Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Bonnie L. Fong
Physical Sciences Librarian
John Cotton Dana Library
Darren B. Hansen
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry
Newark, New Jersey
Librarians have traditionally taught information literacy skills to science graduate students in separate courses dedicated to information-seeking, during assignment(s)-based library sessions for other courses, or through workshops. There is little mention in the professional literature of teaching graduate students within their research groups. This is certainly an alternative to consider -- especially for smaller science graduate programs where the more traditional means of reaching graduate students are less likely. This article discusses a collaborative effort between a Chemistry professor and Physical Sciences Librarian at Rutgers University-Newark to design a mini-course for a research group. With the amount of customization possible when working with research groups, this option may even become increasingly significant due to the growing importance of interdisciplinary research.
The information needs of science graduate students are extensive. Perhaps more so than in other disciplines, they need to exhaust the literature to be certain they are not wasting valuable time duplicating work. Having transferable information literacy skills are also especially important in the sciences given the movement towards more interdisciplinary work.
Coming from a variety of undergraduate institutions -- sometimes American, sometimes international -- students likely begin their graduate careers with differing levels of information literacy skills. Science graduate students may be among the least prepared when it comes to information-seeking because their undergraduate courses typically do not require them to do literature research. There are more international graduate students studying the sciences than other disciplines (Council of Graduate Schools 2011) and these students may be less prepared than American students. It is imperative that science professors and librarians ensure all graduate students learn the information literacy skills that will help them succeed in both their research-intensive graduate programs and beyond the borders of the university.
Science students have been taught information literacy skills for more than 20 years. This section discusses some of the more traditional methods used by various universities across the nation.
One possible venue for teaching graduate students research skills is a separate course dedicated entirely to literature research skills, although whether the course is mandatory or optional varies. A 2005 survey performed by Garritano and Culp (2010) indicated that 10 out of 249 chemistry departments who responded had a separate chemical information course at the graduate level (p. 341). At the University of Pennsylvania, first-year chemistry graduate students were required to enroll in a chemical information class, with students divided up depending on research interests (Currano 2005). At the University of Kansas, first and second year chemistry Ph.D. students had the option of taking a chemistry bibliography course to meet their Foreign Language or Research Skills requirement (Emmett & Emde 2007). In the interdisciplinary Toxicology graduate program at Oregon State University, students could take an online information-seeking course (Thomson, Jenkins, & Buhler 1995). Sometimes, information courses were open to both graduate and upper-level undergraduate students (Abrash 1992; O'Neill & Goetz 1995).
When a separate course is not feasible, whether due to lack of teaching faculty, librarians, or student enrollment, research skills may be strategically integrated into the curriculum -- which has been argued to be more effective than a separate course (Lee & Wiggins 1998) -- or covered in single or multiple class sessions. Because graduate programs consist of fewer required courses than undergraduate programs, it may be more difficult to implement integration. In fact, the literature is sparse regarding this method at the graduate level. Somerville and Cardinal (2003) make mention of graduate students in their description of how the University of Rochester's chemistry department integrated chemical information lessons in a sequential manner, but the sequence there began with a first-semester undergraduate general chemistry course, up to advanced inorganic and organic chemistry courses with graduate students enrolled.
More conventional are assignment-based library instruction sessions. At Northeastern University, first-year chemistry graduate students were required to take a "Research Skills & Ethics" course, which included two sessions on chemical literacy, although only one was taught by a librarian (Mabrouk 2001). After the session, students were expected to prepare a bibliography for their final presentation (Mabrouk 2001). At the University of Idaho, two assignments in the senior/graduate-level "Engineering Risk Assessment" course required students to find information about specific chemicals, so a librarian explained how to research chemical toxicity (Prorak & von Braun 1993). That lecture was recorded for off-campus students to watch (Prorak & von Braun 1993). In the Masters of Biotechnology program at the University of Toronto-Mississauga, patent searching was taught during a single class session within the "Biotechnology in Medicine" course and involved group projects where students were required to use patent literature (MacMillan & Thuna 2010).
Even if librarians do not have the opportunity to teach information literacy skills during class time, (optional) workshops can be offered to help students fill gaps in their research knowledge. These workshops may cover broad or very narrow topics. At Oregon State University, literature review workshops were offered for all graduate students, regardless of discipline (Rempel & Davidson 2008). At the University of California, Santa Barbara, two series of workshops -- one for the physical sciences and engineering, one for the environmental and life sciences -- were offered to new graduate students and faculty (Martorana & Meszaros 1997). Chemistry library staff at Purdue University provided optional biweekly "Ice Cream Seminars" to their chemistry graduate students throughout the academic year (Garritano 2008). At Cornell University, the Physical Sciences Library staff provided full and half-day workshops all year long, including during the summer (O'Neill & Goetz 1995). They also ran monthly user meetings about various topics and found these meetings to be very successful, with specific topics (e.g., Polymer Searching) seen as more appealing to researchers than generic ones (e.g., STN Updates) (O'Neill & Goetz 1995). A needs assessment performed at the University of Western Ontario affirmed subject-specific workshops as being more desirable for science graduate students, but the same study revealed that while they recognized the benefits of attending a particular optional workshop, the students still might not attend (Hoffmann, Antwi-Nsiah, Feng, & Stanley 2008).
Working with research groups is one way to provide tailored instruction that graduate students are more likely to attend. Somerville and Carr (1998) emphasize the potential in these situations to develop examples and questions for the group to work on during the librarian presentation. Although these targeted presentations are effective, they can also be quite time-consuming (Somerville 1989; Somerville & Carr 1998). Somerville and Carr (1998) suggest staggering research group presentations over the course of more than a year! This might be alright if the sessions are meant to serve as refreshers (Somerville & Cardinal 2003), but it seems to be a long time to wait to learn of updates or other new changes.
Customized instruction may be especially appreciated by research groups studying interdisciplinary subjects. This is one perspective not yet discussed in the literature. The traditional disciplinary nature of education may result in graduate students not being familiar enough with resources outside of their undergraduate major. And although faculty advisors may pass along relevant articles or e-mail alerts to their students, they may not necessarily teach them information-seeking skills (Flaxbart 2001). The growing trend of interdisciplinarity is of much concern to the academic community, including libraries and librarians (Goldenberg-Hart 2008). Graduate students doing interdisciplinary research have expressed worries and fears about not finding everything and missing information (Goldenberg-Hart 2008). Thus, teaching information literacy skills to interdisciplinary research groups via highly tailored sessions may well become a new trend in librarianship.
Learning within research groups in the sciences is nothing new. In fact, chemistry graduate students have indicated that they learn a lot from their peers, chiefly those in their research group, and most especially the ones further along in their graduate careers (Gardner 2008). A study by Gardner (2008) revealed that having good relationships with peers in one's research group may be even more important than that with one's faculty advisor! Due to the importance of peer support and the large amount of time research groups spend together in their laboratory each week, it is helpful to build community within the groups. Graduate students at NYU agree, expressing interest in more community building and making new connections (Goldenberg-Hart 2008). To accomplish this, Gardner (2008) suggests "structured professional development workshops on pertinent topics" (p. 346), which mirrors exactly the information-seeking mini-course designed by a Chemistry professor and Physical Sciences Librarian at Rutgers University-Newark.
The chemistry graduate program at Rutgers-Newark consists of approximately 25 students, whereby anywhere from three to eight new doctoral students enroll each year. With just 15 faculty members in the department, an average of only three graduate courses is offered each semester. In addition to coursework, graduation requirements include submitting an independent 10-page proposal of a novel research idea unrelated to one's thesis, as well as doing research, writing, and defending one's thesis. Thus, information literacy skills are quite beneficial for chemistry graduate students.
Currently, information literacy is not taught within graduate-level chemistry courses at Rutgers-Newark. Given the modest number of faculty and graduate students in the department, offering a separate course dedicated to the subject is not possible. And with only one course required of all chemistry graduate students, integrating information literacy skills within the curriculum in a sequential manner is not feasible. A librarian providing optional workshops on relevant information literacy topics is also unlikely to be a solution, based on the already small number of potential attendees and previous experiences on campus of very low attendance at library workshops.
In an effort to meet the information needs of an interdisciplinary research group within the chemistry department, the faculty advisor for the group contacted the Physical Sciences Librarian in order to develop a series of library sessions to introduce the students to a number of topics, such as relevant online resources, reference management, and data management. This "mini-course" was carefully customized according to the research interests of the group and could be implemented quickly, without any administrative red tape.
All full-time graduate students from a biochemistry research laboratory group were required to attend a mini-course during the Fall 2011 semester. Part-time graduate students were also welcome to attend when possible. The mini-course consisted of five 90-minute sessions taking place during one of the designated "free" (i.e., no classes) periods on campus. The selection of this time slot was important because most of the students were Teaching Assistants (TAs). Although the original intent was to meet every other week, due to prior commitments, sessions were sometimes scheduled in greater than two-week intervals. To allow for hands-on experience, all sessions were held in one of the library's computer classrooms.
At different points in their graduate career, the students likely had varying levels of familiarity with the Rutgers University Libraries (RUL) system, so the first session provided them with an introduction to that system, with an emphasis on the John Cotton Dana Library on the Newark campus. Students were oriented to the RUL web site, online catalog, and interlibrary loan system. They were shown the unique RUL Toolbar (Firefox extension/add-on). Special attention was called to certain research guides, including the guide created for the mini-course (see Appendix). Students were reminded of the importance of proper citations and avoiding plagiarism. Additionally, prior to searching online indexes and databases, students were reminded of the purpose of Boolean operators.
Students were directed to several online reference materials of particular interest to their research group (see Table 1) and asked to explore them on their own. Although a few of them were briefly discussed and quickly demonstrated during the mini-course, the primary focus of the course was online indexes and databases.
Table 1: List of Online Reference Materials
|Online Resource||Subject Area|
|1||Combined Chemical Dictionary||Chemistry|
|2||Encyclopedia of Supramolecular Chemistry||Chemistry|
|3||e-EROS: Encyclopedia of Reagents for Organic Synthesis||Chemistry|
|4||Sax's Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials||Chemistry|
|5||World of Microbiology and Immunology||Biology|
With over 300 online resources available at Rutgers, the mini-course was intended to familiarize the students with those most relevant to their research group's interests and the students' TA responsibilities. Table 2 explains the reasoning behind each resource selected.
Table 2: List of Online Resources & the Reasons for Choosing Them
|Online Resource||Reason for Choice|
|1||Academic Search Premier||TAs should know|
|2||Science Reference Center||TAs should know|
|3||Science Direct||TAs should know|
|4||Web of Science||Citations analysis|
|7||Annual Reviews||New resource!|
|8||Bacteriology Abstracts (Microbiology B)||Research interest|
|9||BIOSIS Previews||Research interest|
|10||CAB Abstracts||Research interest|
The Physical Sciences Librarian demonstrated the first 10 items on Table 2 to the students and invited the Life Sciences Librarian to do the same with the last three. Both librarians addressed Standard Two of the Association of College & Research Libraries' (ACRL) Information Literacy Standards for Science and Engineering/Technology, which recognizes the need for students to be able to acquire information both effectively and efficiently (ALA/ACRL/STS Task Force 2006).
To illustrate how to use each resource listed in Table 2, librarians employed search terms related to the research group's areas of interest. Students were then given time during the session for hands-on searching for topics of their choice. For homework, they were asked to continue exploring the resources on their own and fill out an online form noting the following for each resource:
The purpose was to encourage the students to become more familiar with the resources, to reflect on the usefulness of each in various situations, and to share this information with their fellow peers during the next session. Answers were to be collected, compiled into a single document, and then distributed amongst the group in an effort to encourage collaborative learning. The hope was that the varied perspectives of each student would be conveyed and there would be a greater sense of community within the group.
To help students organize their references, RefWorks, a web-based bibliographic management program, was demonstrated. This particular tool was chosen for several reasons. Rutgers subscribes to it and since RefWorks now also allows alumni continued access to their account so long as their university maintains its subscription (RefWorks 2009), this is great for graduate students likely to continue with the same kind of research after graduating.
Many indexes and databases offer convenient and straightforward direct importing of references into RefWorks, but students were also shown how to import references indirectly from indexes and databases. Following this was a demonstration on how to create bibliographies. The wide-ranging list of possible citation styles includes an extensive list of science journal-specific styles, so is extremely helpful for students interested in publishing their work. Also advantageous is RefWorks' Write-N-Cite program, which helps with in-text citations. The vendor tutorial for Write-N-Cite (see Appendix) was shown during one session. Using temporary placeholders, the program allows for easy switching from one journal's preferred citation style to another, should students decide to submit their work to a different journal.
Research groups may find the ability to share folders in RefWorks useful due to their similar research interests. The faculty advisor might share articles all members of the group should read or a student in the group might share one that is relevant. Sharing reference lists also helps make collaborative work, such as co-writing an article, easier. Additionally, being able to add attachments and link to the full-text of articles (via a link resolver icon) is quite convenient.
Given that data management is becoming an increasingly important topic in scientific research, the Data Services Librarian was invited to facilitate a discussion about it. The importance of data management was emphasized and implementation discussed. The research group shared how they currently manage data -- who manages it, what kind of data are created, how much data are created in a typical week, how information is documented, how it is shared, preserved, and archived. The Data Services Librarian offered suggestions for meeting some of the challenges of data management. One option for preservation is to deposit complete datasets in Rutgers University's data repository, the RUresearch Data Portal.
A great advantage to working with graduate students in a research group is the ability to tailor discussions to exactly the type of research being done by the group. This can be especially useful for those studying interdisciplinary topics. For example, although the students that went through the mini-course are in a research group within the chemistry department, their research deals with microbiology, so resources in that area were featured during the mini-course. Feedback from the students indicated that they all found the mini-course to be helpful. They grew more confident is using the resources demonstrated and are now using library resources more often.
Having a dedicated time for students to perform hands-on exploration of indexes and databases they may not have otherwise looked at on their own was also beneficial. They could learn in a low-stress, friendly environment. In addition, both a librarian and their faculty advisor were on-hand to answer questions related to searching as well as practical applications in scientific research and publishing.
One of the hopes was that the mini-course would bring the students closer together and thus encourage them to work with each other in future endeavors. After all, collaboration is very important in the sciences, especially with the growing importance of interdisciplinary research. This was a core reason behind their homework assignments. The plan was that students would discuss their responses to the questions and learn from each other. Unfortunately, there was very low compliance with completing the assignments online and attempts at persuading students to share their thoughts about the various resources during the sessions themselves failed. In an effort to encourage a more collaborative atmosphere and also incorporate a method of accountability, future students might be asked to partner-up and present about specific topics during research group meetings.
Although students deep in their own research may have very specific searches they would like to perform, newer students may not. Therefore, not all students were able to make effective use of the time provided for hands-on searching. This lack of direction when it came to searching may have also played a role in the low responses to assignments and to participating in discussions about using the various resources. To add more structure to the hands-on searching period, in-class assignments will be created for future courses.
Three months after the last library instruction session, students participated in an assessment that measured their retained knowledge of course content. While the results were very positive, without having assessed the students' skills prior to the start of the mini-course, it is difficult to say for certain they could not have scored equally as well without having undergone the mini-course. Therefore, to more accurately measure the effectiveness of the mini-course, students should be asked to participate in both pre- and post-assessments.
Given the encouraging results from the mini-course, the idea was born to expand it to include other chemistry graduate students. Perhaps chemical information literacy skills could even be integrated within an existing course. The graduate seminar course is a possibility as it is the only course regularly offered and required of all chemistry graduate students. This would bring a measure of accountability to completing assignments and would also provide students with the opportunity to work with those outside their own research groups. In fact, the new plan is to try this approach during the Fall 2012 semester.
In light of the broader audience, the list of resources discussed will need to be reconsidered to include those that might be of interest to other kinds of chemists - computational chemists, inorganic chemists, physical chemists, etc. This would also provide the students with greater breadth of knowledge - an advantage in an increasingly interdisciplinary world. Additionally, the order of presentations may be modified to better relate to the topics of the weekly seminar series sponsored by the chemistry department.
Table 3 summarizes the advantages and disadvantages to teaching information literacy skills within a research group as compared with separate courses and workshops. One similarity between teaching within a research group and in a separate course dedicated to literature research is a guaranteed, established audience. Presenters know approximately how many students will attend each session and have the advantage of being able to build on material taught in previous sessions, an efficient model that reduces repetition. This is not the case for workshops.
Content coverage differs in all three scenarios. In a course for credit, there may be various curricular requirements to fulfill and a limited amount of time to cover them. When teaching to research groups, however, there are none of these conventional time constraints. Depending on the group's interests, it is possible to discuss any and all topics desired. The sessions can be tailored specifically to the research group's needs, including interdisciplinary library resources or publicly available datasets. Knowing the audience makes it easier for the presenter to determine how to focus a session and what searches to demonstrate. This is not possible with courses consisting of all students in the department because there are simply too many resources available and the information needs of biochemists are quite different from those of physical chemists or computational chemists. Instead, a course that includes all types of chemistry students in it may be limited to encompassing only the major resources, possibly resulting in some students missing those of vital interest to their research group, especially if the group studies interdisciplinary topics. Workshops tend to fall somewhere in the middle of all this because even if a very specific resource or topic is chosen, it is not possible for the presenter to customize sessions to every attendee's research interests.
In both research groups and workshops, students can learn in a stress-free environment, without worrying about grades. They are able to learn simply for learning's sake. Of course, when there is no immediately obvious goal (such as a course grade) associated with learning, there might be a lack of motivation or lack of focus on the student's part. Graded assignments might also help demonstrate a more direct relevancy. So, a for-credit course may have an advantage here.
Another advantage a dedicated course has over workshops or working with research groups is that students taking a course tend to be around the same level (e.g., first year graduate students). This can help keep the content and pace of the course appropriate for as many students as possible. In research groups, students are typically at different points in their graduate career, with first-year students mixed in with fifth-year students. Attendees of optional workshops may vary even more, with faculty, staff, and perhaps even undergraduate students participating - especially if a new resource is being introduced. This makes it difficult to ensure that all attendees are learning something new. For workshops, one possible solution might be to offer basic and advanced sessions (Hoffmann, Antwi-Nsiah, Feng, & Stanley 2008), but that is not feasible with research groups. Perhaps, though, having a mix of attendees with varying levels of experience and perspectives in finding information can result in them learning interesting tips or tricks from each other.
Table 3: Comparing Teaching Within Research Groups, Separate Courses, and Workshops
|Guaranteed audience?||Build on previous sessions?||Session tailored to attendees?||Work graded?||Students at the same level?|
|Research Group (required)||Yes||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Separate Course (required)||Yes||Yes||No||Yes||Yes|
The sustainability of teaching information literacy skills within courses, research groups, and workshops must be studied. The frequency and variety of workshops offered will determine what time commitment is required of the presenter. Depending on how many academic departments a librarian is responsible for, how many research groups exists within each, and how many sessions those groups may be interested in, this may mean a low to high-level time commitment. With courses, the time required for grading and other miscellaneous administrative duties must be considered. Sustainability also depends on university policy and whether sustainability is being examined from the librarian's perspective or that of the library's administration. Are librarians teaching it (in their own time) as an adjunct professor, given release time to teach, or is teaching an information skills course treated as part of their regular responsibilities?
Teaching information-seeking skills to science graduate students within a research group is definitely an option to consider and certainly not limited to just the chemistry department. One of its greatest benefits is the ability to customize presentations to the specific interests of the group. This might be especially appreciated by interdisciplinary (such as biochemistry or geophysics) research groups because the students there may not have had the opportunity to be exposed to resources outside their primary academic department. Additionally, there is the potential to build a more closely-knit group that is comfortable with sharing information-seeking tips with each other.
Given how time-intensive it may be for a librarian to reach all the research groups in his/her areas of responsibilities, however, this should not be the only means to teach graduate students how to do literature research. Rather, a combination of methods may be best. Graduate students could be introduced to all major information resources during a required course earlier on in their graduate career. Special sessions about resources of unique interest could be offered within research groups. Workshops might be the venue used to introduce new resources to students, faculty, and staff. For any and all options chosen, though, it is important to evaluate long-term sustainability.
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Guide for mini-course: http://libguides.rutgers.edu/hansen2011
Write-N-Cite tutorial: http://www.refworks.com/tutorial