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Volume 9 Issue 1 Fall 2008(1)

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From the Dean's Desk: Finding Quality Research Assistance

by Ralph Alberico

A couple of weeks ago I saw a quarter page ad in our student newspaper, The Breeze, for a fee-based research service called Questia.  The ad posed the question, “Need online research you can trust?” Below a photograph of a young man looking at a computer with a look of distress on his face, was the response to that question: “Only Questia has it all.”  As evidence, the ad listed three items to support that assertion.

I’ve been thinking about the ad since it appeared. 

Ralph Alberico
Dean Ralph Alberico

How does Questia compare to the library?  And how can they possibly compete with us for the business of JMU student researchers?  After all, even though they offer a “25% Back to School offer”, library services to students are free.  The first thing that popped into my mind was a comparison of the numbers. 

The ad cited the 70,000 full-text books available from Questia.  The libraries at JMU offer over 388,000 full-text e-books and another 500,000 traditional books.  A single source, Early English Books Online (EEBO), contains the complete text and page images from over 100,000 books, all of which are immediately available to JMU students and faculty on the web.  And EEBO is just one of many e-book collections.  Clearly, the book collections at JMU far surpass those of that commercial service advertised in The Breeze.  And those books have been carefully selected to support the needs of specific academic programs at JMU, making them far more likely to address topics that are important to our curriculum.

The ad touted 2 million full-text articles.  The library offers 6.75 million full-text articles in the sciences and social sciences from a single source, Science Direct.  And Science Direct is just one a several hundred full-text journal collections to which the library subscribes.  Once again, the number of articles available on the library web site far surpasses the articles available for the commercial research service being advertised to students and once again, those articles are more directly relevant to the teaching, research, and scholarship which take place at JMU.

Beyond our book and journal collections the library offers research databases, image repositories, thousands of online audio and video titles and huge numeric data sets covering topics as diverse as social science survey data and historical securities market data.  There is a big difference between the research resources offered by the commercial service advertised in the Breeze and the resources offered by the libraries at JMU.  When it comes to the sheer quantity of information available, the libraries have a clear advantage.Questia Ad

How can Questia possibly compete with the library?  If it is not in the amount of online research resources available, perhaps it is a matter of trust.  Is it possible that JMU students might trust a fee-based service to provide quality research materials more than they trust their own library?  That, I think, is unlikely.  Each academic program has a liaison librarian who works closely with faculty in the program to select the best materials to support the curriculum of the program.  Those liaison librarians and faculty members understand and trust one another.  The library’s collections were built with academic program needs in mind.  Students and faculty know that the information acquired and organized by the library to support their programs is current, authoritative and trustworthy.  I think it is fair to say that JMU students should be able to trust the quality of the library’s collections and the library’s services more than they trust the quality of collections and services associated with a fee-based service which was not developed with the JMU curriculum in mind.

The ad also mentioned “instant citations and bibliographies”.  Hmmmm …. maybe that is the difference between Questia and the library.   While the library offers tools and services to help students develop and manage bibliographies and reference lists, the library expects students to do their own work.  It is our belief that students are better served by learning to do their own research than by having someone do it for them.  For those who want an instant bibliography, Questia may be a better bet than the library.  For those who want to learn, I say the library is a better bet. 

Library research is a complex process.   Compiling a good bibliography or citation list involves identifying the right sources, searching those sources effectively and making a series of value judgments, about the relevance and value of individual books and articles.    It is not always easy and it is not always quick.  In fact, the abundance of information available can make the process more difficult.  It is not unusual for a researcher to follow many different paths before arriving at a destination.  Nor is it unusual for the topic under investigation to change as more information is revealed. Using the library effectively takes some effort.  But that effort is almost always rewarded.  The process inevitably results in a deeper understanding of the topic being investigated.     And for those who have done it a few times, it gets easier.  The skills that students acquire by learning to use the library and by doing their own research will serve them throughout their lives.

For those who would rather invest time than money in research, the library stands ready to help and will offer assistance at every phase of the research process. The library provides consultation, expert assistance and instruction, not just on citations but on all aspects of the scholarly communication process from finding information to evaluating information sources to using information ethically and effectively.  Liaison librarians can provide one-on-one or group consultation on identifying and using sources and on evaluating information.  Help is also available at library service desks.  Instruction is offered by librarians in the classroom and liaison librarians are ready to work with faculty members to develop assignments designed to improve student research skills. 

Liaison librarians have also developed tutorials and subject guides for numerous disciplines. The purpose of those guides is to identify key resources in the disciplines and to help people get started with research.  The library also offers tools help students and faculty work with bibliographic references and citations.  One of those tools, RefWorks, allows students and faculty to manage personal databases of citations and references, which may be imported from online sources and exported to a variety of citation styles and formats.  Another tool,  CheckCite, was developed within the library to help students cite their sources appropriately.

If you are a student and you are willing to invest a bit of your time (not your money) the library should be your starting place for research.  If you learn to use the many online and print sources we offer, the skills you acquire will serve you for the rest of your life.  If you are a faculty member and you are willing to invest a bit of your time contact your liaison librarian.  That person can help you ensure that your students acquire the skills they will need to become information literate.

In each case, the important thing is a willingness to invest some time and effort in order to achieve long term gain.  The alternative is to invest some money in order to get instant results which will not serve you nearly as well over the long haul and which may not even address your short term needs.


Reba Leiding and Johlene Hess, Editors

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