Thursday, January 24, 2008

Academic Research Online Is a Walled Garden

I've been consumed for the past three weeks researching and writing papers for my Master’s program. I managed to write one paper an Internet topic (a semiotic analysis of folksonomies) and added as many Net references in the others as I could.

In the process of researching online on online topics, I noted two critiques of academia:
1) vehicles for searching online resources are inadequate
2) academic research remains too cloistered

The last few weeks were the first time ever for me that I was exposed to the wealth of electronic academic research. I thought there was lots of information on the Web before, but I was stunned by the quantity and quality of academic information available to students (the databases require log-in and an individual subscription is prohibitively expensive).

Royal Roads University has one of the largest electronic libraries in Canada, which is fitting as it is primarily an online university. Electronic information there takes the forms of:
  1. e-books
  2. online journal databases
  3. electronic theses
I haven’t made the most of e-books, due to my dislike of reading for a long time onscreen and that e-books can’t accompany me to many of my regular reading places. The theses seem promising, although due to Royal Roads being a comparatively young university they don't have a lot of theses available.

Online academic resources a treasure, albeit hidden & sans map
I did extensively use online academic journals and this is where I was overjoyed and overwhelmed. I had no idea how many journals there were, some of which, believe it or not, aren’t completely esoteric.

There are essentially two problems that I discovered with online searching of these journal databases. Problem one is that there is a bewildering array of journal databases. Second, the search engines for pretty much all these services are, well, crappy. Granted, graduate students do require more advanced search skills than a normal online surfer would need, but still the search tools are unnecessarily complicated, buggy at times, and just plain miss things. I found a lot of instances where I was searching the entire body of articles and certain results would not appear, but later, having found these articles via other means, I would find the terms appearing prominently.

The journal database search engines were so generally poor that I had to use other means, serendipity being the most painful method for time-pressed procrastinators such as myself.

Google Scholar helps save my day
Fortunately, someone turned me onto Google Scholar. I found it retrieved items from academic databases better than the databases own search, plus Google Scholar pulls up other applicable information as well. Truly a very handy tool - thank you Google!

Ivory towers cloister useful research
My final complaint is that while I was also surprised by the quantity and quality of academic research on Internet topics, I was miffed that I never saw any of it before. I’ve worked in the Internet for years, have read books and articles, and been to conferences and was never exposed to this research before.

Granted, it is possible that this research could have come to me via other authors and speakers who digested and regurgitated it. Also, it's not like the research is fit for wider application as can be exceedingly and, I might add, unnecessarily obtuse and elitist (another complaint, sorry). But some research is fine for everyone working in the field as is, and in other cases the findings could be repurposed for wider distribution.

Frankly, I think that too much of academia is infatuated with itself and doesn’t make enough effort to share their research to the outside world. With this attitude one ends up with research for research’s sake. And those, like me, who can benefit from the information don’t get it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Sign o' The Times

I've been term paper oblivion for the last few days. I have a big, weighty term paper due for all of my three classes, while I don't dislike my classes, I certainly don't find two of the three final assignments at all helpful.

The one assignment I am excited about is using semiotics to help understand folksonomies and/or social bookmarking. I chose semiotics as I previously hated it (as mentioned in an earlier post) and thought this would be a cool way to grow as a person and researcher. How foolish I was!

I don't know if I'll have anything earth-shattering to say about it, but once it's complete - and if I don't fail - I'll post it (or highlights) here.

In the meantime, for those asking me what semiotics or folksonomies are, here are some good short primers I found on YouTube.

Intro to Semiotics

Intro to Social Bookmarking and Folksonomies

Wednesday, January 09, 2008 most popular items last year - a telling look at Canadians, Canada’s predominant online news source, has published the most clicked-on and most emailed stories of 2007.

While our news surfing isn't a national disgrace, our emailing habits may be.

Most clicked-on
The top 25 most clicked-on stories are mostly legitimate news stories and not a single item about Paris Hilton or her ilk. I’m proud to say of my fellow Canadians that of the 25 top items, only two were not legitimate news stories. One of them, which was the second most popular article, was Vancouver patient oozes green blood which I must confess I remember clicking-on when it originally came out in June. But how can you not click-on something of such World Weekly News caliber appearing in staid CBC?

There was only one story had an entertainment focus, the Chris Benoit murder/suicide, but this is hardly coverage of Britney Spears latest driving incident (though Canadian Keifer Sutherland’s drunk driving conviction and continued commercials for Ford didn’t crack the top 25 either.)

While the top story, hitting positions 1, 7, and 16 was the Virginia Tech slayings (#16 being coverage of a Canadian victim), the story most fixated on is the rising loonie. Guess Canadians were either excited to gloat at the Americans or looking forward to cross border shopping (BTW, there has never been a better time to shop at American websites – we’ve got some great deals!).

Also, of the 25 articles all except for two (which were about Virginia Tech) had a prominent Canadian angle. I’m not sure if visitors are largely looking for Canadian news or if items with a more local bent capture more interest.

Most emailed
I will make no attempt at any lofty explanations of the top ten most emailed stories on

Only one was a legitimate news item. Clearly, people only email friends of the most offbeat, bizarre nature.

Back to my World Weekly News theory – everyone loves these freakish stories, and all the more so when CBC reports them.

These items were so much fun I had to list them here:
1. Thomas & Friends toys recalled for lead poisoning danger
2. Moles linked with slower aging: study
3. Left-handedness gene linked to mental illness, suggests study
4. Vancouver patient oozes green blood
5. Don't poo-poo technique: Fecal transplant can cure superbug, doctors say
6. Winnipeg pizza place serves up side of porn
7. Scientists make gut-brain connection to autism
8. Catholic Church only true church, Vatican says
9. What the ...? Workplace profanity boosts morale: study
10. Diet soft drinks linked to health risks: study

I must say #5, #6 and #9 really caught my attention and made me click through, so I can't take any moral highground either. I'd like to say I read all of excellent political and foreign coverage. I'd like to say that. Their technology coverage is very good and I read it regularly, so it's not all green blood and pizza porn.