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…

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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.

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Welcome to Scholastical

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

Purpose and Scope

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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.