Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Merging Subject Guides into Subject Pages

If yours is like a lot of academic libraries, somewhere in it there's a shelf, or a twirly rack, or a set of letterboxes, in which you keep your subject-based research guides.

Those guides might have lists of databases or citation indexes, or reference books (complete with call numbers and/or URLS), or Boolean search tips. Chances are you haven't updated them in awhile. There are always so many other things to do. And if you're me, when you make a research guide these days, you tailor it to a particular class, even a particular assignment.

Research guides make a lot of sense. They probably made more when most library research tools were paper-based. But these days, that's no longer the case for most of us.

At Online Northwest this year, I was impressed by the Course Assignment Guides developed by the OSU Libraries. These are the next step beyond class- or assignment-specific guides such as we use at my library: research tools fully integrated with help in using them, dynamically generated according to the librarian's specifications.

So why not organize subject resources this way? So many subject pages (including ours, I admit) are just lists of resources with hyperlinks. There's not much there to guide students. Sure, if students comes to the reference desk or to a class, we can teach them to use these things (and they should do that anyway), but for those who don't, a few tips, pointers, and ways to get help can go a long way.

Some people will still want a printed handout or research guide, but if you're using a content management system to generate your website, or even just know a bit of CSS, you can create an integrated guide/subject page that has a print-friendly exemplar for whoever wants one.

We're looking at revamping subject guides at my library; most of ours are out of date and refer to resources we no longer have or have access to. Instead of just generating a new handout, I'm advocating taking this integrated approach.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Handy (and Short) Explanation of NIH Open Access Mandate

In the latest issue of Open Medicine, Peter Suber gives a rundown of the NIH's new open access mandate. I could not get the table included in the article to appear, but Coturnix's post on ScienceBlogs provides an image: a handy list of misconceptions about the mandate, countered by the actual facts. Take a look.

More on the Georgia State lawsuit

...from today's Inside Higher Ed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Latest Battle in the Copyright Wars: Digital Course Packs

From today's New York Times, "Publishers Sue Georgia State on Digital Reading Matter":

In a complaint filed Tuesday in United States District Court in Atlanta, the publishers — Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Sage Publications — sued four university officials, asserting “systematic, widespread and unauthorized copying and distribution of a vast amount of copyrighted works” by Georgia State, which the university distributes through its Web site.

Varying models exist for securing copyright clearance for coursepacks, electronic reserves, and other materials that inhabit the vaguely defined territory between the course textbook and the library collection. Some institutions leave it up to individual faculty, some have a copyright clearance center, some do it through the library. What does seem fairly clear, though, is that as the situation surrounding digital materials and DRM evolves, we'll see more cases like this one.

Professor Crawford's point about disaggregation is interesting, since at least one e-book provider out there--Safari--allows you to do exactly that. Of course, Safari includes more than one publisher, providing (depending on your subscription) comprehensive coverage of its particular subject area. Disaggregation within a single publisher's list might be of limited utility.

As anyone who deals with issues of fair use knows, it's a murky subject, and a common understanding of what it means in an educational context--that it's okay as long as the material is being used for an educational purpose--isn't exactly how it always works out in practice. Charging rights fees for materials used in course packs could well have the effect of determining course pack content; if something is out of copyright, or cheap, or easy to secure the rights to, it'll be more likely to be used, even if it's not necessarily what the professor would prefer.

A copy of the suit (in PDF) is available from the Association of American Publishers. The Association of American University Presses has also posted a copy on their website, along with a press release supporting the complaint. Plaintiffs are Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE Publications.

The relevance to libraries here should be obvious, regardless of whether a particular university's library plays any role in securing copyright clearance for course packs or reserves. The suit claims that Georgia State exceeded fair use in its provision of copyrighted material (with a side comment that at one point, materials meant for use within individual courses were accessible to the general public, not just to students in those courses), and mentions specifically that making the material available digitally, rather than through printed course packs available through a copy shop (which has presumably paid the requisite licensing fees), has deprived these publishers of revenue.

It also sounds like the suit is specifically regarding materials that have been digitized, as opposed to materials that were owned in digital format in the first place and then made available through a hyperlink to a research database or e-book. These are, presumably, materials that previously would have been made available in printed course packs by either the university bookstore, or by a copy shop, which would have paid the requisite licensing fees. So the claim here is that publishers are losing revenue because the e-reserves setup at Georgia State does not ensure that they receive licensing fees.

As of this writing, Georgia State has not responded.

This is one to watch.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Resource Update

Here at PLU, biochemistry students make use of the RCSB Protein Data Bank for their research projects. It is "the single worldwide depository of information about the three-dimensional structures of large biological molecules, including proteins and nucleic acids." Students select molecules from the data bank to research, reporting on their structure and function.

Today, ScienceDaily reports that the PDB has added its 50,000th structure. (It began in 1971, with seven structures. What a difference 36 years makes!) And the nice thing, from a library resource as well as research perspective, is that all of this data is available to whoever wants to use it, free of charge.

Of course, someone has to pay for its upkeep, and actively maintain it, for it to remain a useful resource (currently, that's the job of the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics). The Web is full of such resources, from large, government-funded databases to pet projects put together and supported by just a few people.

As I told a class of freshman writing students last week, you've got to look in more than one place to get your information: library research databases, but the open Web as well. The PDB is an example of how high-quality, up to date, useful information can be free--to its users, at any rate.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Recent Reading: Field Notes from a Catastrophe

As pleased as I was when the cherry trees began to blossom on Capitol Hill this year (I love spring), it was a little alarming to see that happening in January. The Pacific Northwest is known for a temperate climate that, in the low-lying areas along the coast, rarely drops below freezing (although when I went hiking near North Bend last weekend, we did get sleeted on). But still, cherry blossoms in January seemed a bit much.

It's more of that kind of thing that we can expect, though, according to Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe: shifting seasons, wilder weather, and the extension, contraction, and alteration of wildlife ranges. Recommended by a friend currently working on her doctorate in oceanography, Field Notes is a sober take on an alarming subject for a lay audience. It may or may not persuade the unconvinced, but the survey of climate scientists, not to mention the people whose lives are already being affected by climate change--human-induced or not, there is little doubt that it is happening--at the very least shows the choice that the human race has before us: adapt, or don't. That might very well include attempting to mitigate our impact on the Earth, though by some lights it's already too late for that.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe is a good starting point for understanding a complex, contentious, and if you'll pardon the expression, heated subject.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Resource Roundup: Science News

Science Daily: Portal site featuring press releases from research institutions and link to popular science news reporting. Advertiser supported. Offers RSS feeds.

ScienceBlogs: Blog network of working scientists and others with an interest in science, science news, and related topics. Sponsored by Seed Media Group. Offers RSS feeds.

Science News from the New York Times: Decent coverage for the lay reader, not as busy as some other resources. And, hey. It's the New York Times.

American Scientist: Publication of Sigma Xi. Most content is subscription-only but there is some free content as well.

EurekAlert: From the American Association for the Advancement of Science, publishers of the journal Science. Press releases from research institutions. Offers RSS feeds.

Where do you get your science news?