Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1997

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Biological Research and the Library: A Collaboration in Online Research and Library Instruction

Terri Pedersen Summey
Electronic Services/Reference Librarian
Emporia State University


With more emphasis placed upon research in undergraduate biology courses offered at Emporia State University, students needed to use the library. Since the library canceled its subscription to Biological Abstracts in 1985, biology students rely upon subsidized online searches to obtain citations relevant to their research. To do their research, collaboration with librarians has become a necessity. Initially the mediated search service was only available to graduate students and faculty members associated with the Division of Biological Sciences. As time progressed and new faculty members joined the division, more emphasis was placed upon research in undergraduate courses as well. To accommodate these students with a limited online search budget and search staff, something needed to be done. The result was a collaboration between instructors in the Biology Division and the librarian in charge of the Library's Online Search Service. Through time this relationship has evolved as access to more electronic databases has been added to the library's resources. Currently, the students attend an instructional session on research strategy and an introduction to OCLC's FirstSearch Service. This article will explore the relationship formed and how the collaboration has evolved over the years. It will also outline the instruction session that is now being offered and discuss its effectiveness.


In 1985, due to budget constraints and high cost of indexing and abstracting services, the library at Emporia State University decided to cancel some of these services. Among those affected by the decision was the Division of Biological Sciences with the cancellation of Biological Abstracts. To facilitate research, an agreement was reached between Library Services and the Biology Division to offer subsidized online searches. Initially the mediated search service was only available to graduate students and faculty members associated with the Division of Biological Sciences. As time progressed and new faculty members joined the division, more emphasis was placed upon research in undergraduate courses as well. To accommodate these students with a limited online search budget and staff, something needed to be done. The result was a collaboration between an instructor in the biology division and the librarian in charge of the Library's Online Search Service. Through time this relationship has evolved as access to more electronic databases has been added to the library's resources. Currently the students do most of their own searching through OCLC's First Search service after attending a workshop to introduce what they will need to know to find the information.

Library Instruction in Biology

The Division of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University offers an upper level course entitled General Genetics which is required to be taken by all Biology majors before graduating from the University. Since it is a required course, the class usually ranges in size from thirty to sixty students per semester. One of the requirements of the course is a term paper which must be a review article about a topic in genetics. To complete this paper the students must do a literature search and cite at least ten articles with seven from primary scientific literature. To assist students in completing this assignment the faculty member who teaches the General Genetics course contacted the library to see what could be done for his class.

The initial contact was made by the faculty member to the librarian requesting a demonstration of the Library's Online Search service. The instructor had experience with the service because of teaching a graduate course introducing students to biological research methods. A decision was made to give undergraduates subsidized online searches after the library was accepted into the Dialog CIP program.

Dialog CIP Program

DIALOG, a Knight-Ridder company, began the CIP program to provide low cost access to the DIALOG Information Retrieval service to students from high school through graduate school. It was designed to show students the benefits of this research tool and give them training to be information users in the future. To qualify for the DIALOG CIP program three criteria had to be met. Participating groups need to be affiliated with an educational institution. Furthermore, the use of CIP must be within a supervised setting, and it must be attached to a formal course, seminar, workshop or demonstration with an online searching component. Included in the latter must be some introduction or review of basic search techniques. (DIALOG Information Services, 1992)

To be accepted into the program by DIALOG Information Services, a course in which the program was going to be used had to be identified. A copy of the syllabus was provided to show how online searching was integrated into the existing curriculum. One course targeted by Emporia State University in its application was the General Genetics course.

Research on Science Library Instruction and Online Searching

Before beginning the instruction which involved the General Genetics students, research was done by the librarian. The goal was to locate what was being done as far as library instruction and online searching with students, but specifically those in the biology area. Since several programs were already doing what the Emporia State Library was suggesting, information was available which made it easier to draft a proposal to present to the Library Director.

One program identified was at Dickinson College. An article authored by a librarian in collaboration with the Biology professor provided information on the bibliographic instruction offered to an intermediate-level course. It was first determined which course would be the most appropriate and beneficial to offer library instruction to biology students. It was felt that choosing the right class would benefit the students throughout their undergraduate career. A four-hour session that incorporated information about the library took place in the library during the first laboratory session. The instruction included an introduction to the literature of the sciences, an in-class exercise using library resources, and a lecture focusing on the structure and fundamentals of online searching. A wrap-up session with discussion to answer questions completed the instruction. Following the library instruction and laboratory assignment students were required to write a short paper to use the skills they had just learned. Both the biology faculty and the librarians at Dickinson College felt that the program was successful in giving the students the basic skills to do literature research. (Stachacz and Brennan, 1990)

Another article examined the integration of hands-on DIALOG labs into several courses at Stanford University. Three distinctly different courses were chosen to have an online searching component included. Instruction for these courses involved a brief demonstration of online searching and then students worked in teams to conduct their own searches. The librarians at Stanford, who were involved in the library instruction, found the most challenging aspect of the project was deciding what information needed to be presented to the students before allowing them access to the online databases. According to the author, the use of carefully designed handouts helped relieve the pressure of limited presentation time. Students were extremely satisfied with their experiences and a close collaborative relationship developed between the librarians and the faculty involved with the courses. It was determined that the modules developed could be used with a variety of courses and would be beneficial to the students involved. (Ward, 1985)

Librarians at the University of California, Berkeley became involved with course-integrated instruction for a General Biology course. Through the years their instruction evolved into a formal part of the course. The session was taught in stages not in the library but in the class laboratory. A field project, requiring background research, prompted the initial collaboration. The library had two main roles in the course. One was a one hour presentation over the layout of the library, biological research methods and finally a component on Biological Abstracts. The other role was a section entitled "Guide to the Biology Library" which was incorporated into the field project manual. The "Guide" gave an overview of library research in biology, emphasizing finding books and journal articles. It was felt that the sessions were important as they taught library skills as a part of scientific investigation. The library was stressed as an essential part of the research process. (Martin, 1986)

Other articles that described science related courses with an online search component were from the field of chemistry. Several good programs were discussed in various articles published in the Journal of Chemical Education. One involved a chemistry course designed for nonscience majors. Two goals were identified for this course. The first was to design online assignments that would support the overall course objectives and the other was to tailor the assignments to meet the interests of the students. Hands-on training in the use of DIALOG CIP was included in the course to teach students the skills needed to find current information in whatever field in which they might be interested. It was felt that the addition of the online search component was successful as it empowered students to find information through the acquisition of online retrieval skills. (Penhale, 1994) Hebrew University added on online search component to a second year chemistry class involving lecture, handouts and group assignments to teach search concepts. They also compared manual search strategies with computerized searching methods helping make the students aware of the existence, usage, and advantages of online information retrieval. (Wolman, 1985) At California State-Chico online searching was added as a component of an existing course. Besides laboratory assignments, a weekly search was also required with fifteen minutes of lab time dedicated to doing searches. The author discovered that students enjoyed the search component and found using the technology fun while they were learning. It was felt that a connection was made by the students that information needs often go beyond specific course work. (Cooke, 1994) An article written by Jerry Jenkins outlined a program at Otterbein College with began with an elective course entitled "Computer Assisted Searching of the Chemical Literature." Eventually the information presented in this course was incorporated into a senior seminar course. (Jenkins, 1992)

Library Instruction Involving Mediated Searches

When the instructor first contacted the librarian in charge of the online search service to learn what could be done to help students in his undergraduate course in doing their research, options were examined. It was determined that the library at Emporia State University would apply to the DIALOG CIP program to be able to afford to incorporate this online search component into the General Genetics course. After being accepted into the program, the librarian and faculty member decided go ahead with the mediated searches for undergraduates in the course on a trial basis. Concerns that needed to be monitored by the library included the large volume of students requesting searches, the time required of the librarian to do these searches, and the financial commitment needed from the library.

Students attended a single session in the library dedicated to the search component of the course. During the library instructional session students were introduced to the basic ideas behind online information retrieval, the library's online search service, and given a demonstration of what could be found using DIALOG CIP. Following this session, students in the course were given a month to do a search mediated by a search librarian. Giving the students a bibliography of citations on their topic following an online search was extremely successful and popular with the students. It took away the time element from the students in searching through various years of indexes to identify articles. Complaints about the component included the lack of student involvement in the choice of articles received in the bibliography. The inadequacy of the journal holdings in the library was also a common concern.

As technology continued to improve, the demonstrations and lecture migrated from overhead transparencies and gathering around a computer monitor to a PowerPoint presentation with a projected demonstration using a LCD projector. The online searching component was presented in this fashion for several semesters until several factors initiated a reevaluation of the program. Two of the elements that prompted a move in a different direction were the financial cost of doing so many searches per semester, along with the time element involved. During the month when the students were required to have their searches completed, the librarians who did the mediated searches literally did little else but online searching. To control costs, students had little control over the selection of citations retrieved if the topic was one with much research available.

FirstSearch is Introduced

After it was determined that a change had to be made, options that could be used to help the students with their research were examined. It was decided that the library would purchase searches in the OCLC FirstSearch program. It was estimated that the cost to provide mediated searches for the General Genetics students was an average of $5 per student. It was felt that subscribing to the FirstSearch service could be accomplished at a lesser cost to the library. FirstSearch is an end user system that gives students access to more than sixty databases provided by OCLC, Inc. Through FirstSearch students could easily use two pertinent databases: BasicBIOSIS and MEDLINE. The service provided a single interface to all of its databases that could easily be demonstrated and taught. Another important factor was that since the ESU library was a member of the OCLC system, its holdings are marked in FirstSearch helping students to identify readily what may be found in the library.

Research on FirstSearch

Before the library's purchased a subscription to FirstSearch, a proposal was submitted to the Director of the Library detailing the service, how it had been used in other institutions, the approximate cost, and the benefits of subscribing to FirstSearch. To formulate this document, information was gathered regarding the use and evaluation of FirstSearch. One article presented information gathered from a survey of ARL libraries in 1994 by Carol Tenopir and Ralf Neufang. Through their poll, the authors discovered that more than 35 percent of ARL libraries subscribe to FirstSearch. It was concluded that FirstSearch had emerged as a way for libraries to offer end-user searching easily. (Tenopir and Neufang, 1995) The ability to offer access to otherwise costly databases has been a plus at Emporia State. Through FirstSearch, the science undergraduates can now get to a subset of BIOSIS through BasicBIOSIS.

Other studies looked at the ease in which FirstSearch could be accessed and used. An article from Online looked at several end-user systems. The author concluded that FirstSearch was designed to provide easy access to information for the novice searcher. It is accessible anytime day or night and extensive training is not necessary to use the service. As she states, "The end-user is encouraged to browse, think, and interact with the system." (Kennedy, 1993) Another study that examined the experiences of first-year students at Ohio University in using FirstSearch found it to be user-friendly and generally satisfying. (Cooper, 1993)

Several institutions that served as test sites for the FirstSearch service wrote about their experiences. At Ohio State University, the service received an enthusiastic response from users. Ninety-one percent felt that the system was fast, convenient, and easy to use. (Snure, 1991) Texas A & M also served as a test site. They believed that it was an alternative to locally loading databases. One thing mentioned by the authors was that the faculty enjoyed the access to the service from their offices. This is something that has been important at Emporia State. As more students and faculty members have off campus access to the Internet, remote access to FirstSearch has become even more valuable. The accessibility of FirstSearch allows users to search at their convenience. In this electronic age, electronic access to information is essential as those libraries not offering such services will be bypassed by users going directly to other sources. (Jackson, 1993)

For a year, the University of Minnesota libraries offered unlimited searching of all available FirstSearch databases. Following that trial period they used several methods to evaluate their experience. It was discovered that the usage pattern of FirstSearch was consistent with their OPAC usage. During a FirstSearch session approximately three searches were used by a single patron. Most users were students and their access point was through the library. Only 14 percent used the system remotely. It was discovered because of its availability and electronic nature, FirstSearch was favored over the corresponding print indexes and single-user CD-ROM stations. (Moline, 1994) The University of Minnesota experience and evaluation was extremely helpful in putting together a recommendation, on FirstSearch, presented to the Library Director. Their estimate of the amount of searches used per session was employed to point out the obvious savings over the mediated searches. The savings not only included database access cost, but also in staff time required to administer the searches.

FirstSearch Instruction

Currently, the General Genetics students are introduced to FirstSearch during a one hour class presentation. In the past, this session has either been during a lab session or a class period at the beginning of the semester. The instructional session includes information presented on search ideas and strategy development along with how to use FirstSearch. A demonstration of the service is shown and is followed up with hands-on experience in using the system. Before the completion of the library's electronic classroom in 1996, the students were just given a demonstration of the system projected onto a screen. Since the classroom was built, librarians doing library instruction now have access to a room with twenty-two microcomputers and a teacher's workstation in which to teach. Library instructors now can have their students follow along with them during the demonstration. The classroom has changed the way that instruction may be offered in the library at Emporia State. To reinforce what has been taught during the instructional session handouts are provided. These include a search strategy worksheet, information on using FirstSearch through the World Wide Web, and appropriate databases for the General Genetics students. Handouts used in the class are available on the library's web site at the following URL: {http://www.emporia.edu/libsv/limatrls.htm.}

During the one hour instructional session students are introduced to the FirstSearch system and how to use it. The various databases available are presented along with information about the uniqueness of each database. Discussions are conducted on focusing on a topic, choosing key terms, and constructing a search strategy. Boolean operators and how to limit or broaden a search are also presented. Students are taught how to decipher the information presented in the citations found. Information is provided on how to find the articles they need to complete their project. All of this is followed by some time in which students may work independently on a topic of their choosing with assistance from the instructional librarian. Evaluations of the service and the training period have been favorable.

Currently, the library's access to FirstSearch is controlled through OCLC's IP Recognition Program. This means that FirstSearch is accessible anywhere on campus through the library's web page without requiring an authorization or password. Thus, the service is readily available. Both blocks of searches and individual search cards have been purchased by the library for access to FirstSearch. The latter are used to provide off-campus access to faculty and doctoral students. If they request it, students who receive some instruction in FirstSearch may be given the authorization and password to access the service off-campus. Before this fall 1997 semester, students had to be given either the password or request to be put into the system by a library employee. A noticeable decrease in the amount of questions and problems that occurred has been seen with the addition of the hands-on sessions in the electronic classroom.

Following each semester the faculty member and the librarian get together to discuss what was done during the instructional session and to share thoughts about that portion of the course. Goals and objectives are discussed and along with any proposals. Information shared during these conversations is then used to make modifications, if necessary. It has been discovered that communication is essential in any successful partnership.

Future Plans

One of the most important questions left to be answered is where is this going in the future? One answer to that is through the web. Emporia State has joined the trend in higher education to present some web-based courses. General Genetics was one course transferred to web access. To provide training and access to FirstSearch students that might be taking the web based course, a FirstSearch tutorial was designed. This tutorial was partially adapted from a tour of FirstSearch designed by OCLC and available on their web page. It was designed to be a module that can be attached to the General Genetics home page and serves as a model for other web-based library instruction modules that can be developed in the future.

At one time, it was uncertain whether or not FirstSearch was a service that the library wanted to offer. Now it has become a vital part of what the library has to provide for its patrons. Until something comes along that can do what the FirstSearch system can do to support our undergraduate biology students the service is a part of the library. A goal that the library would like to achieve is to train more students in the use of the system and involve more classes in the project. Groundwork in this area has been done with the Division of Biological Sciences and a relationship has been built that can serve as the foundation for similar collaborative efforts in the future. Other ideas explored by the librarian in charge of this project include using more active learning techniques to present the information. That is something that will be researched and added very soon to the instructional session. Although it seems that much can be done to improve access for the students in the General Genetics course, the Library at Emporia State University has made great strides from where it began. With the fast growing changes in technology, predicting what the future holds for electronic information retrieval is difficult.


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