Tag Archives: HathiTrust

Thinking About Authority and Academic Databases

Beyond Citation hopes to encourage critical thinking by scholars about academic databases. But what do we mean by critical thinking? Media culture scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has defined critique as “not attacking what you think is false, but thinking through the limitations and possibilities of what you think is true.”

One question that the Beyond Citation team is considering is the scholarly authority of a database. Yale University Library addresses the question of scholarly authority in a handout entitled the “Web vs. Library Databases,” a guide for undergraduates. The online PDF states that information on the web is “seldom regulated, which means the authority is often in doubt.” By contrast, “authority and trustworthiness are virtually guaranteed” to the user of library databases.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether scholars should always prefer the “regulated” information of databases to the unruly data found on the Internet. While Yale Library may simply be using shorthand to explain academic databases to undergraduates, to the extent that they are equating databases and trustworthiness, I think they may be ceding authority to databases too readily and missing some of the complexity of the current digital information landscape.

Yale Library cites Academic Search and Lexis-Nexis as examples of databases. Lexis-Nexis is a compendium of news articles, broadcast transcripts, press releases, law cases, as well as Internet miscellany. Lexis-Nexis is probably authoritative in the sense that one can be comfortable that the items accessed are the actual articles obtained directly from publishers and thus contain the complete texts of articles (with images removed). In that limited sense, items in Lexis-Nexis are certainly more reliable than results obtained from a web search. (Although this isn’t true for media historians who want to see the entire page with pictures and advertisements included. For that, try the web or another newspaper database). Despite its relatively long pedigree for an electronic database, careful scrutiny of results is just as crucial when doing a search in Lexis-Nexis as it is for an Internet search.

In some instances, especially when seeking information about non-mainstream topics, searching the Internet may be a better option. Composition and rhetoric scholar Janine Solberg has written about her experience of research in digital environments, in particular how full-text searches on Amazon, Google Books, the Internet Archive and HathiTrust enabled her to locate information that she was unable to find in conventional library catalogs. She says, “Web-based searching allowed me not only to thicken my rhetorical scene more quickly but also to rapidly test and refine questions and hypotheses.” In the same article, Solberg calls for “more explicit reflection and discipline-specific conversation around the uses and shaping effects of these [digital] technologies” and recommends as a method “sharing and circulating research narratives that make the processes of historical research visible to a wider audience . . . with particular attention to the mediating role of technologies.”

Adding to the challenge of thinking critically about academic databases is their dynamic nature. The terrain of library databases is changing as more libraries adopt proprietary “discovery” systems that search across the entire set of databases to which libraries subscribe. For example, the number of JSTOR users has dropped “as much as 50%” with installations of discovery systems and changes in Google’s algorithms. Shifts in discovery have led to pointed discussions between associations of librarians and database publishers about the lack of transparency of search mechanisms. In 2012, Tim Collins, the president of EBSCO, a major database and discovery system vendor, found it necessary to address the question of whether vendors of discovery systems favor their own content in searches, denying that they do. There is, however, no way for anyone outside the companies to verify his statement because the vendors will not reveal their search algorithms.

While understanding the ranking of search results in academic databases is an open question, a recent study comparing research in databases, Google Scholar and library discovery systems by Asher et al. found that “students imbued the search tools themselves with a great deal of authority,” often by relying on the brand name of the database. More than 90% of students in the study never went past the first page of search results. As the study notes, “students are de facto outsourcing much of the evaluation process to the search algorithm itself.”

In addition, lest one imagine that scholars are immune to an uncritical perspective on digital sources, in his study of the citation of newspaper databases in Canadian dissertations, historian Ian Milligan says that scholars have adopted the use of these databases without achieving a concomitant perspective on their shortcomings. Similarly to the Asher et al. study of undergraduate students, Milligan says, “Researchers cite what they find online.”

If critique is, as Chun says, thinking through the limitations and possibilities of what we think is true, then perhaps by encouraging reflective conversations among scholars about how these ubiquitous digital tools shape research and the production of knowledge, Beyond Citation’s efforts will be another step toward that critique.

We are at blog.beyondcitation.org. Email us at BeyondCitation [at] gmail [dot] com or follow us on Twitter @beyondcitation as we get ready for the launch in May.

Beyond Citation: Understanding Databases

Every year, more and more research is done by scholars online via academic databases. Print journals, scholarly monographs, newspapers, periodical indexes, and even ephemera and image collections are steadily transitioning from print to electronic.

Historically, research using print collections took place in library reading rooms with material owned by the library. Increasingly, research using electronic collections takes place outside of the library using proprietary digital platforms subscribed to by libraries. This change greatly affects how libraries function — an ownership model morphs into an access model — and how research is done. Database searches are crucial to uncovering information, but little is known about how these searches work. Additionally, it’s not always easy to find what full text content is covered in these database titles.

The goal of Beyond Citation is to help the researcher to better understand how academic databases work, and provide easier access to the database’s holdings information. For the CUNY Digital Praxis Seminar, the Beyond Citation team needed to determine which databases to feature in its initial launch, and what information to gather about each title.

First, we wanted to feature humanities databases and steer away from STEM titles. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) Second, we ideally wanted to cover titles that were available at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library, and we wanted representation from the big three “e” vendors: EBSCO, Gale, and ProQuest. Additionally, we wanted to cover different kinds of content, including historical newspapers, scholarly journals, and historical e-books from both non-profit and for-profit companies.

After much discussion, the Beyond Citation team has decided to focus on the following databases and collections for its initial launch.

Google Books



ProQuest Historical Newspapers

19th Century U.S. Newspapers (Gale)

Early English Books Online (EEBO) with TCP (Text Creation Partnership) (ProQuest)

Gale Artemis: Primary Sources – Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO).


Project Muse (Johns Hopkins University Press)

Artemis Literature Resources (Gale)

EBSCO Humanities Source

We are open to and eager for feedback from users of these titles, or from any other researchers and librarians who use databases in their research. More to come in future posts on what information we hope to gather from each title, and how that information will be displayed. You can reach us at BeyondCitation [at] gmail.com

Knowledge Workers Unite!

In May, 2012, ProQuest, the historical newspaper and scholarly journal database, introduced Udini, “an inventive new research service that provides individuals with access to premium content and cutting edge tools.” The “premium content” they advertised was pulled from select ProQuest databases which previously had only been available through research and academic libraries. According to their press release, Udini offers scholarly content to “knowledge workers without access to research libraries.”

Then in September, 2013, JSTOR, the online academic journal and e-book platform, announced JPASS, a subscription service also geared toward the unaffiliated scholar. For a small fee, you can access a set number of articles in the JSTOR archive. As the JPASS press release suggests, “It’s a great option if you are not able to get ready access through an educational institution or public library.”

Udini and JPASS, combined with increasing number of open access scholarly journal and monograph content, plus the full text titles available in Google Books, HathiTrust, and the Internet Archive, has made initial research for the unaffiliated humanities scholar easier than ever before. And if one adds the growing amount of content digitized from specialized libraries, plus access to library subscription databases, a curious mind need only to have an internet connection and a library card to begin her independent studies.

In fact, one could argue that many of the alt-ac career paths that were mentioned and discussed in class on Monday don’t require a PhD at all. Many don’t (or shouldn’t) even require a Masters degree. What many of these alt-ac jobs require are the same skills that many jobs require: clear writing and communication, research skills, organization, interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills, and intellectual curiosity and initiative.

Intellectual curiosity, while perhaps once only satisfied by classroom engagement and course readings, is now easily fulfilled by tools accessible to a large portion of the population. Indeed, syllabi, lectures, and like-minded scholarly communities are all now easy to find outside the academy. In fact, there are many articles and blogs written by non academic scholars and enthusiasts whose writing and research are more aligned with their academic brethren than their publishing platforms may suggest. And much of their work is increasingly intersecting and interacting with traditional academia in interesting and productive ways.

I’m not suggesting that the world of material available to unaffiliated scholars mirrors the deep archival content that can be found in a university or academic library, or that an independent researcher is necessarily the equal to a PhD. But in 2013, there is so much more available to whet one’s curiosity and engage in learning, to participate in communities, and to publish, speak, and collaborate outside of the academy than ever before. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or a social scientist, or even a library scientist to do it.