Scholarly Information Access in Carbon Dating Webcomic

One of my favorite online comics is Carbon Dating, which follows the adventures of Rob, who just got out of graduate school. From the About page: the main character “Rob, a fledgling science journalist, is attempting to navigate the awkward demands of geek courtship and the pseudoscience claims of his closest friends.” Sometimes these demands include doing some research on the Deep Web (Wikipedia), beyond the reach of Google or Bing.

In a recent story arc, Rob discovers that his information access has changed as a result of graduating.

Carbon Dating 173: "Scholastical" by Kyle Sanders

Carbon Dating #173: “Scholastical” by Kyle Sanders (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

This is a problem encountered often by recent graduates, who often find themselves reaching out to their friends and colleagues who are still in academia.

Carbon Dating by Kyle Sanders

Carbon Dating #174: “Out of Touch” by Kyle Sanders and Elisa Wikey (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

If that doesn’t work, many researchers give up or, more entertainingly, resort to desperate measures…

Caption

Carbon Dating #175: “Extortion” by Kyle Sanders and Elisa Wikey (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

While Rob’s solution to attempt to bribe his friend’s kid sister to use her student account is entertaining (and more than he bargained for), many in real life turn to social media for paper access, or even resort to piracy (it’s not all just about music and movies). In an upcoming post, I’ll touch on how some methods of dealing with paywalled articles help or hinder the access of fellow researchers.

I’d like to thank Kyle for his treatment of the problem of information access experienced by recent graduates, especially science writers (even bloggers). I’m glad to see this topic being discussed by active skeptics. The scholarship component to scientific skepticism is central to its credibility, and it’s why I wrote the Research Paywall Guide. I encourage everyone to check out Carbon Dating, and support the science communication work that’s going on over there.

Canberra Skeptics explore Open Access

Open Access

Canberra Skeptics recently held a lecture, “Stop blaming open access: what’s wrong with scholarly communication” (June 12th, 2014), on open access and the challenges facing scholarly communication.

Open Access is an alternative publishing model that refers to “unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research.” While specifics vary, especially between “green” and “gold” open access models, the emphasis is on making the research available without cost to the reader. This shifts the publication cost to the researcher or institution attempting to publish the paper, which has opened questions about publication pressures and maintaining an effective peer review process.

In the lecture, Dr. Danny Kingsley discusses some of the challenges facing open access publishing and scholarly communication overall.

Importance to Scientific Skepticism

Open Access is important to scientific skepticism because it is generally among our goals to become better consumers and evaluators of information. The accessibility (or lack thereof) of scholarly research directly impacts writers, researchers and curious readers in that aim.

The folks over at Canberra Skeptics are having a very timely conversation about scholarly publishing, and it’s one that we should all continue to follow. Check out their Twitter coverage of the lecture, and look to their web site and podcast, Record of Reason, for this and similar topical analysis.

Government Documents: Applications in Skepticism

Note: the example that follows focuses primarily on UFO claims, but these resources and strategies can be applied to a wide variety of topics related to scientific skepticism.

Ufologist on Campus

United States Capitol in Daylight from Wikimedia Commons

United States Capitol in Daylight
from Wikimedia Commons, by Kevin McCoy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was November 2007, and “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities” was the title of the IEEE Student Chapter Guest’s Lecture. Like many other members of the campus community, I didn’t expect extraterrestrial life was outside the realm of possibility, given the size of our universe, but based on my understanding of distances and sheer number of places there aren’t life, I found the idea that we were being visited regularly a little doubtful. But intrigued, I resolved to attend the talk, at least to provide a written evaluation in a skeptical column in the campus newsletter.

As expected, the speaker – a longtime Ufologist and amateur investigator – offered personal anecdotes of his experiences witnessing unidentified aerial phenomena. But then he showed some evidence I wasn’t expecting.

Documented Evidence

Out of his bag came a treasure trove of government documents, many marked “Secret” or “Top Secret” or “Classified.” Some had stamps indicating they had been “Declassified.” The prize of his collection was a set of documents referred to in the UFO community as the “Majestic-12” documents, but he had several others as well. All of these, he told us, had been declassified by the U.S. government, allowing him to provide it to us in handouts we could keep.

A lot of people left that lecture very impressed. I had questions. Fortunately, this graduate student happened to work in a Federal Depository Library, so I had the means to get some answers about these documents. With access to an overwhelmingly large authentic Government document repository, as well as access to countless others via interlibrary loan, an extensive search did not turn up the “Majestic 12” documents, but it did turn up legitimate FBI documents concerning an investigation into claims of the document’s authenticity and classification.

Many of the attendees had no means to verify the speaker’s claims, and continue to believe they possess what were once highly classified documents and evidence of extraterrestrial contact.

What Can I Do?

  • Be wary when you encounter collections of “UFO Government Documents.” Lots of Ufology web sites host collections that contain (at best) a mixed bag of real and fraudulent documents. Often these bear very official-looking headers, seals, and stamps.
  • If you have questions about one of these documents, see if you can find them in your local Federal Depository Library collection, perform a search using one of the resources listed below, or consult a reference librarian, preferably at a research library attached to a local college or university.
  • If the document has a call number, that’s a good sign. If not, well…
  • Also, remember that these resources are useful for evaluating information resources pertaining to medical, agricultural and a host of other subjects related to scientific skepticism. It’s not just for UFO research.

What if I suspect I have a legitimate classified government document that has been illegally distributed?

If you’re browsing UFO conspiracy theory web sites, this is unlikely. But it is important to understand that distribution of classified material, no matter how you may have obtained it, is illegal in most countries.

Do not download, further transmit or distribute the document. Data spillage is a serious problem, and there are procedures for reporting them properly. When reporting potential information spillage, you should NOT attach any copies of the document in question.

Resources

Federal Depository Library Program, United States Government Printing Office

Federal Depository Library Program, United States Government Printing Office

  • Back in 2011, Google discontinued its Uncle Sam U.S. government search engine, which provided the ability to search U.S. government web documents. A Google Custom Search tool has been established to try and fill the void, at http://www.unclesamsearch.com.
  • The National Archives provides government publications, guides to federal information and government document indexes. The National Archives also provides information concerning legitimate documents associated with UFO research.
  • The U.S. government’s official web portal, USA.gov provides a search tool with advanced features to search across multiple government agencies.
  • The Federal Depository Library Program was established by Congress to ensure that the American public has access to its government’s information. A directory is available, listing all participating Federal Depository Libraries. Find the one nearest you.
  • Not all useful government information is going to come out of archives; you might be looking for something a bit more recent! If you are looking to monitor legislation pertaining to a particular topic, check out this guide by Tim Farley at Skeptical Software Tools.

Welcome to Scholastical

Welcome to Scholastical: a guide for well-sourced research, writing and evaluation (even for non-scholars)!

Purpose and Scope

para_book

It is my goal with this blog to advance the cause of science-based critical thinking, in particular by providing information aimed at honing information literacy skills. This will hopefully help members of the community (including myself) to become better consumers, researchers and reporters of information on scientific, historical, biographical and other topics.

There are already some excellent resources available for those who would like to get involved in skeptical activism online, and they do so remarkably well. My goal is not to intrude into those niches, which have been ably filled by other pioneers before me, but to arm users with investigative research tools to better achieve their goals, whether they’re writing for Wikipedia, a research paper, their own blog, or even just attempting to evaluate an information source.

Background

At The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012, Tim Farley delivered a presentation entitled “You are the Future of Skepticism on the Internet.” In this talk Farley, a Research Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation, presented a case for making positive contributions of scientific skepticism through the use of available online tools. One example of a group contributing positive skepticism is Susan Gerbic’s GSoW project, which attempts to increase the verifiability of articles on Wikipedia related to skeptical topics.

Inspired by Farley and Gerbic’s undertakings, I was eager to contribute. As a graduate student who had previously worked in an academic research library, I was somewhat uniquely appreciative of the utility of research tools and systems available to students and faculty, and the impact these resources can have in cases where the “University of Google” doesn’t cut it.

Graduation often means losing convenient access to the information resources one has taken for granted, and I have come to understand some of these challenges. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of many dedicated information professionals and academic librarians, things are getting better. Some techniques and strategies outlive our expired student LoginIDs, and the focus on Open Access (OA) is increasing at an encouraging rate among academic libraries. As community patrons, those of us who are academic expatriates or non-students are not without resources, and this blog is about passing on some experience on these resources while I continue to build and hone these concepts for myself.

What to expect

Since graduate school, during which I worked managing information systems for an academic research library, I have moved on to a career in engineering. I mention this because while I have worked with librarians, I Am Not A Librarian (that other “IANAL” disclaimer). The fields of library science and information systems change rapidly, and no single blog will ever match the depth of training that can be taken advantage of by talking to a real-life reference librarian, found not far from your own home.

That said, I will attempt to provide a few creative strategies for information searches, evaluating sources, and improving the scholarly quality of your article, paper or blog, as well as tools to analyze the quality of material that you may be tasked to evaluate. Finding quality references, actually getting our hands on the references we’ve found and managing the information we have aggregated are just the beginning of our journey.

Because this primate has subjective opinions, you can expect to see them reflected in coverage of certain topics. I’ll probably rant from time to time about pet peeves such as paywalls, poor (in my opinion) information search strategies, and other topics – you get the idea – but I’ll try and keep my diatribes constructive. Again, this is as much a journey of discovery and/or rediscovery for me, so I reserve the right to be occasionally wrong, and to change my mind.