went over Zotero on the first day of class, and then I asked them to test different features of it along the way.  But here’s the thing – most of them didn’t do that along the way stuff because I wasn’t grading it and it wasn’t on the syllabus.  It was mostly a “please do this for your own good” thing and wasn’t at the top of anybody’s priority list.  So that .500+ batting average comes from students figuring stuff out with the tutorial I provided and what they could find in their notes and on the Zotero website.
  4. Some of the problems that have happened are undoubtedly not about Zotero at all, but are about navigating library systems and databases and the difficulties that come up during the process of finding scholarly articles — those are the primary reason for this class, after all!
  5. The syncing with the classroom computers is working really well – or at least it has for the last two sessions.  I have to tell you that I was worried about this with good reason.  Every time I have attempted to show this in the classroom, the sync has churned and churned and churned without any end (or any sync) in sight.  So when the students were having no trouble syncing the Zotero libraries in the classroom to their group accounts in class two weeks ago and again last week, I was shocked.  But what this means is that this week we can treat the classroom like a lab and troubleshoot most of the remaining problems together.

Onward!

Citations 101

This term our first-year seminar/orientation classes (called U-Engage) have given me the opportunity to do some different things, teaching-wise.  One of the sections asked for resources for a “Citations 101″ unit.  This is what I’ve put together so far.

Does this work because it has a workable focus, and because it treats citing like something that has value, instead of something to do to avoid getting in trouble (or because no one respects the ideas of college students, which is a message that I think some students take away from lessons about the rhetorical uses of outside sources).  I do think the rhetorical uses are crucial, but they were beyond the scope here – and I think would have taken the focus beyond “workable.”

ALS 199: Citations 101

(Built with our Library a la Carte tutorials extension.)

Zotero group bibliography assignment

I decided before the start of this term, the first term in which I would be teaching a credit class in almost eight years (and I’m teaching 2!) that my Library Skills for English Majors class would collaboratively create an annotated bibliography in Zotero for their main group project.

I want them to develop some facility with Zotero, and this seems like a good way to do this.  The ins and outs of working with metadata on Zotero connects back to a lot of the course themes, making even those that are a little abstract seem more concrete.  At least I hope so.

I’ve barely explored the Zotero group settings for all that I have been there for a while (and for all that I have group libraries and everything) so I was not at all sure how well it would work or even if it would work for students in this class.  I’m still not sure because I’d like them to do a lot of the work in-class, and they don’t have their own computers there.  It should be possible for them to sync what they do on library machines to their online libraries, but until we try it, I just won’t know.

So yeah, that’s the reason why I was so happy to find that I’m not the first person to try this -(Profhacker author) Brian Croxall at Clemson did it before and he did it for English and he wrote about it extensively which is so amazingly awesome.  I drew heavily from it even when it didn’t directly – it’s amazing how working with someone else’s assignment online is like talking it through, having someone to get you thinking about the stuff you’re forgetting.

Anyway, so the theme they’re building this bibliography around is the scholarly and creative output of their own faculty,  This is only a 1-credit class (more on the challenges of doing anything meaningful in a 1 credit class later, I promise) and they don’t have a common research assignment in other classes (or any research assignment, in many cases) so it’s really hard to make it relevant.  I am hoping that this focus will add a note of relevance to a kind of abstract skills-for-skills-sake class.  I am also fascinated by what our faculty are producing and will enjoy what the students find and choose to add in any event.

The full text of the assignment is under the cut.

Continue reading

Making one-shots better – what the research says (Peer Reviewed Monday, part 2)

ResearchBlogging.org

And now, on to Peer-Reviewed Monday, part two but still not Monday.

Mesmer-Magnus, J., & Viswesvaran, C. (2010). The role of pre-training interventions in learning: A meta-analysis and integrative review☆ Human Resource Management Review, 20 (4), 261-282 DOI: 10.1016/j.hrmr.2010.05.001

As I said earlier this week, this was started by a link to this article, a meta-analysis trying to dig deeper into the questions: which of the pre-practice interventions examined in the Cannon-Bowers, et al study are most effective?  For what type of learning outcomes?  And under what conditions?

The first part of the paper reviews what each of the pre-training interventions are, and presents hypotheses about what the research will reveal about their effectiveness.

METHOD

They reviewed 159 studies, reported in 128 manuscripts.  For this work, they considered only studies that met all of the following conditions:

  • they involved the administration of a pre-training intervention
  • the study population included adult learners
  • the intervention was part of a training program
  • the study measured at least one learning outcome
  • the study provided enough information to compute effect sizes.

The studies were coded for: the type of pre-practice intervention; the type of learning outcome; the method of training delivery; and the content of the training.

The codes for pre-practice intervention were drawn from Cannon-Bowers, et al: attentional advice, metacognitive strategies, advance organizers, goal orientation, and preparatory information.

The codes for learning outcomes were drawn from the Kraiger, et al (1993) taxonomy:

  • Cognitive learning (can be assessed at 3 stages: verbal knowledge, knowledge organization and cognitive strategies)
  • Skill-based learning (also assessed at 3 stages: skill acquisition, skill complication, and skill automaticity)
  • Affective learning (attitudinal outcomes, self-efficacy outcomes and disposition outcomes)

Training methods coded were very relevant to information literacy instruction: traditional classroom; self-directed or distance learning or simulations, such as role-plays or virtual reality.

Training content was coded as: intellectual, interpersonal, task-related or attitude.

RESULTS & DISCUSSION — so, what does the research say:

For attentional advice — this was one that I was able to immediately think of one-shot related applications for, so it was particularly interesting to me that medium to large positive effects were found for both skill-based and cognitive outcomes, with the largest gains found for skill-based outcomes — given that so much of what is taught in one-shots is skill-based, intended to promote success on particular assignments.  These effects are strongest when general, not specific, advice is given.

Metacognitive strategies –

The authors identified two main forms of meta-cognitive strategies that were studied: strategies that involved the learner asking why questions, and strategies where the learner was prompted to think aloud during learning activities.

The research shows that meta-cognitive strategies seem to promote all levels of cognitive and skill-based learning.  Why-based strategies had more consistent effects for all levels of cognitive learning, which supports the authors’ initial hypothesis — but think-aloud strategies do a better job of supporting skill-based outcomes, which does not.

Advance organizers —

Positive results were found for these for both cognitive and skill-based outcomes.  Of particular note for instruction librarians is this finding:  “stronger results were found for graphic organizers than text-based ones across all levels of skill-based outcomes.”

Goal orientation —

When compared with situations were no overt goal was provided to the learners, goal orientations seem to support all types of learning: cognitive, skill-based and affective, with the strongest effects (just by a little bit) in the affective domain.

The authors also hypothesized that mastery goals would be better than performance goals.  The findings suggest this hypothesis is true for skill-based learning and for affective learning.  They were not able to test it for cognitive learning.  They did find something odd with regards to affective learning – when they compared performance goals and mastery goals separately against no-goal situations, then performance goals showed greater effects.  But when they compared mastery goals and performance goals, stronger effects were found for mastery goals.

Preparatory information –

This showed positive effects for skill-based and affective learning, but they weren’t able to test it for cognitive learning outcomes.

SO WHAT ELSE COULD HAVE AN EFFECT?

The training conditions and content were coded to see if those things had an effect on which pre-practice interventions were most effective.  Of particular interest to me were the finding that stronger effects for cognitive learning were found for advance organizers paired with self-directed training (e.g. tutorials) than for traditional classrooms or simulations.  (Of course, it’s important to remember that those showed positive effects too).

RESULTS BY TYPE OF OUTCOME

This turned out to be the most interesting way to think about it for me, so I’m going to include all of these probably at a certain level of length…

For skill-based outcomes, broken down – the strategies that work best seem to be:

  • skill acquisition: mastery goals & graphic advance organizers.
  • skill compilation: think-aloud meta-cognitive strategies, attentional advice and goals.
  • skill automaticity: graphic organizers and pre-training goals.

This seems to suggest pretty strongly that librarians should find a way to communicate goals to students prior to the one-shot.  Obviously, the best way to do this would probably be via the classroom faculty member, which is why this also makes me think about the implicit message in the goals we do send to students – most specifically, I mean the implicit message sent by requirements like “find one of these, two of these, three of these and use them in your paper.  It does seem like this could be considered a performance goal more than a mastery goal and even if the main impact on students is added stress to perform, is that stress that is serving any purpose or should it be eliminated?

For cognitive outcomes, also broken down – these strategies emerged from the literature:

  • verbal knowledge: specific attentional advice, why-based meta-cognitive strategies, and graphic advance organizers had the largest effect.
  • knowledge organization: general attentional advice and think-aloud metacognitive strategies
  • development of cognitive strategies: why-based strategies and attentional advice.

This is interesting, of course, because while we know that teaching on this cognitive-outcome level is pretty hard in 50 minutes, a lot of the topics we’re asked to address in the one shot are really asking students to perform in that domain.  Ideas like information ethics, intellectual honestly, scholarly communication, identifying a good research article – these all require more than a set of skills, but also require a way of thinking.  So in this area, I am thinking okay, we can’t teach this in 50 minutes, but if we can prep them in advance, maybe we have a better chance of getting to something meaningful in that time.

For affective outcomes –

  • Overall, a pre-training goal orientation and attentional advice were most effective in this domain.

These might not seem relevant in the one-shot, but they really are.  We’re talking in many cases about teaching them something with the hope that they’ll use it later, when they really get to that stage of their research process, their confidence and self-efficacy is clearly relevant, as is their disposition to believe that you’re teaching them something valuable!  In fact, I think this might be as worth or more worth focusing on that cognitive outcomes.  So that makes these findings particularly interesting:

  • post training self-efficacy AND disposition toward future use of the training material were most influence when a performance goal orientation was used.
  • Attentional advice, mastery goals and preparatory information are also promising here.

SEO does = infolit!

Via Clive Thompson’s twitter, and then via the Nieman Journalism Lab

Kelly McBride at Poynter Online looks at the connection(s) between the terms people search for and the terms journalists use. There’s a lot to think about here – the connections are multidimensional (and multidirectional) — about the media driving/defining the terms people use to search and the media using the terms people are using to search so they can get found, about the impact of discourse and the language choices we make.  Plus also about the insidious effects of a slow news day:

Now that we know that August is the month of distorted facts, and now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared. We can start ramping up in late July, toning our fact-checking muscles, warning our gullible relatives to be wary. Next year, maybe those who care about the truth will get ahead of the curve.

cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudel

Another essentially no more than bullet points post — I have a lot of formal writing I have to be doing now, so this will end at some point.  So, cool stuff…

via Dave Munger (twitter) Alyssa Milano pushing peer-reviewed research — see, it is relevant after you leave school!

via A Collage of Citations (blog).  Former OSU grad student/ writing instructor turned Penn State PhD candidate Michael Faris’ First-Year Composition assignment using archival sources to spark inquiry and curiosity.  Note especially the research-as-learning-process focus of the learning goals.

via Erin Ellis (facebook) plus then via a bunch of other people — proof that, in the age of social media, an awesome title can boost your impact factor.  But the content stands on its own as well – I’ve been thinking a lot about different information seeking style, and how different people gravitate naturally towards different approaches.  By Karen Janke and Emily Dill: “New shit has come to light”: Information seeking behavior in The Big Lebowski

via @0rb (twitter) Journalism warning labels

via Cool Tools (blog) Longform to InstapaperLong Form by itself is pretty cool, it aggregates some of the best long-form (mostly magazine) writing on all kinds of topics.  But what makes it really cool is that it integrates seamlessly with Instapaper, meaning that I can find something there, push a button and have it available on my iPad to read offline the next time I am stuck somewhere boring.

Related – Cool Tools’ post on the best magazine articles ever.

via Cliopatria (blog).  Obligatory history-related resource — London Lives: 1690-1800.  Pulling together documents from 8 archives & 15 datasets, this online archive asks “What was it like to live in the world’s first million person city?”

Word of the day: Advertorial

So advertorial – one of those words (like “anecdata”) that has meaning the first time you hear it.  A piece of writing that is made to look like one thing (usually an article) but which is really another thing (an advertisement).

While the most famous example of this for instruction librarians is undoubtedly the advertisements for Big Pharma in the form of scholarly journals flying under Elsevier’s flag of convenience, they are apparently and not surprisingly a well-established tool in the public relations toolkit.  They even give awards for them.  In the last round of Bronze Anvil Awards (given by the Public Relations Society of America to “recognize outstanding public relations tactics”) there were two awards given to advertorials — one to InSinkerator for something called InSinkerator Gets Home Builders to Think Green, and one to the Florida Department of Citrus, for their Florida Grapefruit Makes Headlines.

So why am I thinking about advertorials today?  Because they are wrecking one of my favorite places to go on the Internet — ScienceBlogs.

In short, ScienceBlogs disastrously, inexplicably, weirdly, agreed to allow a new nutrition blog to join ScienceBlogs – which is an invitation-only type networks of blogs about science and scientific research.  The weird, disastrous, etc. thing about this new blog, called Food Frontiers, was that it was produced by PepsiCo, and the decision to fairly radically change the type of content that was part of the ScienceBlogs network was made in an uncommunicative, opaque, closed way.

Summaries of the fallout – which bloggers are staying which are going, where the going bloggers are now – can be best found here, at Carl Zimmer’s blog (associated with Discover magazine) — Oh, Pepsi, What Hast Thou Wrought.

A Note from ScienceBlogs can be found on the former site of the Pepsi blog, explaining the decision to take it down.

So what does this all mean and why do I care?  Lots of people know that I love ScienceBlogs, or that I have loved ScienceBlogs, as a librarian who teaches – my love for it has only grown.  So now what?

Dave Mosher provides a good summary of what this means for content from ScienceBlogs in the future – which is the issue about which I am really concerned.  I don’t

That effort signals a fundamental change to the way their content is structured:

Before: Blogs.
After: Editorial blogs. | Advertorial blogs.

I type “signals” and not “is” because the transformation isn’t complete.

Because part of this is about reputation – and not reputation in that individual kind of way, but reputation in that authority/publishing/information literacy kind of way that means so much to students struggling to find their way through the scholarly landscape –

From Dave Munger (emphasis added) -

The hypocrisy in handing a nutrition podium to a company that is seriously implicated in the global obesity crisis was astonishing, and even worse, the dozens of bloggers who’ve worked for years to build ScienceBlogs’ reputation were taken completely by surprise.

Former ScienceBlogger David Dobbs nails the key irony here (again, emphasis added), arguing that PepsiCo is “buying credibility generated by others even as they damage same.”

As PalMD and others have pointed out, PepsiCo hardly lacks platform. The only value they can gain from writing here is to draw on the credibility created by a bunch of independent voices engaged in earnest,= thoughtful (well, most of the time), and genuine conversation.

What these (and countless other) commentaries point out is that the reputation of the site matters – that the name ScienceBlogs is supposed to mean something and one of the things it is supposed to mean is no corporate agendas — the fact that just anyone couldn’t write for ScienceBlogs, the fact that ScienceBloggers were writing independently, the fact that their creators, Seed Media, proclaims this lofty agenda (from their About page) all adds up to a set of expectations about what the content on the site was supposed to be.

We believe that science literacy is a pre-condition for progress in the 21st century. At a time when public interest in science is high but public understanding of science remains weak, we have set out to create innovative media ventures to improve science literacy and to advance global science culture.

While those expectations were not always reasonable and there were ads on the site, and whatever else might also have been a little muddy or murky before – there was an idea behind the project that was an important part of why this project was useful to me in the classroom and at the reference desk and in my own work.  It is not that this content was all supposed to be good, or right, or true, or even civil – but the reasons for it being written?  They were supposed to relate to improving the public understanding of science and science literacy.  So what does that mean in a world when that content is either editorial or advertorial?  No matter how easy it is to tell which is which on the site (and the RSS feed?  the Twitter stream??) – that changes things.

Bora Zivkovic hones in on this question of a network’s reputation in his post, explaining his reasons for leaving ScienceBlogs…

We have built an enormous reputation, and we need to keep guarding it every single day. Which is why the blurring of lines between us who are hired and paid to write (due to our own qualities and expertise which we earned), and those who are paying to have their material published here is deeply unethical. Scientists and journalists share some common ethical principles: transparency, authenticity and truth-telling. These ethical principles were breached. This ruins our reputation, undermines our work, and makes it more unpalatable for good blogger to consider joining Sb in the future.

Zivkovic goes on to discuss the ways in which the existence and influence of the ScienceBlogs network makes the people who blog there de facto science journalists – whether they are aware of (or willing to embrace) that fact or now. It is not surprising in this context (the context of how important science blogging has become to science journalism) that some of the first reactions to the Pepsi blog controversy came not from quick-on-the-draw bloggers, but from mainstream media outlets and watchdogs.

I don’t blog at ScienceBlogs (not many librarians do) and it’s not a crucial part of my everyday professional knowledge building because most of the content on the site isn’t directly aimed at my professional needs — it’s more the idea of the project that is important to my work than the reality of what is posted there on a day-to-day basis. That’s not true for everyone.  But as a libriarian, particularly a librarian working with first-year students making the transition to academic thinking, reading, and writing, ScienceBlogs was (and probably is) a go-to site for me.

A lot of the reason for this is the authority/credibility/reputation issues discussed above.  Not that my students could or should automatically trust any of the content on that or any site, but because I felt like I could tell them (quickly, in a 50-minute one-shot) why and how that information had been created in a way that could guide their critical and effective use of the site as a tool — an incredibly valuable tool – that would help them navigate expert research and academic writing.

But another part of the reason is good old fashioned findability.  As Zivkovic says in his discussion of the network effect at ScienceBlogs, most people don’t track blogs using RSS readers or other tools – they find the content when they search for it.  And when they search for it and find it on one blog in the network, all of the blogs in the network are made stronger.  I don’t expect my first-year students to really figure out yet what pieces of the dynamic web they want to track for scholarly or professional purposes – most of them, at 18, are still figuring out what those purposes will be. They may want to track stuff for a particular class, or a particular term, but yeah – for most of them the searchability and the browsability of this site was key to its being useful.  ResearchBlogging is good for that too, and there are other collections of resources that I can point indivdiual students to – but nothing else out there does what ScienceBlogs does (did?) as a place to illustrate the importance and utility of science blogging and academic blogging.

Carl Zimmer puts his finger on one of the main issues for me – if the bloggers leave ScienceBlogs that may be (probably will be) good for the quality of the content but bad for the findability of the content, and those things are not totally unrelated.

What I find particularly galling about this whole affair is that bloggers who don’t want to associate themselves with this kind of nonsense have to go through the hassle of leaving Scienceblogs and setting up their blog elsewhere. The technical steps involved may be wonderfully easy now (export files, open account on WordPress, import), but the social steps remain tedious.

Munger picks up the theme -

If they want to continue to have the kind of influence they used to have at ScienceBlogs, I think the bloggers who have left the site need to do something more than just start or restart their old, independent blogs. They need to form a new network — perhaps built around different principles, but a network nonetheless.

I think so too – I think if they lose the network effect, individual blogs and bloggers and small groups of same will be able to connect with one type of reader, and an important type of reader, but they’ll lose the true neophyte who stumbles on to new ways of talking about evidence and knowledge coming in through a Google Search — or because a librarian says “browse here for a while” when they’re stuck looking for topics.

Ira Flatow (NPR’s Science Friday) offers to talk about hosting departing ScienceBlogs bloggers’ blogs on the Science Friday site instead. And again here.  I suspect that even the benign oversight of NPR might seem too much to the gunshy bloggers who left ScienceBlogs, but I hope they do find each other again somewhere, or that they build new somewheres elsewhere.