ResearchScapes

Discussions on the art and craft of research

Author: Carrie Kent

Postcards: Pictures of Our Places and of Ourselves

It is easy to dismiss the value of ephemera like picture postcards. All of us have found old collections in the attics of our parents and grandparents. Antique stores often have large collections available for sale. EBay has become a terrific boon for the sellers of postcards, giving them access to a national, and sometimes international, market. We know that looking through them are fun, but do they have real research value? Or are these bits of visual flotsam and jetsam simply fodder for people who obsessively collect anything historical? Perhaps. But historians of human events, society, and architecture are turning to them more and more frequently as an interesting, sometimes important, primary source.

Picture postcards, either photographic or art cards, represent how someone has chosen to show and define a place, and further, how someone else has chosen to define their experience with that place. They show us interpretations of history, as well as history’s record.

Like any photograph, we are seeing an event or a place through the eyes and the mind of a photographer. But then we also frequently see the place through the mind of the person who purchased and sent the card. The picture postcard is really, in so many ways, a precursor to our modern habits of creating selfies and spreading them via social media platforms. Turn old postcards over, and frequently you will find a “I WAS HERE!” note.

So their value lies in the choices made: the choice to take or draw a picture or event, AND the choice to purchase and spread a reaction.

Some Examples of the use of Postcards in Research

In History:

Sometimes the historical value of a card is small; a point of time or interest in some local history. Here’s one from a major educational institution:

Harvard

In the absence of other photographs, photographic postcards can be used in historic and architectural preservation studies. In this example, there were no written or photographic records in the Harvard University Archives of the original location of the now famous statue of John Harvard, currently situated in Harvard Yard. Only with postcards could the statue’s original location be established, some 500 feet away outside of the Yard.

Sometimes picture postcards can give us visual insight into a local event and its effects. Here’s one recording the effect of the 1938 hurricane on downtown Providence RI:

1938

Or postcards may help bolster a narrative on a national or international event:

So, a picture of White Star’s Titanic:
titanic1

…and a picture from the Carpathia, which was one of the rescue ships that arrived at the Titanic’s sinking. Here is a picture of some survivors on deck:

titanic2

Those examples appear to be relatively noncontroversial. But collecting a wealth of cards on a particular era or event can actually help to look deeper into contemporary interpretation of an event. Postcards can be visual facts about how contemporary people and countries were interpreting major events.

So, from the Vietnam War era, we have multiple photographers’ lenses to look through:

A postcard of American and South Vietnamese allies in combat:

vietnam1

…and a picture of North Vietnamese troups:
vietnam4

…and finally, unrest at home in 1965 outside the United Nations:

vietnam5

Going one step further in the presentation of contemporary history are the art or comic postcards that people create. Sometimes these were sold as political statements, but they were often simple contemporary interpretation of events or people, reflecting attitudes and biases.

From World War I:
WWI

And from World War II:
WWII

A good published example of how both photographic and drawn postcards can reflect an entire national identity can be found in Tim Semmerling’s book Israeli and Palestinian Postcards: Presentations of National Self.

By searching OneSearch using the subject heading Postcards, any number of books on subjects such as postcards representing colonial attitudes, postcards as political propaganda, etc. can be found.

Researching Social Attitudes

Equally interesting, but often very uncomfortable, are art postcards that inadvertently clearly illustrate social attitudes, perhaps unattractive attitudes. Good examples of this are the depiction of women, or of the Japanese in political postcards of WWII, or the depiction of African Americans (I should note of the picture below, I selected the LEAST offensive card I could find):

Black
“Yass uh, of course I’se happy down south”

And modern America? We became so enraptured with our modern selves starting in the 1940s. Did you know, for instance, that there was a huge market for postcards of highways and highway rest stops starting around World War 2 and into the 1970s?! “We are modern! We are mobile!”

Highway1
Sunrise Over One of Florida’s Modern Highways

Finding Postcards

The open web, as well as sale sites such as EBay, are excellent places to find examples. Be aware, however, that there may be copyright restrictions on an image’s use. For large national and international collections go to The Digital Library of America. Search the term “postcards”, and you will find more than you could ever want!

Some Local Resources

At Connecticut College, our Linda Lear Special Collections and Archives does not have an enormous collection of postcards, but it does have several hundred depicting Connecticut College, New London, and other Southeastern Connecticut Locations. There is also an online exhibit of some of the New London cards entitled New London Postcards Online: http://lc-digital.conncoll.edu/exhibits/show/new-london-postcards

burypatch

burypatch1
A postcard of New London’s oldest cemetery.

If you are doing local history in any location, do not forget to contact local historical societies, which are usually incredible collections of…well, everything! For instance, the New London County Historical Society also has a collection of approximately 1000 postcards. Their collection features images of both New London, and New London Country.

Stashing Your Stuff, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love RefWorks (with apologies to Stanley Kubrick…)

Every day at the Reference Desk we are exposed to what some people might uncharitably call student disorganization: laptops with 80 pdfs on the desktop, or browsers with 25 tabs open to different papers. Students scramble through these messes as they talk to us. But in fairness, it is not dissimilar to desks piled high with physical papers and books. (Where oh where did I put that paper by Professor Jennifer Smith?)

The truth is that the acts of collecting and then FINDING all the “stuff” we MIGHT be using in a particular research project, create age-old problems. Some might argue that if the stuff is in print, stacks and files can be created that help organize it. But, honestly, those stacks and files often do not get created. And are they really any different than students creating folders on their laptops to dump stuff into?

Another truth is that what appears to be disorganization is often part of the evolution of a person’s thought process. Searching through pages, triangulating on ideas, sifting back and forth – those are intellectual activities that can be part of the development of new ideas and the finding of new directions. Real organization of our stuff takes place when our thinking has evolved to the point that we know what our questions are and where we might be taking our ideas.

files
Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

We all know that programs such as RefWorks can make the creation of correctly formatted footnotes/endnotes/in-text citations and bibliographies much easier. It’s a better software to use than EasyBib (which many students use before coming to college), although it lacks the sophistication of EndNote or Zotero, which many people on the graduate level and above use. For most projects RefWorks works well, and students can save and transport their materials anywhere, and, if they wish, eventually move their citations to one of the more sophisticated systems. A vast majority of colleges and universities offer access to RefWorks. (For a more detailed description of using RefWorks, go to Andrew Lopez’s post on this blog.

But it is easy to get hung up on this formal use of RefWorks for producing the footnotes/endnotes/bibliographies etc. for research papers and projects. The truth is, it can have equal value as being a storage and organizational tool for the things we collect for research projects. Like clearing stacks of paper and books off of our physical desks, it can clear the top of our virtual desktops.

refworks1

If you are a student who prefers to read digitally and never have stacks of paper, consider whether your virtual desktop is as messy as your friend’s or professor’s physical desk.

If you are a faculty member, you can help simplify many students’ lives by suggesting that they use this organizational tool. You might even (if you don’t already use a citation manager) consider signing up for it yourself. It is robust enough to handle many publication projects.

So, think about stashing your stuff. Finding things will be easier, and recycling is never a problem.

Sign up here. If you have questions when you are using it, come to Reference and ask for help.

3rd Annual Library Prize Recipient – Dominic Lentini

For the last three years, Shain Library has been awarding a Library Research Prize. Each student applicant must submit detailed information on their research process, and get faculty support for the submission. This is the essay/application for this year’s winner, Dominic Lentini. Dominic is a senior, and a double-major in International Relations and French. His paper was entitled: Media Framing, Violent Protest, and Race: A Comparative Analysis of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ coverage of the Ferguson Protests.

Dominic Lentini ’18
Research Statement
Spring 2018

Describe how you came to choose your topic, specifically noting any pre-research that you did. What sources did you use in this pre-research? To what extent did you consult with librarians, faculty, or others? How did this pre-research lead you to your topic?

The process through which I arrived at my final topic was very time consuming. The first proposal I wrote was about protest repression, media coverage, and the police. For this, I first consulted the textbooks as well as other assigned readings for our class and I critically examined their bibliographies to help guide me in the direction of appropriate and related literature. This search involved exploring both theoretical literature to establish a framework for my analysis, as well as information on potential case studies and primary sources that could be used to take the existing research in a new direction. Using those sources as a springboard, I compiled a large list of peer reviewed articles and books on protest policing, policy, and organization, as well as on media coverage of protests.

However, as I began to read through those texts, consult with my professor, and meet with research librarians, I realized that what I had proposed could be three separate papers. While my research clearly started with a very large scope and a lot of energy was used to research topics that I did not write about, over roughly a month and a half of reading and evaluating sources, I eventually guided and narrowed my initial interests into a topic that was appropriate for the course: Media Framing, Violent Protest, and Race: A Comparative Analysis of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ coverage of the Ferguson Protests.

Describe your process of finding information for your project. Note specifically the tools you used to undertake your research, as well as the specific search strategies you used within these tools. (Note: “Ebsco,” being an umbrella vendor, is not a specific enough response when identifying tools; listing the “library database” is also an unacceptably vague answer.

Specific tools include JSTOR, America:History & Life, Web of Science, etc., along with OneSearch, the new library system.)

As I described in question one, the first step in my process was exploring the sources used in the bibliographies of sources provided for my course. Following that, however, I used the library’s OneSearch, JSTOR, Political Science Complete, Google Scholar, and Lexis Nexis as the main tools for finding new articles and books. Within all of the databases I would do advanced searches with a variety of different search terms such as “framing,” “media framing,” “framing violence,” “framing race,” “framing protest” and many combinations within those terms. I would then read the abstracts to gauge potential relevance, and save every potential article to RefWorks so that I could later examine their
methodology, data, and conclusions. For anything I could not access through those databases, I used both the CTW network, WorldCat, and Inter Library Loan to access them. Additionally, within JSTOR I explored the utility of their text analyzer, which is in its beta mode.

For collecting my primary source newspaper articles, I initially used ProQuest Newspapers. I even contacted them, with the help of Andrew Lopez, to learn about how they code and sort their articles. For my data collection process, I used ProQuest Newspapers to search all articles published in certain date ranges based on set search terms in order to create frequency tables of article publication, and then to do content analysis of a selection of those articles. I realized, however, that some articles were coded inconsistently, and consequently double counted, which threw off all of the article counts. Thus, I did not end up using that particular database. Instead, I used the website search function for both The New York Times’ and the Wall Street Journal’s sites. Using the search functions within each newspaper required more manual work, and I even called the WSJ to get information about how their search feature functioned, but it ultimately provided me with the data I needed.

Describe your process of evaluating the resources you found. How did you make decisions about which resources you would use, and which you wouldn’t? What kinds of questions did you ask yourself about resources in order to determine whether they were worthy of inclusion?

I went through several different steps to evaluate my sources. Firstly, for my literature review, I only considered peer reviewed articles and books. Within sources that met that requirement, I would examine their research methodology as well as their bibliography in order to gauge the soundness and scope of their argument and conclusions. This process, however, still left me with more articles than I could use. Consequently, I made my final selection with the intention of laying a base to the framing literature, then additions and variations to that literature, and finally critiques to it. The ultimate goal was to paint a well-rounded picture of the literature.

The process for selecting background pieces for my case study was more challenging. For one, due to the slow process of academic publication, there does not exist a huge body of peer reviewed literature on the Ferguson protests. Consequently, most of the information on what transpired had to be gathered from newspaper and magazine sources. This, however, left me in a paradoxical situation because I was being pushed to use newspapers as the background for a paper in which I was arguing that newspapers paint a “framed” version of what transpired during the Ferguson protests. To try and mitigate this issue, I used a wide range of newspapers and magazines, as well as any quality academic literature I could find, in order to cross reference and evaluate the validity of my sources. While this did not totally eliminate the issue, it definitely reduced its severity.

Researching Towards Fictional Reality

I thought I’d take a moment and write about a kind of research that many people have not engaged in, that is, doing research for fictional writing.

Now, I am not going to write about the research that must occur for real historical fiction. That genre not only requires knowledge of the rules for writing fiction, but also of the rules for writing history. Sometimes it is done well, sometimes it can read as if you are passing through one notecard to another.

Rather, I’m talking about doing the research that is needed to help pull the reader into the mind of the writer’s characters. Scents, sounds, sights, the feel of the physical world, language and accents – all can help create a deeper sense of involvement and realism. Young writers are often taught that they should only write about what they know. But most of us have lives that intersect with many different types of people and locations, all of which must be presented carefully.

For those who are reading this who do not write fiction, you should understand that the struggle, at times a BATTLE, to pull the readers into a character’s reality is central to the success of fiction. For ultimately, writing exists in the minds of readers, not writers.

Sometimes, the task is simple. If you are writing about a culture you are not intimately familiar with, a little research on another culture’s cuisine can launch the reader into a dinner party in…Riyadh. Or Nairobi. Or Stockholm. The research task can be as simple as finding an appropriate, authentic restaurant. Or talking to someone from the culture, or reading a cookbook. Shain Library has some food-related sources that can also be extremely useful, such as:

Food
Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, New York: Scribner, 2003. 3v. Shain Reference GT 2850.E53 2003.

One of the trickiest areas to deal with is different forms of speech and colloquialism. Again, if you are only writing about people you know, this can be easy. But don’t we all know people from other cultures and places, regions of this country? And if your characters are lodged in an historical era different from your own, how do you handle that? It doesn’t have to be a matter of centuries; what about characters in the 1960s, for instance?

For characters representing different cultures, different areas of the United States, different ethnic groups – speech and dialect can add to honest and realistic portrayals. There are many published works on all languages and dialects that can assist a writer with this. For instance, if you search OneSearch, using a subject heading like:

English language – Dialects – United States

you can find books such as:

dialect

American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers, Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman, New York: Routledge, 1997. Shain PN2071.F6 H39 1997

You can find a wide variety of books across the CTW collections. For more specialized linguistic areas, try searching WorldCat, or asking a reference librarian for help.

A cautionary note: When you are trying to represent language differences in your writing, you must consciously balance honest representation against the readers’ expectations (and possible biases.) People may think that everyone in Boston pahks their cah in Hahvahd Yahd. But, in reality, most people park their car in Harvard Yard (…if in fact they could park there at all, which they cannot!) There can be real tensions between readers’ beliefs and biases, and how people really behave and want to be represented, and these tensions must be presented sensitively.

The internet has also opened up great possibilities for this kind of research. As with any kind of research on the open internet, be careful about the validity of sites and their “facts.” Caution is called for when you are using information that builds characters and their attitudes and experiences.

The internet can be particularly useful when you are searching for information about geographic settings. Open searching on Google, and restricting the search to images, can turn up many usable images – images that can be useful to get a feel for settings that you might not be able to visit, or that you have visited but not lived in. Geographic locations, types of buildings, historic locations, etc., are all easily searched and will turn up a multitude of mood-creating photos. Venice, for instance: if you’ve never experienced that city, or that city beyond its most famous locations, consider this photo and the feeling it generates:

venice
Photo by Wenni Zhou on Unsplash

Pursuing images of this sort can assist a writer in turning their vision into the written word.

Google maps is also a rich location to mine for local geographic information. In years past, hunting through atlases was a common activity for some people writing fiction. Most of that can now be done easily on Google maps.

Finally, can too much research get in the way?

More appropriately, this question should be: Can a writer overuse the results of extensive research? The answer to that question can always be yes, whether the project is a fiction-based work, or a traditional academic work. If an academic writer is writing a review article on a subject, extensive presentation of research is warranted. But when you are using research to answer and support
positions, careful selection of the most relevant and appropriate sources is important.

The same is even truer when integrating research into fictional writing. What effect are you hoping for? How does research support that effect, or that development of a particular character? Simple facts, with a single evocative adjective can often be the solution. One example: He sipped the strong coffee, and the sharp sweet taste spread through his mouth. The careful, unobtrusive presentation of a fact that strikes sensory or emotional notes has much greater effect that a large presentation on Turkish coffee.

Always remember the questions you are seeking to answer, the effect you are reaching for. Use the facts and knowledge you achieve through research to address those things as simply and honestly as possible.

Conversation About Research and Teaching with Marc Zimmer, Jean C. Tempel ’65 Professor of Chemistry January 18, 2018

zimmer1

Background

CK: First of all, a little bit of background about you. I know you are from South Africa, I know from all the stories on your website that you were going to be a game warden. Is that really true?

MZ: Yes. I went to college and wanted to be a game warden.

CK: And is it really true that you didn’t do it because you flunked a botany course?

MZ: Indeed.

CK: Really. How could you flunk a botany course?

MZ: Two ways. One, this was South Africa in the early 80s, height of apartheid. I went to a university that was quite liberal. And there were demonstrations at lunch, and botany was the period before lunch. I was involved in a lot of protests, and as a result I missed a lot of classes.

CK: So, your politics got in the way..

MZ: So my politics got in the way of botany. And then also, the professor was pretty boring. That didn’t help.

CK: Now some people would see a move from life sciences, because when you are talking about big organism life science to chemistry, some people would see that as odd. I don’t, but I understand why some people would. How did that happen?

MZ: I did well in chemistry. And in South Africa, it’s the English system, so you come in with a major, and you have to take a set of courses for that major. Every chemist would take chemistry, biology, physics, and math. You had no option. As someone who wanted to do conservation, I took biology, chemistry for biologists, math, and physics. I already had the core chemistry courses. So it wasn’t that difficult to switch. The only thing was that the chemistry I took was a half a chemistry, not a whole chemistry course, because it was for biologists. I had to catch up a bit on the chemistry. But I did well in it, and thought it was pretty interesting.

CK: So, your university education wasn’t a liberal arts education.

MZ: Not at all. In my whole career, I’ve taken one course on international politics. Six months of classes not related to chemistry. Nothing else.

CK: From my perspective, as somebody who has been immersed in the liberal arts since from the time I was little, I sort of automatically understood the value of the liberal arts as being something that allows people to learn to analyze and ask questions in different disciplines. How has it been for you to now be immersed in a liberal arts organization, since I know you are very involved with the new curriculum here at Connecticut College. How did it feel?

MZ: Yes, so, I came to America. I went to an engineering school and then, Ivy League. I really had no experience about liberal arts. I applied to this position at Conn College, and then I looked up on the website and saw what it was about, and to be frank, I think the only reason they interviewed me was because I was an hour away. And the only reason I came here was because it was an hour away. And so I came to the interview, and learned all about it in my interview. But I really enjoyed it. In my past, I had taught for a year in a high school, and I like teaching and I like interacting with students. It’s always been a passion of mine. I realized I liked the idea of something that wasn’t totally research driven, where students were important as well. I can speak three languages, so language was important to me. Even though I’d never seen a liberal arts college, I was intrigued and liked the idea. And it’s worked out perfectly.

CK: Now for some people, and it’s true in any discipline but sometimes it is particularly true in the sciences, there’s teaching, and then there’s research. Most academics do both but there’s usually a passion that falls one side of that fence or the other even though they may really enjoy and like the other activity. My sense about you has always been that it’s much more equal. Is that correct, or not?

MZ: I think I go through phases. There are phases when I’m more enamored by the research and pulled in, depending on how well it’s going, depending on what I’m doing. But after a while, then I want to do something else. At the moment, the last three years I’ve written three books, and that’s been taking me away from my research a little bit. And Science Leaders has also been taking time away. Since I’ve taken over Science Leaders, there’s been a definite drop in my productivity research-wise. For a talk I drew a graph once, that showed my number of publications, and when Science Leaders start, you can actually just see it drop. So, yeah, you can’t do everything.

CK: Right. But in general, you successfully moving back and forth.

MZ: Yes.

CK: When you were an undergraduate, when was there a point that you felt the research bug, that it really grabbed you.

MZ: As a child, I grew up in a small mining industrial town, and we were close to the border of town. I would go into the veldt and the fields, and we’d trap animals, so there was that interest. But that was always more of a biological zoological interest. In chemistry, I worked in a lab, but it never really grabbed me much. The only reason I did a PhD was to avoid the South African army, which was designed to defend apartheid. I felt that the only option I had was to leave the country, and the only way I could leave the country was to go to graduate school. And that’s the only reason I continued studying. I would never have gone to graduate school otherwise.

CK: Funny, how life kind of leads you in directions and then something happens. When did you know suddenly that it was the right thing?

MZ: At graduate school, my advisor was very hands-off, he’d say “This is what I want you to do. Find yourself a project.” And I really enjoyed that I had a lot of freedom, and TAing students as well, I enjoyed that. I saw he travelled a lot, which really appealed to me.

CK: It appealed to you because you thought travel could be part of what you did, not that he was gone?

MZ: That I wanted to lead that life, yes. Before that, I saw doing chemistry as a route to a job, while being a game warden was going to be a passion. I still have friends that went that way, who are game wardens.

CK: Do you regret that?

MZ: Their children have grown up in boarding schools, and have been away from a very young age, and, well, It’s a young person’s job. At this point, they either become administrators or they lead a tough life. So things worked out for me. I’m quite happy…

CK: Raising your kids and doing your job?

MZ: Yeah.

Teaching and Research

CK: A Nobel laureate in chemistry once said to me, undergraduates cannot do real research because they don’t know enough. Where are you on a scale either agreeing or disagreeing with that? I know that all of the sciences have a more vertical aspect in the acquisition of knowledge, which means, that unless you come enormously well-prepared, there’s a certain level of accumulation of information that you’ve got to get in order to be able to think about new ideas.

MZ: I think a common misconception about science research at liberal arts colleges is that the students come up with their own projects. So all the students who have worked with me, I’ve had over a hundred students and over 60 have published papers with me, have worked on projects that I thought of. They come, they do computational chemistry on fluorescent proteins, or on some molecule, and within that project if they are really good students they can then see what the next step would be. That’s probably been 10-20 students over time, that have been able to do the project, and then come up with an idea or what the next logical step would be.

As students then go to graduate school, the same thing happens. They then work with a professor who has got a certain expertise in a certain project, they work on that project, and only once they’ve worked, typically do they then find their own project and secondary offshoot, but it is really closely aligned with what that professor does.

CK: You can find unusual professors in the humanities, who would say to an undergraduate “you don’t know enough to write an essay.” So in any discipline area you can get people like that, but I think that it is true in general in a liberal arts college the students begin to be able to ask the questions in the humanities much earlier than in the sciences. Do you ever get students who want to ask questions where you have to say “You can’t answer that question?”

MZ: Oh, a lot, yeah. Definitely, I think there is no border between the two. Teaching can be research-based, Tanya Schneider, in her biochemistry lab, actually has students doing things for my research, we collaborate, they make mutations and see what happens. So that, in that case, teaching is doing research. And my research is probably more than 50% teaching, actually. It’s teaching the students how to do things. At least for the first year or two, in my lab, it would be more efficient if I did the work myself. I’ve had many students who worked with me as summer or two, then it starts getting to the point where it’s more efficient.

CK: What characteristics do you see in the best researchers in your field?

MZ: Sometimes undefinable qualities. Some of the best students in the class, are certainly not always the best researchers. And some of the best researchers I’ve had haven’t been great in class. They’ve been good, but not great. So the two aren’t necessarily linked. Confidence has something to do with it. And at the same time, being meticulous and thoughtful is important. You have to think about what you do and why you aim to do it. Being self-analytical is really important. And creativity, to be able to take things apart, put them back together, and maybe to think away from the norm. If you think about researchers putting puzzle pieces together, trying to actually design a new part of the puzzle, rather than just looking for a piece.

CK: A friend of mine once talked about finding a way to ask the beautiful question. Which I think is part of that, it’s that creative aspect. And some people go there easily, perhaps before they are even prepared to do it. And other people don’t ever go there.

MZ: That’s why I think a combination is really important. Definitely.

CK: When you gave your book talk at Shain, and you brought your little creature, and I made some slightly disparaging remarks his looks. You clearly disapproved of my attitude. But what I saw, in that whole thing, was how much you loved everything about what this creature represented, and perhaps the creature itself. Now, that wouldn’t be true of every chemist, because they are not working with organisms. But you do have this background in organismal thinking.

edgar

The maligned Edgar the Mexican GFP axolotl – photo by Marc Zimmer
Click here for a video of Edgar

MZ: I think it is not an accident that the first big project I took and then stayed with a lot has been a jellyfish that give off light. I’m a theoretical chemist, my lab is a bunch of computers. Not very exciting. The output I get is just numbers. Nothing but numbers. Lots and lots of numbers. I have to look at something exciting. So, the projects that I have looked at have been an anti-cancer drug, a protein that’s found in cows that’s used to digest cellulose and make methane so cow farts, flatulence, fluorescent proteins…things like that.

So the actual calculations aren’t always very interesting, but the results are interesting, I think.

CK: Your books are certainly interesting. You’ve done a lot of popularlized science, which those of us who aren’t chemists love to read. But how do people in your field react to that? Do they think this is a great thing that you are able to express complex science to laypeople? Or not?

MZ: I think, more and more, there is a need for that. There are more scientists on twitter now. I’d be interested if I came up for tenure now, with fewer publications, and more books, what would happen? I don’t know, I think at a liberal arts college they’d probably be okay. But, I don’t know. I mean, that’s an interesting question.

It might vary from department to department, I suspect, how people feel about it. I mean, I think that a person’s ability to expand a knowledgeable audience is an important thing, but some people would say that it would have to hard and fast research.

CK: One of the complicated things, since I work on the other end of this where students come in confused, not so much in chemistry, we don’t see that many students from chemistry. But in any field you are going to see some kids, they very often don’t understand the difference between starting their research with a position, and starting it with a question. Now, I think your field may drive them towards the question side, I think it’s more often that people feel they can have a position on anything in politics, or literature… So you may not see that much of that in your field. But I wonder if that’s something you’ve seen, that students, it’s almost like they think they have the answer and they want to demonstrate the road to it. I’ve even had students that wrote papers and then came to look for sources. A little backwards.

MZ: So there have been studies in science that have also shown that scientists, unbeknownst to themselves, have preconceived ideas about what the answer should be going into a project. And then, when the data is not quite right, will have difficulty accepting that. So, psychologically, unbeknownst to themselves, they might ignore signs that are pointing in a different way, because it is not going the way they think it should be going. So that’s why I think having an open mind is really important. I think in science everybody goes into an experiment expecting a certain answer. You want to prove something, you want to show something. So it’s really hard.

CK: Have you ever found yourself in a position where you have thought about the direction of an idea, and you collect the evidence, but then you’ve ended up where you can’t proceed in any direction, and certainly not in the direction you thought you would go? Is that a frequent occurrence?

MZ: Yes. It happens. Then the difficulty really becomes: what do you do with it? The tendency in science is often to not publish that, because it is a negative result. But that negative result is really important. Otherwise, somebody else is going to do same thing. And everybody wastes their time trying to do it. So then, it becomes important to try and explain the negative result, why it’s not doing what you thought.

CK: Do people often publish negative results?

MZ: If it’s, a big enough question, yeah. More and more.

One interesting thing about doing research at a small liberal arts college. You are in a kind of competition. If you go for something that is really interesting, you are competing with big universities, where they have graduate students, post docs who full-time, every day, working on a project. Whereas I have undergraduates who can work 6-10 hours a week. It’s quite an art to choose the right project. So for example, I worked on this drug called bleomycin, and I was interested in how it wraps around a metal. It was important, it was interesting, and I was really the only one doing it. And then, a paper came out from a group at MIT, and that point I knew, this is it. Anything more I do is a waste, because they can get to it quicker and faster, and they are too close to what I’m doing. With the green fluorescent protein, I started right in the beginning of it, our paper was one of the first 10 papers. Now, there are over 100,000 papers that have been published about it. Using a surfing analogy, if you catch the wave, if you are first on the wave, that part of the wave is yours. So I had a sort of right to some of it, even though people would come really really close, and because I started really early, I knew all about the field, in sort of organic way. But even now, I’ve been squeezed out of most of the very interesting areas.

CK: Do you regret not being at a university?

MZ: I often think about, wouldn’t it be great to have a couple of grad students, to have somebody and have, maybe most importantly, continuity. With graduate students you have students for five years. If a new graduate student comes in, they are trained by the other graduate students. And that graduate students learn all the new methods, and so they learn how to use a new program, and bring it in. Whereas here, I have to go and keep up with the newest techniques. I have to teach myself what’s happening. And I have to teach the students. And then the students aren’t here long enough for there to be any continuity. I have to be very careful about what I do. And how I do it. So research here is a very different animal. If you look at a puzzle, and you think of research as making a puzzle, what you’ve got to be able to do at a liberal arts college, you can’t go for the central part where everybody is working the obvious things. You’ve either got to work with the sky which is boring as can be, or you’ve got to find something that’s hidden, that other people can’t see, and you can work on something like that, or you have to put pieces together that other people aren’t doing. You have to start trying to find low hanging fruit, things that people haven’t looked at yet. Quickly do the interesting things, and then when other people come in there with more resources, back off, and find something else. Or you have to go find a puzzle that many people aren’t interested in. Which means you aren’t going to get much funding, and your publications aren’t going to be that great. That’s part of the art of doing this.

So I’ve studied GFP and optogenetics, two things I’ve been in right early on, and so that’s always helped. So that’s a different picture of research, that one has to consider, coming to a liberal arts college.

CK: Which you didn’t know before you came.

MZ: No, because what I looked at first was difficult, it was something that took a long time, and also relied on students being to come into lab on a regular basis. And research students can do that, but undergraduates have tests, they have holidays, lacrosse. Their schedules aren’t as fixed. Very quickly, I had to realize that some projects wouldn’t work, and I had to refocus. I started off doing most of research in the lab, and then with computation chemistry, it is lot easier, because the computer can do it and come back, and work 10 hours in row, an hour the next week, and 15 the next. You can use your own schedule.

CK: It sounds like you found the right path for yourself, even if you think about other paths. But that’s usually true.

MZ: Right. I’m definitely not on one path.

Open Access

CK: To change direction here, can we talk about the whole open access thing? I know scientists have always been better at sharing what it is that they do with each other, because everyone stands on everyone else’s shoulders. But, I’m not sure that the places that publish your research feel the same way. So, what are your feelings about open access, and publishing, because there’s an increasing amount, of almost unedited stuff that goes out on the open web.

MZ: So, I read somewhere that there are 1.5 million peer-reviewed papers that come out. That’s a huge number, but only 25% of those are ever cited. And, probably 20% of the people who actually cite things read them (also from the study.) So, there’s a lot of stuff that’s getting published that probably shouldn’t be published. On the other hand, people publish in order to quantify the amount of research they’ve done – for promotion, for tenure – rather than trying to simply put out scientific research. I think that’s a problem. Funding agencies, they look at how much you’ve published before. So publishing for the sake of publishing rather than advancing knowledge is a problem. If I can, I always try and publish in a journal that has open access to it. So the PLOS journals is where I would go if I could. But you have to pay a $1000 – $2000. It’s still peer-reviewed, it’s not vanity publishing, but you are actually paying so everybody (in Africa or wherever) can access it. I think that’s really important. I start seeing it now as we at the College get less and less access to research materials how difficult it can be.

CK: Ben Panciera. who runs our institutional repository, can go in in real time and see where a popular article is being downloaded. With a popular article, it is astounding to watch the lights flash all over the world, and although quite often it is in English speaking countries, you can get a lot of people from India, and Sub-Saharan Africa and South America that might or might not have easy access to research, but because of institutional repositories, they do.

MZ: Exactly.
(click for more detailed information on Professor Zimmer and his research)

The Rise and Fall of Authority, or, is Wikipedia an Encyclopedia, or Stone Soup?

Despite the fact that Wikipedia was born almost two decades ago, despite the fact that many libraries (mine included) have cancelled all other print and digital general encyclopedias and use it by preference, despite the fact that an increasing number of academics have actually found interesting uses for it within their classrooms – Wikipedia remains controversial. There are of course questions about bias and accuracy in any crowd-sourced site. But a short look into the history of encyclopedic works should alleviate some fears.

Wikipedia first came into being in 2001. The Internet itself had already grown beyond the “primordial swamp” that Paul Evans Peters called it in 1990 (Discussion at Institute on Collection Development for the Electronic Library. April 29-May 2, 1990,) but it was still a place that held a wild mix of legitimate, questionable, and not-so-legitimate sources. Graphical user interfaces were relatively new, search engines were unsophisticated, and there was little consistency in who was making digital materials available, and what it was they were offering the public.
wikipediaImage
To complicate things, the wiki platform confused many people in the academic world. Wikipedia was created by what seemed to be a world-wide group of interested readers, readers that might or might not have any recognized authority about what they wrote. This made Wikipedia seem amateurish and intellectually suspect.

To put it very simply, Wikipedia seemed to have little claim to any intellectual authority. The term “crowdsourcing” had not yet been coined; to the serious eye, Wikipedia was based on unvetted volunteerism. It was a kind of “stone soup,” where people were adding, trading off, editing each other, reporting inappropriate posts, always always creating something with no obvious recipe.

Wikipedia’s main competition, of course, was the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica.

Photo by Valentin on Unsplash

Photo by Valentin on Unsplash

Between 1768-1771, the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was compiled in Edinburgh and published in three volumes. As the first English-language encyclopedia, it quickly became an important title in the ever-increasing number of published reference works. It was heavily edited, and articles came to be written and signed by well-known scholars. As the scope of scholarship expanded rapidly, so did the Britannica’s size. When the 11th edition was published in 1910, it had increased to a whopping twenty-nine volumes. With that edition, its publication passed to the United States.

Society had come to look at encyclopedias in two ways. First, they were a convenient way of holding large amounts of information, paper cans to put facts and knowledge in. But an equally significant characteristic was that they were also a way of talking about that knowledge in an authoritative way.
So our crowd-sourced, stone-soup encyclopedia, Wikipedia, was born into a world that, on the surface, already had a hugely historic and effective title dominating the encyclopedic landscape.

But did it really?

The value of a reference work lies in its timeliness, its accuracy, and its authority. By 2001, even Britannica’s conservative editorship had allowed digital publication. But they maintained tight control over authorship and editing, leading, of course, to an issue with timeliness. Wikipedia, although the sourcing and authorship was distributed, was able to add, update and correct entries very quickly, literally on an hourly basis.

And that leads to the second important aspect of the value of a reference work: accuracy. The founders and serious participants of Wikipedia quickly developed mechanisms by which entered articles could be flagged, corrected, and objected to. Pieces of missing information could be added, explanations could be expanded, and articles could be removed. And although all of that remained the basis for the greatest objections to Wikipedia, the organization and its world-wide community soldiered on. Finally, in 2005, the highly respected journal Nature published an article in which the two titles were put head to head on the question of accuracy. And although Wikipedia was found to have a few more errors in the selected articles, it was determined that both Britannica and Wikipedia had errors. (Nature 438, 900–901 (15 December 2005))

There is also the ever-important argument of the importance of “authority.” For although Britannica’s reputation had been diminished somewhat when its editorship moved the United State, that could regarded as an issue of intellectual snobbery. The editors remained committed to finding the best possible authors for articles. Wikipedia, of course, was dependent on the intellectual efforts of unvetted volunteers.

But, against our belief in authority, we must place cultural and temporal bias. So, in the 11th edition of the Britannica, in the article on “The Negro,” the scholar Thomas Joyce writes “Mentally the negro is inferior to the white.” Clearly such a statement would never appear in the current edition of any decent encyclopedia. But I put it here to suggest that at the time that anything is published, an author and a few editors might not be in a good position to have the cultural distance to see bias.

So what can be our conclusion on Wikipedia?

Crowdsourcing clearly has its dangers, and therefore its detractors. But faith in unseen authority in edited reference works also has its dangers. Both types of sources inevitably reflect cultural biases and, frequently, have factual errors.

How do we teach students to use Wikipedia? We teach it the way we teach them to use any kind of reference work: read entries carefully and critically, examine them for bias. Use their bibliographies and added links to other materials and collections. Use them as jumping off points to more scholarly works. Use them (carefully) for a general orientation to a subject. And, of course, never use them as a citable source.

In short, as we all know, thoughtful, analytic reading of any source, at any time, is central to a researcher’s successful process. And don’t forget: the stone soup of fable turned out to be really tasty.

Research Librarian? What’s that?

Most people know reference and research librarians to be friendly and useful, which, hopefully, we always are. But our actual role still confuses people. What do we do, and why do we do it?

There is no question that one well-known aspect of our work is that we find things. Thomas Mann, who retired this past January from the Library of Congress after 33 years, actually started his adult life as a private detective. This is not surprising. We can be dogged, and fascinated about hidden answers can be.

We can move in and out of most academic disciplines. Some of us have advanced academic degrees, but not all. We understand the differences in discipline areas and therefore what constitutes research and research materials in each. We have a lot of experience in understanding faculty expectations of their students’ research projects and abilities.

We also understand the “rules” of research, but seek ways to teach people how to break those rules when it is appropriate. True research is not just a craft, it is an art. Because of that, there is often no one right way of doing it. We see research questions as puzzles, puzzles that often require not only the finding of facts, but the fitting and refitting of those facts together. Like individual Legos, facts have little meaning on their own. Only when they are fit together do they result in something worth seeing. And then they can be refit, which results in something entirely different.

We are endlessly curious about what we do not know, and have little ego about we do know. Do we like people? Yes, but what we love about people is how they think and learn.

We are indeed research investigators, we are teachers, we are finders. Let us help you.

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