Maximizing quality of research results

Quality means reliable, trustworthy, authoritative sources (part of an information literacy skill set).

Here are tips and tools for the savvy scholar to use to maximize the quality of research:

1. Often the researcher perceives an “information overload”—too much information. This oversupply of information consists of too much seemingly useable information, or too much information that is “noise”—lots of search results, but little relevance. The task often becomes separating the “wheat” from the “chaff”–sorting out the best information.

2. Keep in mind the quality pyramid: as quality increases, the quantity decreases; the highest quality sources will be harder to find at the narrow top of the pyramid; the least reliable information will be more plentiful at the wider base of the pyramid.

3. Starting at the base is all right to familiarize yourself with your issues and topics (newspapers, popular magazines, popular sites), but use the highest-level sources (scholarly) near the top of the pyramid for your final sources of information and cited sources.

4. Use library subscription databases to find peer-reviewed scholarly articles.

5. Use site:.gov and site:.edu searches first in Google and Yahoo! for government and university sources before you use the rest of the free Web.

6. Use search engines that search the “deep Web” (aka “invisible Web”), which has quality information missed by ordinary search engines like Google and Yahoo! Deep Web search engines to use: CompletePlanet.com, IncyWincy.com, and Clusty.com.

7. Use Web subject directories and collections with human-selected compilations of sites organized by topic or searchable by topic: infomine.ucr.edu, bubl.ac.uk, IncyWincy.com, ipl.org, CompletePlanet.com, directory.google.com, dir.yahoo.com

8. Investigating, questioning the information: “trust, but verify.” Don’t blindly or on faith accept even the most authoritative information as the final word. Do other experts or studies agree or disagree, to what extent, and why or why not? How easy is it to corroborate your information or argue its merits? Remember, even the most reliable sources have errors and disputed information (delicious.com/acclibrary/info.credibility).

9. Ultimate truth is elusive, but sound research and reasoning is attainable by employing information literacy and critical thinking. (Critical thinking links: critical-thinking.iste.wikispaces.net/Diigo+Resources)

10. What are the credentials, reputation, and objectivity of the organization or author providing the information? How recent is the information? Analyzing the “source” can be as important as investigating the information itself. Know the criteria to use in evaluating websites: delicious.com/acclibrary/Website.evaluation

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The Reference Desk went that-a-way

A hallowed piece of furniture in that tradition-bound institution called the library will soon be pulling off a disappearing act, or at least a huge metamorphosis.

If someone from the not-too-distant past could have stepped into a time machine to come to our libraries today, they might be shocked. Actually, some people living today and now are outraged and shocked.

It’s about the reference desk and reference service. It’s about the coming of the Learning Commons. And it’s hit the ACC Library.

The ACC Library Reference Desk will be going ’bye, ’bye. No more Reference Desk.
So, big deal, some of you may say.

Well, let’s put this in perspective and in context—like, what does this reflect and signify nationally and here at ACC?

Reference desks (in plainer English, “information desks”), are transmuting into something else, or even becoming extinct, in a manner of speaking. (One library conference speaker has predicted that reference desks will disappear by 2012.)

Reference desks have been distinct entities within a library, staffed by librarians with masters degrees. There used to be discussions about whether librarians should stand or sit in front of the reference desk, to be more welcoming, instead of behind a desk, which could be a psychological barrier to timid patrons needing help. There were also experiments with librarians wandering around away from the reference desk like retail store clerks, accosting patrons (renamed “customers”) with offers of help. (This latter approach is out of favor and been dumped, because librarians, whether deserved or not, started getting the image of being pesky and obnoxious).

Well, these debates of differing approaches to reference service may become moot. Some reference desks are merging with the circulation (checkout) desk or moving somewhere else and becoming “help desks” for every type of question and problem, from how to use the photocopier all the way to how to research a topic.

And, what’s sacrilegious and upsetting to some longtime librarians—some of these desks are now being staffed by trained students, clerks, or “paraprofessionals.” One good way to ruffle the feathers of graduate school-trained librarian is to have someone coming in off the street referring to anyone and everyone behind the desk at a library as a “librarian.” Well, that issue becomes even murkier now.

An example of drastic change relatively close to home is the Colorado State University Library in Fort Collins where librarians were pulled off the reference desk three years ago, to be replaced by “trained clerical staff.” The change was not warmly received by the CSU librarians, to put it mildly, and, in fact, some retired in protest. Off-the record, librarians said they felt disconnected from students and wondered if students were getting the best service.

The CSU Library Help Desk, as explained on their website (with phone number included), helps “start your research, locate books and journal articles, and get assistance with library computers and equipment.” A separate Help Desk is for students with technical problems dealing with their computer, wireless networking, e-mail, student accounts, and other issues. A separate “Ask a Librarian” page gives an e-mail address to librarians. Students in the library with “complicated” reference questions are referred to librarians in their offices. In the first month of this transition, some 190 referrals were made to the librarians.

Technology is playing an integral role in the transformation of library reference service. Librarians can be reached 24/7 by live texting from links on library Web pages (ACC has such a link to AskAcademic—click “Have a Question” on our Library’s homepage). Social media are also used for accessing librarians, such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Some libraries equip their librarians with pagers and cell phones for maximum access, further negating the need for librarians to be stuck to a reference desk.

Librarians across the country, however, are decrying the slide away from face-to-face librarian interactions with their patrons, a form of communication that works best for many learners and information seekers. (A poll at Calvin College, Massachusetts, found that 85 percent of students preferred face-to-face interactions with librarians.)

A partial antidote to this service disconnect are experiments with librarian outreach to the community—physically stationing themselves in places such as malls and coffee shops. At the University of Michigan, “Librarian with a Latte” sessions placed a librarian with a laptop in a popular coffee shop, inviting students to drop by for help. The idea is to be “where the students are,” both virtually (as in social networking) and physically. The coffee shop sessions aimed to establish relationships that would become online interactions later.

Yes, this is not your father’s library.

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Filed under academic libraries, ACC Library, learning commons

Savvy scholars: throw away your flash drive?

Sony and other computer manufacturers have announced they will stop manufacturing floppy disk drives soon. Floppy disks are going the way of eight track players, and, more recently, cassette tapes. The technology dinosaur graveyard keeps getting bigger.

Flash drives (thumb drives, pen drives, memory sticks) are one of the latest gee whiz tech advances—carry gigs of storage on your keychain. Wow, what’s next? A biological chip implant into your brain that will blur the difference between external computers and your internal computer? (Perhaps not that far-fetched.)

And then flash drives will go away too?

Forget about chip implants, there are other developments that are casting a shadow over flash drives.

Flash drives (thumb drives, pen drives, memory sticks) are one of the latest gee whiz tech advances—carry gigs of storage on your keychain. Wow, what’s next? A chip implant into your brain? (Probably not that far-fetched!)

Flash drives come with their own downsides, one being the fact that it is easy to lose them or misplace them. How many people reading this have forgotten to take their flash drive out of a computer they were using, walking away and potentially losing your saved documents forever? Just what I thought: most people are raising their hands.

This is doubly scary, because of the huge storage capacity of flash drives, some people use their flash drives as either another drive for their computer or as an external backup drive. As an additional drive, you may create or download something on your flash drive away from your main computer, intending to save it to your computer eventually. Or, as a backup external drive, you have all your computer’s stuff on the flash drive, so that if your computer dies or gets stolen, you have your data backed up.

In either case, if you lose your flash drive, you could be up the creek. Using your flash drive as the all-purpose Swiss knife of storage can lead to trouble.

For backing up your computer, instead of relying entirely on your flash drive, you should use an anti-virus program that does that as part of their service, or use one of the automated backup Web services. Also, you could use an old-fashioned external hard drive to back up, which you keep hidden away in your home or office.

Using your flash drive as a temporary parking spot for your data is still the main (and best) reason to use a flash drive.

But let’s come back to my point above, about the downsides of a flash drive, especially the danger of losing it (or even damaging it—I heard about a flash drive that went in the washer, and came out still working!)

There is help for this flash drive bugaboo of losing your flash drive or leaving it in a computer and walking away. More hi-tech than tying a string around your finger are some free programs that help remind you that your flash drive is in the computer and needs to be removed. Other types of apps can even encrypt your information on your flash drive if it gets into the wrong hands. And there’s a suggested way to create information on your flash drive that tells who to return it to. I’ve bookmarked these free app sites at delicious.com/acclibrary/flash.drives

There’s still another solution to the downsides of a flash drive. This may seem radical: get rid of your flash drive for a better alternative. What a concept!

This solution is espoused by some: use a free online storage service that not only can be your computer’s backup, but also virtually replace your flash drive. One such service that is highly touted is DropBox.com With DropBox, everything you do on a computer gets saved to the online storage, as well as automatically to every computer (and smartphone) in which you have created a DropBox folder.

I won’t reinvent the wheel and give you all the details of how DropBox can do this for you, instead go to an educator’s blog that has done a good job of explaining this: edgalaxy.com/teaching-apps/2010/6/7/5-reasons-everyone-needs-a-dropbox-account.html

This DropBox way is just about the ultimate solution for security and convenience for your computer. It’s called “cloud computing,” where you rely on an a website to provide the tools that you otherwise would have to provide yourself in terms of software or hardware.

But will I get rid of my flash drive? No way! Let’s say I believe in “redundancy,” where you don’t place all your eggs in one basket—instead you try to have as many baskets as is reasonably possible to maximize the safety of your holdings.

While cloud computing may be the best thing since sliced bread, I still believe in being neurotically cautious without going to the extreme of paranoia. There was once a site that bookmarked your favorite Web pages (not Delicious, which is what I use). Well, a not so funny thing happened—the site crashed, and everyone’s bookmarks were permanently lost. Admittedly, such a disaster is extremely rare, but the moral of the story is that nothing is 100 percent foolproof. After all, didn’t an ordinary British bloke hack into the Pentagon computers, not to mention reports of the Chinese doing the same thing? That’s why you can’t go wrong with redundancy. Think of it as insurance.

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Kindles, e-books are rocking (and killing print books?)

Unless you live in a cave or under a rock, you might very well be aware that the Kindle e-reader is one of the hot consumer electronic items around. And, likewise, a sizzling item for libraries.

The ACC Library added a few Kindles, and they were well received. Our brethren (or is it sister?) libraries have had the same response, with Kindles flying off the shelves, so to speak. Now the ACC Library has added more Kindles, for a total of 14, available for checkout by staff, faculty, and students.

Are e-books going to kill print books as some doomsayers have predicted? Is it a significant trend or just a fad? Well, Amazon recently announced that for the last three months it was selling more e-books than hardcover books and in the last month it sold 180 digital books for every 100 hardcover copies.

There is at least one skeptical voice (a CNET blogger) saying the information provided by Amazon is misleading and deceptive. (For the details, google “What Amazon didn’t say about e-books”).

Did I use the word “killing”? Perhaps that’s a little too melodramatic and sensationalistic. Perhaps a better word would be “impacting” or “hurting.”

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Filed under books, e-books

Rapid response plagiarism detection

Instant coffee. Minute rice. Google. Turnitin Quick Submit.

There are the “quicker solution,” shortcut options to tasks we are faced with.

Checking a student’s paper for plagiarism is no exception.

An instructor can sign up the whole class under Turnitin, and every paper routinely gets the Turnitin scrutinty, a report generated to show the percentage levels of legitimacy, or “originality,” in the paper.

Or the instructor can pick and choose the occasional paper that looks suspicious and check it for plagiarism. The simplest way is to simply google some phrases from the paper and see if it guiltily matches something on a website. Another relatively simple way is to use Turnitin’s Quick Submit.

To use the Turnitin Quick Submit, the whole class does not have to be set up within Turnitin. All that is required is that the instructor be registered (“joined”) within Turnitin, and that the Turnitin Quick Submit option is enabled.

The downside of using something like Google or Quick Submit is that it’s less labor intensive for the busy instructor pressed for time than using the full-featured Turnitin. Saving time with the abbreviated plagiarism checkups using Google or Quick Submit means that many other cases of plagiarism might be missed by not using the full Turnitin. A glaring case of plagiarism may catch the instructor’s eye, but less obvious cases will escape notice.

Remember also, it’s best to prevent plagiarism than trying to detect it. A lot of plagiarism can be achieved by simply educating the student about plagiarism and the power of Turnitin.

Pointers for quickie plagiarism detection:

(1)  Be on the lookout for shifts in writing style and quality (does a suspicious paper suddenly deviate in certain stylistic ways from the student’s usual output?). Sometimes it could be just a sentence or paragraph that is “different,” a direct quote or poor paraphrase that is not credited.

(2)  If you decide to google for a quickie check, find an odd or distinctive phrase in the paper to throw in the search engine and see what results come up. Beginning sentences from papers sometimes yield good hits. Place phrases within quotes for best results. Additionally, use Yahoo! and other search engines if you Google comes up with nothing.

(3)  If Turnitin fails to find the elusive text, even searching through its designated library database, like ProQuest, try a keyword search of the paper’s passages in other library databases.

What if, after trying the above tools, your plagiarism check is unsuccessful?

You feel certain the paper or sections of the paper are not the student’s work. The search engines and even Turnitin have not located elsewhere the text in question. Keep in mind that no search engine or even Turnitin is 100 percent effective in detecting plagiarism in the vastness of the publishing world.

Interrogating a student can be effective in eliciting answers. Here are some ways one can question a student, as suggested by Montgomery College Libraries:

  • Give the student a chance to prove that the paper is not plagiarized.
  • Quiz the student and see if he or she can define some of the words in the paper. A question such as: “Why did you use ‘egregious’ here?” can be enlightening.
  • Copy some sentences from the paper and leave blanks for some important words. If the student cannot fill in the blanks with the word used in the paper itself or a synonym, the student did not write the paper.
  • Ask questions about one of the sources used in the paper. “This article by X looks fascinating, why did you choose it? Can I see a copy?”
  • Ask the student how he or she searched for the information. Ask what database they used.

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No “about” information on a site

No “about” information!

(Things about websites that may drive you crazy, but can be overcome by a savvy scholar. These same things are also lessons to the wise for mistakes to avoid when you yourself create your own Web content.)

The About information about a site is especially helpful when you discover a site by googling. The “About” link on a website is practically a default, an automatic section of a site that introduces you to the nature of its content. Reading the about may give you some time-saving clues as to how worthwhile it is to explore it further, whether its information will be pertinent or reliable for your information needs. (The same holds true about the “bio” information about the website author or authors.)

It can be frustrating to encounter that occasional site that doesn’t seem to want to tell you anything about itself or its creators. You have to navigate through the site to really get a good idea of what it’s about. It’s even more puzzling and annoying when a major national site of high repute has little or no about information. Does the site think it’s so well-known that no introduction is needed? An about should tell us the purpose and scope of the site, who its founders and contributors are, date of its creation, and so on. Sometimes the only way you can get about information about a site (if it is one of those really prominent ones) is to go to a Wikipedia article on it! I’ve done that quite a number of times when trying to describe a site that I’ve bookmarked in Delicious for the Library or myself.

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Web documents with no date

No date!

(Things about websites that may drive you crazy, but can be overcome by a savvy scholar. These same things are also lessons to the wise for mistakes to avoid when you yourself create your own Web content.)

 

You find some great information. Even scholarly articles posted to the Web by authors who should know better. But nowhere do you find any date attached to when that information was posted or published. So you start to wonder: how recent is this information? Is it outdated? Can I rely on it? Should I bother with it? Is it five months old, or five years old?

Obviously, currency often equals reliability and value, when it comes to information. It is a major criterion for evaluating a source or website. And it drives you crazy when no date is to be found!

Of course, if you’re a savvy scholar, you will find other sources that will have the same valuable information, with clear dates of publication. That should be no problem if (1) you’re willing to put in enough time to do the research, and (2) the topic is not so esoteric that other sources cannot be found.

But always take everything with a grain of salt—even if a date is on a website document, there’s nothing to prevent fraud and dishonesty. It usually doesn’t happen, but keep in mind that it can. And if there is a date on a Web page, is it clear that this is date of the posting of the document or when the whole site was updated?

At any rate, never let your guard down, no matter how great the information may look on the surface. Keep muttering the Reagan mantra—“trust, but verify.” By verifying, that means finding corroborating sources with the best possible credibility and credentials.

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