Friday, November 10, 2006

Article Note: On Undergraduate Citation Behavior

Citation for the article:

Carlson, Jake. "An Examination of Undergraduate Citation Behavior." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32.1 (January 2006): 14-22.

Read via ScienceDirect.

This study looks at undergraduate citations by type and number based on class year, discipline, and course level. It draws on a sample of 583 bibliographies from student research papers. I found myself making marginal notes through the article. Some of the observations the author makes are things I knew; others just made me think a little.

In the opening, Carlson refers to previous work by Dilevko and Gottlieb (in JAL vol. 29) and D'Esposito & Gardner (in JAL vol. 25). Carlson points out "both studies found that although use of online sources was common, print sources were valued by undergraduates and were still seen as the primary sources of information for their research" (14). What is missing from these studies, according to Carlson, is what influences students in their choices of what they cite.

In the literature review, Carlson begins to look at work in this area by reminding readers of a common assumption:

"It is a logical assumption to make that as students progress through college they will become more adept with the research process and change their citation behaviors as a result" (14).

I think most academic librarians know that, while logical, this assumption is not always accurate. It is more accurate to say that very often students do not become more adept at research. This is often due to simple lack of practice; students get a very basic library tour their freshman year, if at all, and they may never get further research instruction unless their professor brings them in for instruction or plans on teaching the skills in his/her class. The library literature features discussions of this. At least, I remember seeing this before (here is a reference to the issue, there may be others I am not recalling now).

Further in the literature review, Carlson cites an article from C&RL (vol. 62),

"Grimes and Boening found that first-year students are not effectively evaluating the Web sites they are citing. As a result, first-year students are using unauthenticated and inappropriate material from the Web in their research" (15).

Carlson does reassure readers that freshman behavior cannot be generalized to upper classmen. In terms of evaluating websites, the issue is one of the regular concerns for faculty, if the requests I get to teach about the topic are any indication. I made a note a while back on an article on how faculty see their students' use of the WWW here.

And talking about situations that do not always match reality, Carlson writes about instructors' expectations of their students capabilities,

"Instructors' expectations of what students should be able to accomplish increase as students go through the curriculum of their major. Research given to students as they progress through course levels are likely to be more demanding and increasingly complex. The types of sources students select should reflect their growing sophistication and ability to think critically in their chosen discipline" (15).

I say reality often does not match expectation because students often do not get research practice. This goes back to the earlier observation about students not becoming adept at research. Now, I am sure that assignment's complexity should grow as students progress in their majors. One would think student sophistication in research would grow as well, but that is not always the case as we can see.

Carlson points to Barbara Valentine, who wrote an article on student commitment. She made this discovery on her study published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship:

"Barbara Valentine discovered that students tended to focus pragmatically on the guidelines, requirements, and other signals given by the faculty member as part of the assignment rather than on the faculty member's idea of a 'learning experience.' Although students seemed to understand that the professors wanted 'good' sources, they were not always sure of what constituted a 'good' source or how to find it" (15).

Allow me a brief moment of snark, but I could have told Ms. Valentine that little nugget about student pragmatism for free based on my experiences as a teacher. As for the other part, helping students learn what makes a good source is part of what I do.

Overall, Carlson's article is very detailed in describing the methodology, which gives me ideas for possible replication or maybe a similar study in my setting. A lot of the results seem to confirm the conventional wisdom. For instance:

  • "Students in humanities courses focused heavily on books, which composed 70 percent of the total number of citations listed in their bibliographies" (17-18).
  • "Students in social science courses cited more journal articles than students in humanities courses or students in foundation seminars" (18).
However, the article presents other findings based on student academic year and course level. Just one example:

  • "As first-year students enrolled in foundation seminars cited a substantially higher mean number of Web sites than first-year students in other courses did, it is likely that the types of assignments given in foundation seminars encourage, or at least do not discourage, the use of Web sites as information sources" (19).
Carlson also discusses the limitations of the study. In brief, the main limitation is a lack of context. We know what sources the students chose, but we do not know why they chose them. Carlson closes the article by posing some questions for further research. The reference list has an item or two I may seek out as well.

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