Finding Information for Introductory Biology

After a conversation with Maryanne Simurda (at the end of May), I started thinking about designing some support materials for the various sections of the new Course to use, to accomplish several purposes:This collection of support/demo pieces might also be useful to my successor, in various ways. At the moment, most of the functions and resources I'd include are linked via the Science Library's Biology page.

Some basic notions necessary to the intellectual activity:

Linguistic and Conceptual discovery: mapping and elabrating clouds of terminology

Literature as network: articles interlinked by references, reflecting work that builds upon the work of others, and advances the frontiers of knowledge.

Primary, secondary, tertiary...: Each form has a distinctive morphology and purpose. Most of the use they make of the literature will be the direct or indirect result of database searches, but they need to have some clarity about how and why publications work in the sciences. It's also vital for them to know about Science and Nature as basic general information sources.

Searching tools: No one source has everything, hence the importance of multiple searches, and thoughtful choice among alternatives. Each user interface is different.

Management of references and their interrelationships, and of the ideas contained within articles: bibliography as constructive process (and RefWorks as a tool), and the goal of communication audiences of others, and to one's later self

The Winter 2005 iteration of Bio182 included 'overview' links for Annie, Google, Science and Nature, Review literature, Primary literature, and Citation Indexes and other power tools. These pages condense a lot of important bits from the presentations, and provide examples that were intended to create context for students to apply to their own tasks. The pages are summaries and meant to be aides memoires for what they'd seen demonstrated in class. It's not practical to convey the content by simply having students read those pages. The whole package is sort of a Pig through a Python: if swallowed whole, takes a while to digest and immobilizes the ingester. If nibbled in bits, it probably matters in which order they are fanged.

The strength of the Bio182 model was that it began with Information as the problematic: each student had a unique problem or question assigned, and then worked through a mutifaceted process of concept development, exploration, search, precis-making, and summary, across a couple of months, with the guidance of the Science Librarian and a faculty mentor. The fact that it was a public process, carried out in Web pages and focused on communication to audiences, was meant to induce a level of responsibility that most students rose to. Many did learn effective use of at least some of the tools, and (as I know from many requests for assistance by upperclass Biology students) some still remembered the details a year or two later. The downside: the course took a LOT of time and effort, and wasn't widely appreciated by its intended beneficiaries --partly because it was always taught at 8AM, but also because they had to take it on faith that the skills would be useful. Few were working on problems that were immediately meaningful to them (for the most part, the clearest pitch was that the experience would be good for them, in the character-building sense).

Part of the Problem to be solved as this information discovery/management module is incorporated into the new Intro Biology sections is that most faculty don't have command of those tools --don't use them enough themselves to be fluent with the peculiarities of different user interfaces, don't have occasion to search outside their specialties, and don't see the tools as an interconnected suite of affordances for exploration and management. Thus, a section that looked only at PubMed, or only at Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, would miss the whole idea of citation analysis. Ideally it will be possible to design a seamless/stealth Information component for the course, which introduces the most relevant tools for each section and still provides enough orientation to the whole array of tools and ways of thinking to be generalizable.

It seems to me that the key to success in the sectional approach is in animating this idea of Information as problematic, repeatedly posing to the students the question: "how shall we find out about..." where the object is an interrogation of the literature (including Web, and monographic, and review, and primary research), and then doing something useful and constructive and visible with the search results. If I was doing it, I'd

By the end of the term, a tidy literature would have accumulated, as an integral part of the process of inquiry and discovery, and students would have a clear example of why to be systematic about searching and keeping track of search results. Achieving such an outcome does require a familiarity with the tools (and thus may sometimes need the connivance of the Science Librarian), and is surely time-consuming. The objective is to have students understand the networks of communication that animate science, and have some idea of how and why to use basic information tools.

The Science Librarian's oversight of the Information work in each section would be a valuable addition, but the question is how the Science Librarian's contributions could be integrated, and what he/she will look at to exercise that oversight. The Web page element that was so central to Bio182 isn't really feasible in the several sections, since few Biology faculty are likely to see teaching those skills as a facet of their pedagogy. In any case, librarian participation in the Fall 2005 iteration is problematic: there will be no Science Librarian in the office.

Maryanne told me that she wants how-to units for

I'd add a number of information resources, some only of interest to one or two sections, and others really quite important for everybody to know about: And I think that both Science and Nature need special treatment, and probably PNAS as well.

Some of the above are especially useful in certain circumstances (e.g., when you NEED the full text of a primary or secondary article...)

It's really worth asking what it is we want students to be able to do, in the broadest sense. My answer: they should be able to engage with the literature[s] of Biology, and have a clear idea of where to look, and what to do with what they find. Primary and Secondary literatures are part of the shorthand I've used to introduce them to practical methods in the textual and documentary side of research.

I recently ran across an interesting version of the research process, well worth repurposing to fit the circumstances of a searcher in a scientific field (though it's cast in Venture Capital terms), from Tim Oren's The Art of the Fast Take (emphasis added):

...every technology and market has a private language. It's built of terms of art, but also names of landmarks such as products, famous papers and projects, labs, and researchers and other experts. To begin to understand the market you need to learn this language. Fortunately, such a distinctive use of language and interlinkage of people and information artifacts is the very best thing you can have to feed Google or other modern search tools.
The posting is about a page and a half, really worth the time to read and cast to fit one's own purposes. A few more bits:
You are looking for reviews or survey articles, as recent as possible. Skim them. Make sure these guy's idea isn't obviously misfit or already common knowledge. But you're mostly looking for more names, particularly of analysts, technologists or researchers who are commonly quoted... You're looking for competitive analysis, and also for corporate white papers. The latter will be 'spun', of course. What you're trying to extract are the key competitive issues, current and envisioned, and the code phrases used by the various competitors to tout their advantages and diss the opposition. You may strike out on the analysts if it really is a nascent area... With luck, you'll know someone on the list, or have a mutual friend. Buy a couple of lunches... Somewhere, there is a good argument going on in this field. Go find it. It may be on blogs, mailing lists, or at conferences, but it's likely to have an online presence and perhaps an archive. Read as much as you can handle, taking careful note of people and company names... Get a big piece of paper, your various lists of terms, people, products, etc., and make a network graph, cluster chart, or whatever works for you, noting central issues and people. You're not an expert, but you've now got some of the fundamentals of the technology and the market structure laid out.
OK, so scholarly research isn't business, still less VC activity, but there's a lot here that's just exactly what we'd like our students to internalize as they start to figure out a field or a research area.

A central point here: linguistic problems lie at the heart of any inquiry. Collecting and exploring terminology, and mapping the interrelations of concepts, is an essential step and might as well be made explicit.

Another: interlinkage is really worth exploring, whether it's viewed in terms of researchers, articles, subdisciplines... Who has been influenced by whom? Where have people studied and done postdocs? With whom have they published?

And 'arguments' aren't always disputes: sometimes they may reflect different ways of mapping/visualizing/parsing the same reality, or different evaluations of salience.

This list of Biology journals was compiled for the 2002 serials review and is still pretty much accurate (a few have been added since the list was last tended, and it's no longer being updated). The titles are linked to their Annie records, and thence to electronic access, where available. The list also includes serials that lead to the Review literature, which I've considered really important for students to encounter.

So the question for me is: what can I leave that would be a truly useful legacy? Maryanne says "Wisdom of Dr. Blackmer", but I'm not sure how to define that commodity, or how to break it into the most digestible/useful components. Webpages and screencasts are surely the appropriate media, but even the best of those need context to make them comprehensible.

I happened upon a very nice example of visualization of a literature:

...see more details ...and see the PNAS SupplementMapping Knowledge Domains (2004) for much more!