Zotero: a wizard’s companion

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been using Zotero, a free browser add-on for Firefox that allows you to manage bibliographic citations online. I’d tried it months ago on my old, decrepit computer but found it to be slow and clunky, but wow, what a difference it has made to my research. It’s sleek, integrates perfectly with tools like Google Scholar, and allows you to export in virtually any bibliographic format. It seems to allow you to index just about any sort of source, including PDFs and web sites, with ease. Of course, if something is poorly referenced at the source, that won’t help you, but it has clarified a lot of things for me. I have been known to describe myself to students as a ‘wizard’ of bibliographic search, both online and otherwise, and Zotero has already made things much, much faster for me.

It’s striking how fast online research is changing – just ten months ago, when I had my Methods students do bibliographic research on Paleolithic mathematical and calendrical notations, I was wary of Google Scholar’s breadth and advised against using it exclusively, and I didn’t really have any notion of how to advise students to collect references online efficiently. With Zotero, their work would have been much, much faster and easier. So, because I know some of those people are reading this: sorry, guys!

Now if I could only find a way to take the giant Word document of references on numerical notation that I’ve been compiling since 1998, and import it into Zotero (or anything else), that would be pretty handy. But even a wizard has his limits.

Why I blog

I’ve only been blogging at Glossographia for six weeks, but I’ve been blogging at my non-professional blog, The Growlery, for six years, which must correspond to a century or more in Internet time.    And over those past six years, but particularly over the past six weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about the different reasons I blog.

I blog because I like to think someone out there is reading and thinking about an issue differently than they did before.   I have never been accused of being unopinionated, and the sharp immediacy of the blogging environment gives me a thrill I rarely find outside the classroom – with the added benefit that my words are there on the screen to mull over.  Want to know what I think about something?  You can be pretty sure I’ve written about it somewhere, and if not, you know where to ask.

I blog because the community of interesting and thoughtful people that I know through blogging.  Livejournal is not primarily the refuge of fourteen-year-old emo kids.  Fully one-third of my friends list has at least one graduate degree, and there are (at last count) a dozen people with doctorates and another half-dozen who are pursuing the doctorate. I know doctors, lawyers, and architects – most of whom I have never met in real life – and people from virtually any other field of endeavour you might think of.  Not to mention the reams of bright, fascinating people whose paths have not yet led them to further education, or never will.

I blog because of my colleagues.  Anthropology seems to be underrepresented in the academic blogosphere, in comparison to, say, history or linguistics (two other fields in which I have some specialized training and interest), which is a shame.  I find it to be absolutely essential not only as a tool for social networking, but also as a tool for playing around with ideas that may not yet be quite ready for peer review, but which need a collective of thinkers.   Is academic blogging playful, even trivial sometimes?  Sure, but so is 95% of what academics do on any given day.  Is it going to give me tenure?  Not likely, but I don’t sit up nights panicking about that.  Is it worthwhile, socially and intellectually?  Damn right it is.

I blog because I see the potential for blogging to change the way we think about academic mentorship also.  One of the real joys I had while working at McGill was to observe the level of student participation in presenting ongoing research, as in the NOCUSO field school blog from Finland, or the zooarchaeology field school blog from Parc Safari in southern Quebec, both spearheaded by my friend Andre Costopoulos, but written and run by the junior scholars there who I am happy to call my friends and colleagues also.  In these efforts, as well as in the web-published projects I run, I see a grand opportunity for extremely bright and thoughtful young scholars to develop their ideas and find their voice – as well as to stay in touch.   Next term I am looking forward to having my graduate students at Wayne do similar sorts of work.

I blog because I believe in the democratization of knowledge.   That may sound all highfalutin and whatnot, but what it comes down to is a feeling of obligation to share things that I know, without any expectation of reward.  I’ve been doing that for over a decade now at the Phrontistery, and my motivation is still much the same as it was back in 1996 in the Middle Paleo-Internet.  Sure, my day job involves me getting paid to share my knowledge, but that doesn’t mean I think I should get paid for everything I write.  I am privileged enough to enjoy a career that allows me the freedom to do this service.

I blog because of my friends (academic and otherwise).  I recently moved to a city of 300,000 where I know virtually no one who is not a blood relation – and let me tell you, I don’t do well in isolation.  Most of my closest friends are nine hours’ drive away in Montreal, and most of the rest are even more distant.  But over the past little while I’ve come to realize that I’m not really alone, and that, while I really do need to get out more, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to discount what I have here.   There are people I’ve never met in person with whom I feel  a strong personal connection.  There are also people I once knew as well as family who have faded from my life through their absence, which I regret, and hope to avoid in the future.

I blog because of my family.  I don’t know what Arthur will think of the various things I have written about his young life, when he’s older and jaded and thinks his dad is a big dork.    I’d like to think though that there is value in having this record of funny moments and strange episodes, the sort of minutiae that most people never know about.  And I blog because Julia blogs – she was the one who sucked me into this life, after all – and not a day goes by that we don’t spend some time looking over one another’s shoulder at some funny thing, or talking about something we’ve encountered in our mutual journey.

Lastly, I blog for me.  I’m not sure what kind of person I would be without this outlet, but I can’t imagine that I would be better off.   Like a lot of people, I can be anxious, I can be overanalytical, and I can be wracked with doubt.   But having the ability to express these thoughts in a relatively neutral medium can be (and is) a great source of personal strength.  And having the ability to look back on things I wrote long ago, to rethink an issue, or just to remember a good day warmly, is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Ig Nobel 2008

Last Thursday, the 2008 Ig Nobel awards were given out, recognizing scientific achievements “that first make people laugh, and then make them think” (http://improbable.com/ig).    I am pleased to announce that once again, anthropological knowledge (irrespective of the affiliations of the researchers) has made a substantial impact on the field of weird research, with no less than three awards given in three very different areas of research:

Evolutionary anthropologists will be thrilled to hear that Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan won the Ig Nobel for economics for their article ‘Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers‘, in which they demonstrate that strip club dancers earn significantly larger tips while in estrus than while menstruating, but that those who use contraceptives show no peaks and valleys in their earnings.   This represents the first time that human estrus has been demonstrated empirically to have economic effects in the real world.

In archaeology, Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and Jose Carlos Marcelino have won the Ig Nobel in archaeology for their insightful, ‘The role of armadillos in the movement of archaeological materials‘.   For the first time, we know not only that armadillos do play such a role, but specifically what sorts of post-depositional activity can be attributed to the critters.

Of relevance to linguistic and organizational anthropology, David Sims has won the Ig Nobel for literature for ‘You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations‘.  This is a fascinating study of interpersonal relations gone wrong in the workplace, using ethnographic and linguistic methodologies to demonstrate how and why certain people are demonized as ‘bastards’.  I’ve known of this article for a while, and am using it next term in my Language and Society course.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Works cited

Mello Araujo, Astolfo G. and Jose Carlos Marcelino. 2003. The role of armadillos in the movement of archaeological materials: an experimental approach. Geoarchaeology 18(4): 433-460.

Miller, Geoffrey, Joshua M. Tybur and Brent D. Jordan. 2007. Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior 28(6): 375-381.

Sims, David. 2005. You bastard: a narrative exploration of the experience of indignation within organizations. Organization Studies 26(11): 1625-1640.

A clarification

I realize upon rereading my last post on the Frost ‘alphabetic gene’ hypothesis that I was a bit unclear.  My difficulty is not with the purported aim of Medical Hypotheses to publish work without peer review, or that I consider that Frost’s article had best been left unpublished.   One of the real problems of peer review is that it is an extremely conservative process that has all sorts of inherent limitations.  I’m a big supporter of publish-then-review over review-then-publish, even though it means that yes, some crap will be published, and in fact probably a lot of crap will be published.   For online publications, there is no technical reason not to do so.

Nor is it the interdisciplinary nature of the research; as an anthro-linguo-evo-archaeo-historical cognitive scientist, I basically believe that all disciplinary boundaries are essentially artificial, and while occasionally useful, frequently limit discussions in unfruitful ways.   I am constantly amazed at the huge gaps in knowledge in my own field of study that exist, I believe, because disciplinary boundaries discourage the asking of certain types of questions.  (It did make it very easy to find things to write about though!)

Nor even was the problem with Frost’s specific formulation: I believe it to be in error, and in fact that the test implications of the hypothesis are not too difficult to reject, but it is interesting. And after all, if he hadn’t published it, I wouldn’t have had so much fun thinking about the idea critically.

No, if I have a difficulty, it is that I don’t think it is maximally productive for journals like Medical Hypotheses to be run (and to have articles chosen) strictly by medical scientists. My proposal for a sister journal, Social Hypotheses, was only half in jest – I think we desperately need a sort of reformulation of Notes & Queries or the way Man used to be back in the old days, with short empirical, theoretical, and indeed speculative pieces that can be produced rapidly and disseminated to a wide audience.  But I don’t want to know only what doctors want to know about anthropology; I also want to know what architects, astrophysicists, and yes, even anthropologists want to know about anthropology.  Maybe I’m not really talking about journals; maybe that’s old-fashioned 20th century thinking.  Maybe I’m just talking about indexing academic blog posts in a way that lets them get to the people who need to read them.

Accreditation and online scholarship

(Originally posted at The Growlery, 2008/06/08)

There’s an interesting essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education online by Gary Olson, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Illinois State University, addressing the question of certifying online research. Olson argues persuasively that online research is not taken seriously enough, and that while peer-reviewed online journals have found acceptance as ‘real’ academic work for the purposes of hiring, tenure, and promotion, other forms of work such as databases, online bibliographies, and other Internet sites remain essentially unaccredited, and thus easily ignorable within the academic mainstream. His solution is for each discipline to create its own canonization process to accredit and review this material in a manner best suited to its disciplinary conventions.

I’m about as big an advocate for online research as you will find anywhere. In particular, I find it extremely valuable to use my senior seminars (and eventually, graduate courses) as launching pads for high-quality student work that would otherwise not see the light of day, as I have done in the Pseudoarchaeology Research Archive and the Dollarware Project. An extremely important part of academic professionalization derives from taking “finished” term work, editing/revising it, and then putting it out for the world to see. If you aren’t interested in doing that (to some degree), then no matter how bright you are, you’re not really interested in being a scholar, and it’s better you should figure that out as a senior, or as a master’s student. I’m also firmly convinced that ‘even’ undergraduates (at least, the very best senior undergraduates) are capable of producing work that is of quality equal to much peer-reviewed research, and that there is an unfair prejudice against this work when it is known in advance to have been written by very junior scholars.

One potential benefit of disciplinary accreditation is that both I and my students might benefit if these projects were ‘officially’ accredited. And believe me, if such a system existed, I would be at the head of the line, submitting online projects for consideration. One concern would be, however, that if accreditation is merely seen as something that Ph.D. holders should receive for their work, then we would end up in a situation where good work ends up just as marginalized as before. Obviously, the material is still out there; Olson’s proposal is far closer to a ‘publish-then-peer-review’ model than the current ‘peer-review-then-publish’ model. But if what exists is perceived as being illegitimate, or controlled very narrowly by a small group of insiders within disciplinary societies, then what is created is a monstrosity in which these elite individuals hold power far greater than any journal editor or academic press.

In fact, the greatest challenge with the current model is that the people in charge of hiring/tenure/promotion are not part of a culture that considers these online publications to be legitimate. I’m not sure that an online peer-review/accreditation system will change that – tenure committees are free to denigrate or ignore all sorts of publications they consider to be second-rate, for instance. I understand the argument Olson is raising – that this gives deans, provosts, etc., information about the importance of a work to a discipline that they otherwise couldn’t really have. But without a general cultural change within a discipline – for instance, physics has already shifted to a model where online publications are given considerable weight – I’m not sure that this does anything but shift the error from tenure committees to the disciplinary associations themselves.

I am very strongly in favour of Olson’s proposed changes, in theory. In anthropology, this would pave the way for online site reports, field notes, photo journals, and other scholarship to receive critical attention, and to promote the publication of scholarship that otherwise might not be published because it’s not perceived as beneficial to one’s career. But the devil is in the details, as always, and what is needed is to continue to discuss these issues constructively to build a model.

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