Archive for the ‘Research Process’ Category

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The Future of L’Annee Philologique

April 17, 2012

I am possibly the last Classics-related blogger to post the petition asking the German government and/or Heidelberg to reconsider defunding the German office of L’Annee; North American readers should also have a look at today’s APA’s blog post on the subject, which makes the activities of the several national offices of the APA more clear to those not familiar with them, and vaguely promises some future call to action.  It seems the German office has fallen prey to one of the classic Catch-22 situations of academic funding: there are funds for exciting new projects, but it’s very hard to fund a project that has been going on for 100 years, no matter how useful it may be.

I hope and trust that L’Annee will not go away; it remains the most comprehensive bibliographic index for Classics.  I will admit to indulging in some private speculation about what I might design to replace L’Annee Philologique if it did go away (first, I’d have a much more robust subject classification using a standard vocabulary of keywords).  I also wonder if there are any good numbers out there (public numbers) about how often L’Annee is used, and by whom.  I was rather surprised when the new interface debuted a couple of springs ago, and nobody seemed to notice for several weeks, suggesting that the average Classics scholar does not use L’Annee every day, or even every week.  For the Younger Generation (aka These Kids Today) is Google Scholar coming first?

In other news, I am still working at the University of Cincinnati Classics Library, currently on a part-time basis (by my choice) doing a shift of the journals.  It’s rather meditative, looking at the rows of bound volumes, and thinking about the venerable reliables that crank out an issue faithfully every year, and have done so for 125 years; the hopeful upstarts that published for a decade and then died; the lean years (World War II is notable in the thinness of many European titles) and the skipped issues, and the journals that keep getting fatter.  Sometimes I have deep thoughts, and then other times I just think too many articles are being published, and my thumb hurts.

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Updates from L’Annee Philologique

October 18, 2011

While I was away, the APA blog (which is a useful one to follow in general, especially for calls for proposals for conferences in the US) posted a valuable update on  L’Annee online, including both content and technological upgrades.

Content:

  • Volume 80 (2009) was added in August.
  • 2200 records from Volume 81 (2010) were added in June, and all of Volume 81 (2010) will be available at the end of 2011.  Nice to see them getting so prompt!

New Features:

  • Set alerts for searches that you’ve done and saved in your history. The online user guide gives directions for doing this. I haven’t tried it, but the blog post says this searches  new updates to the database and sends you an email.  Since L’Annee does not update very frequently, this is less useful than search alerts in other article databases which update weekly or even daily, but still worth a try if you tend to forget to check L’Annee.
  • L’Annee offers an RSS feed of all new entries. Again, nice feature, but given the way L’Annee currently updates, a dump 2-3 times a year of thousands of new entries via RSS might be overwhelming! If you use an RSS reader that allows you to filter or search entries, this might work for you.
  • L’Annee online is now Z39.50-compliant (Z39.50 is a library tech standard for interoperability). The practical result of this for users is that EndNote users can now download a filter that will allow them to search L’Annee online from within EndNote.  Download the .enz file posted on the APA web site to do this.
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They’re Crowdsourcing Papyrus Transcription!

July 28, 2011

One of the hot time-wasting-at-work activities for underemployed and geeky office workers this summer has been the New York Public Library’s What’s on the Menu? project, which asks the public to help transcribe historical restaurant menus from a very large collection.  Menus can’t be reliably transcribed automatically by Optical Character Recognition (OCR), because they tend to use unusual fonts and layouts. In further evidence that there’s a passionate user group out there for nearly any topic, volunteers at the menu transcription project have so far transcribed 475,731 dishes  from 8,821 menus.

What else can’t reliably be transcribed by OCR? Papyri! (Or anything written by hand; for the ancient world this mostly means papyri.)  The Ancient Lives project invites the public to help transcribe items from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, whose excavation is described at some length.  The project has gotten a lot of press, and there has also been discussion on academic list-servs, with some skepticism about whether the public will be willing and/or able to crowdsource ancient Greek handwriting, and some concerns about the ethics of asking the public to contribute to a project while giving nothing in return.

Ancient Lives is hosted by Zooniverse, which describes itself as a “citizen science” website, and hosts multiple crowdsourcing projects, the majority related to astronomy – participants are asked to look at images of space, many from the Hubble telescope, and identify anomalies, classify galaxies by shape, etc.  The site states it has had 445,501 volunteers (a free login is required to participate) and if the testimonials at the site are reflective of this population, the volunteers are largely enthusiastic, and feel they are being rewarded, for example by learning more about astronomy. One keen-eyed amateur astronomer discovered a new phenomenon, now named after her (Hanny’s Vorweerp is the original; they are now a known and soon-to-be-formally-published phenomenon called Vorweerpjes!)

Could Ancient Lives be a teaching tool in the classroom for you?  Could introductory Greek students get practice recognizing Greek letters by transcribing papyri (or would non-standard handwriting confuse them)? Would an assignment to explore the site fit in to a general Greek Civilization class, or a literature class that reads works whose documentation is affected by the finds at Oxyrhynchus (Menander, for example)?  Or might it be a fun way to procrastinate from that syllabus-writing you should be doing this week?

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Scholarly Journals in the News…

July 20, 2011

My Twitter feed broke out in a tizzy yesterday at the news that Aaron Swarz was charged with breaking into a wiring closet at MIT (with which he was not affiliated; during the incident he was employed as a Fellow at the Harvard Center for Ethics [!]) while wearing a bike helmet over his face, and using a personal laptop to download some 4 million articles from Jstor.  Jstor issued a statement about the case, emphasizing that they had not asked for the prosecution, and they do have a service to allow scholars to work with large corpora of articles, if they ask permission first. Demand Progress, an advocacy organization with which Swarz has been affiliated, also released a statement, describing the charges as “bizarre” and arguing that Swarz was being prosecuted for the equivalent of “checking too many books out of the library.”

Usually when my Twitter people are in a tizzy about something they agree with one another, but yesterday they were quite divided – some saw this as a case of advocacy for academic freedom on the internet, and some saw this as a straightforward illegal act (whether or not it should be a matter of criminal charges).  Comments on articles in the New York Times and Wired were similarly variable – and one thing that struck me was the level of ignorance about Jstor from many, especially those in the computing community.  The first 10 comments on the Wired article mostly simply ask, “What is Jstor, and why should we care about this?” Ah, the academic bubble we live in!

Some important questions are being brought forward, and I think it is healthy for the “information on the internet should be free” and the “in the real world, we agree to licensing agreements and violating them is bad” camps to engage with one another.  Jstor is a wonderful service, but it is an expensive one (prices are here); it’s a not-for-profit, but one commenter alleges that more than 10 of its employees have salaries over $250,000 (are they hiring? do they want me?!?).  Should Jstor do more to make its materials accessible to the public? What about the things in Jstor that are out of copyright due to age?

Barbara Fister manages to pull the Swarz incident into her current post, titled “Breaking News: Academic Journals Are Really Expensive!”  If you’re a librarian reading this, you probably know all about the crisis in scholarly publishing; if you’re a student or a faculty member and don’t know, you should find out, because this is a big issue that directly relates to your career.  Looking at article comments, and the current Twitter search for Jstor, can give you a fascinating glimpse at others’ worldviews (whatever yours might be.) As for mine, I find myself in agreement with the comments by Peter Suber in 2008, on an Open Access manifesto apparently written by Swarz.

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Research Workflow and Digital Texts

July 13, 2011

I continue to be interested in academic workflows in general, and how digital tools and texts are being incorporated (or not incorporated) into them.  I’ve written up a first draft of an essay on the project I and some colleagues did with Kindles in an English class this past spring, and am currently most struck by the responses of those students who struggled with the immateriality of a digital book.  Some students took to the Kindle like a duck to water, but others (in surveys) wrote of their disorientation within the e-book, because of their ingrained habit of dealing with books as material objects as well as content containers.

Two interesting essays I’ve read recently on this topic are available open-access:

Cull, Barry W., 2011. “Reading revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe, ” First Monday 16: 6, at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340/2985

Hillesund, Terje, 2010. “Digital reading spaces: How expert readers handle books, the Web, and electronic paper,” First Monday 15: 4, at http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2762/2504

A recent Institute of Classical Studies (London) Digital Classicist Seminar was not specifically focused on reading of digital texts, but took a broader approach to discussing the research practices of academics, and specifically classicists and archaeologists, among others.  Agiatis Benardou spoke on a project that conducted semi-structured interviews with 24 scholars as an attempt to understand their research workflows (as part of planning for a European project to create digital research infrastructure.) I haven’t had the time to listen to the audio of the seminar, which is available as a link, but the introduction, the tweets from the session and the slides available in .pdf all are quite interesting.

It’s a basic principle of librarianship that understanding the patron’s needs is paramount (Ranganathan, “Every reader his book,”), and it’s exciting to see that those developing digital research tools are first seeking to understand user needs and existing practices, before tool development even begins. While we can and do expect user behaviors to change as a result of new technologies – and some of my reluctant Kindle readers will probably figure out a way to feel at home with an e-book as they become more common – it’s also important to know where your users are, and not just where you want them to be going.

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Are Research Papers Worthwhile?

April 21, 2011

I’ve been thinking about Barbara Fister’s recent blog post arguing that the “research paper” isn’t working as an assignment for undergraduates.  While I agree with her that excessive focus on the mechanics of citation styles causes unnecessary stress for many students, I am more ambivalent about statements like this:

I have long agreed with Richard Larson who wrote way back in 1982 that the research paper as taught in college is an artificial genre, one that works at cross-purposes to actually developing respect for evidence-based reasoning, a measured appreciation for negotiating ideas that are in conflict, or original thought.

I do have a lot of sympathy for this paragraph, though, since I regularly see struggling students with these problems:

I hate it when students who have hit on a novel and interesting way of looking at an issue tell me they have to change their topic because they can’t find sources that say exactly what they plan to say. I try to persuade them otherwise, but they believe that original ideas are not allowed in “research.” How messed up is that? The other and, sadly, more frequent reference desk winch-making moment involves a student needing help finding sources for a paper he’s already written. Most commonly, students pull together a bunch of sources, many of which they barely understand on a topic they know little about, and do their best to mash the contents up into the required number of pages.

I don’t think the blame is to be placed on the research paper as an assignment, but I do think many undergraduates need a lot of support along the way if they are to write good research papers.  Finding a workable thesis, finding and understanding appropriate scholarly sources, and writing a competent argument are discrete tasks that each require multiple skills; I have trouble covering just the research piece in an hour-long library instruction session.

I do think there are valuable assignments at the undergraduate and even graduate levels that help teach many research paper skills without technically being research papers. In one undergraduate class, I was assigned several papers where the topic was a question, required to be used as the title of the (short) paper and answered within it, using scholarly sources which I had to find.  In another, we were given a controversial topic and a short bibliography of scholarly sources with contrasting viewpoints and required to write a paper assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments.  These types of assignment help teach some of the skills that a research paper does – analysis, critical thinking, and writing a persuasive argument.  Other assignments could be devised to focus more specifically on the thesis-development and research and source evaluation pieces.

While I have seen many students struggle with research papers, I don’t think the answer is to eliminate the research paper at the college level.  I think every college graduate should be able to produce a competent 10-page paper.  But I do agree that many undergraduates do not arrive in college with the skills necessary to do this, and we should be teaching them these skills in a systematic way, and not just throwing them into the process and watching them struggle.

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Are You A Bibliography Nut?

April 15, 2011

Michael E. Smith posted on his blog that he has 18,000 bibliographic references in his EndNote database! Which got me wondering, how do others stack up?  Anyone got him beat? Have you actually read everything in your bibliographic file, or do you, like Smith, add things you “are likely to use”?

I have an interest in the technicalities of scholarly workflow, so I love to read blog posts like this that track the technological changes that have shaped a scholar’s workflow over decades:

It all started early in graduate school, when Clark Erickson showed me his library card catalog drawers full of references written on 3×5 index cards. How cool was that! I immediately started my own program of price supports for the index card manufacturers. Clark and I would make cards for each other when we came across appropriate references. I think I had between 15,000 and 20,000 cards in all. In the 1980s I got up to 1,000 or so citations into the Minark database. What a klunker! OK for very early PC days, I guess, but I soon switched to a bibliography program (I forget which one).

I think I had a Filemaker Pro database for citations on my Mac laptop in the late 1990s, and I definitely remember when my classmate pioneered an early version of EndNote in the department (I think this was about 1999).  I currently use EndNote, RefWorks, and Zotero, though none of them heavily.  But plenty of scholars – from undergraduates to faculty members – still use pieces of paper or Word documents to keep lists of citations. How does a citation management program affect the way scholars work? If you have 18,000 references in a database, are you more or less likely to turn up the right article for the project at hand? I don’t know that anyone’s studied this, and I can’t really conceive how one would do so quantitatively, but I find it as interesting as the transition (or not) from print to digital texts for scholarly work.