social bookmarking & academic research

I’ve been using Diigo and its less sophisticated cousin, del.icio.us, for quite some time now but I have hesitated to post about the benefits of social bookmarking sites for academic research since so much of what one finds online lacks authority and objectivity.

After reading “Social Bookmarking, Folksonomies, and Web 2.0 Tools” [Laura Gordon-Murnane, Searcher: The Magazine for Database Professionals 14:8 (June 2006) 26-38], however, I feel as though I should offer my two cents.

Making the Move

I began using del.icio.us after Internet Explorer lost all my bookmarks. The primary benefit of online bookmarking for me, then, was initially one of convenience: I could retrieve my bookmarks from any computer with internet access while retaining the ease of marking sites from within my browser. I also switched from Internet Explorer to FireFox (if you don’t use FireFox as your internet browser, you should — for too many reasons to list here), which is a vast improvement over IE.

Shortly afterward, I discovered Diigo. Not as many people use Diigo, but for those of you who blog or prefer prefer to read page annotations from other viewers it is an improvement over del.icio.us — plus it will import and update your del.icio.us bookmarks even if you use Diigo almost exclusively. For personal surfing and blogging purposes, Diigo is the best choice. However, because more people use del.icio.us, it is still to be preferred for research purposes. I will expound on this a little more in a minute.

Tag – You’re It: the Genius of “Tagging”

Tagging is a type of “folksonomy.” In other words, it enables you to categorize content (web pages, pictures, etc…) by whatever labels are most meaningful and helpful to YOU. Look at my del.icio.us bookmarks, for example (click here) and notice how you can access my bookmarks the old-fashioned way as a plain list or by the “tags” on the right side of the screen. Clicking on a tag, such as “art,” and you will see the website I have bookmarked and labeled as “art.”

You are probably accustomed to navigating sites by top-down taxonomy. At your local bookstore, for example, you can browse their books by category. Religion, fiction, biography, etc… The user must learn to navigate the store’s schema according to THEIR categories (taxonomy). Tagging is a form of folksonomy, which means that the user (or a community of users) can generate their own schema using terms that are most helpful to them. It is a bottom-up method.

This is helpful to me since it makes my bookmarks more accessible. I can tag a website with as many terms as I like. I might tag this CommonPlaces blog as blogs, theology, art, literature, library_stuff, research, or even as “colossal_waste_of_time.”

But this is also helpful to helpful to every other del.icio.us user. This is the beauty of it all. They become not just your tagged bookmarks, but the entire del.icio.us community’s tagged bookmarks (unless, of course, you choose the option to keep a particular bookmark private and unviewable by the public). You can search the tag “art” and see every bookmark tagged as “art” by anyone else. Tired of scrolling through six million results from an average Google search? Try searching the del.icio.us tagged bookmarks to see which ones other people have selected as the most important and/or helpful.

Remember: If you are using del.icio.us or Diigo just to save your bookmarks, then choose either. But if you are intending to search other people’s tags, then choose del.icio.us since it has a vastly larger number of users.

Social Bookmarking and Online Research

I will sing the praises of social bookmarking and folksonomy all day long. But as a research librarian I have mixed feelings about promoting their use in an academic setting. Most students understand that Wikipedia is not an authoritative source, but many still cite it in their papers. It may be an accurate reflection of users’ understanding of a topic, but it is not an academic encyclopedia. If students can’t discern between appropriate academic sources and helpful but academically inappropriate sites like Wikipedia, to what extent do I promote the similar world of social bookmarking?

Using tools like del.icio.us or its many cousins (see the list at the bottom of this post) are certainly helpful for finding information, but discernment must be central to how one reads, believes, and uses this information. It should go without saying that just because someone has taken the time to put it on the internet, and someone else has deemed it valuable enough to bookmark and tag for future reference, it is not necessarily correct, authoritative, and appropriate for academic use.

When to Use Social Bookmarking Sites for Research

I will be teaching incoming doctoral students about research next week. More specifically, I will be teaching them about doing academic research in our library based on Thomas Mann’s Oxford Guide to Library Research: How to Find Reliable Information Online and Offline (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Click here for the Table of Contents to see some of what we will cover.

My assumption is that these students are willing to put forward the time and energy to do substantive research rather than to piggy-back the often mediocre work that another person has done and published on the internet. When all the steps for effective library research outlined in Mann’s book, including the use of online academic databases through the library, are exhausted and the resulting leads are digested, or in the unlikely case that no leads are unearthed, only then will I refer a student to general online searching — and even then it is for the purpose of unearthing resources which the student still needs to evaluate in terms of authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency, and coverage — and even then I desire to equip them with knowledge of particular search tools and strategies. “Googling it” is not an effective search strategy, but it the only thing most people know to do.

So here is my question: do I reserve such instruction until they hit a dead end or do I recognized that human hearts are lazy (mine included) and that they will be searching the internet at large anyway, so I may as well equip them with effective search skills from the beginning? Studies show that most searchers go to Google, search for one or two keywords, and look at the first page of results from tens of thousands. There are wonderful shortcuts to finding materials on the internet (and, yes, even through Google — i.e., the Advanced Google book Search, or Google Scholar, both of which I use daily for citation searching) including social bookmarking sites. Using these can render the internet a useful tool.

So the question of when to use social bookmarking sites in the course of academic research is really one of information competence. I find that most students are one of three types:

  • The technologically challenged student who has just realized the world has passed them by: he/she was not expecting to find computers in the library and is utterly aghast that the library is unusable and their degree virtually unattainable without good computer knowledge and search skills. They are overwhelmed, desperate, and discouraged.
  • The relatively internet savvy student who has no idea of academic library research: he/she has a MySpace account, reads blogs, uses text messaging as a primary means of communication, but has absolutely no clue about how to do research. He may know a few Google tricks, but is not aware of the more helpful tools for targeting information on the internet.
  • The information competent student who can intelligently navigate and discern library resources as well as internet resources: he/she understands the value of authoritative resources, knows how to locate them using in-house library tools (both print and online) and by using in specific internet resources using mature discernment in their evaluation.

Social bookmarking sites should therefore be used to accomplish different goals depending on the student. For the first category of student, social bookmarking sites should be used to learn basic computer and internet skills. For example, as the student finds websites deemed helpful for any purpose (weather, news, tracking golf handicaps, etc…) he is more likely to return to those sites if the site is bookmarked and tagged for future reference. For the second category of student, deciding on appropriate tags for a page helps the student discern what may be important or unique about that page’s content. They are moving toward information competence. Both of the first two categories of students should use social bookmarking for personal rather than academic purposes. Only the third category, those students who have already achieved a fair measure of information competence should be encouraged to use social bookmarking services for academic purposes — and even then it is merely to discover additional threads of information sources.

Links to Popular Social Bookmarking Sites

5 Comments

  1. Wow, this is one thorough post! Otis from Simpy.

    Oh, one more thing. Not sure if Diigo has group/collaboration support, but if it does not, you may want to check out Simpy and its Groups (public/private, invite only or open, powerful search, and filtering by users, tags, etc.) It sounds like a person like you may find this useful.

  2. Paul Roberts says:

    Thanks. I was asked just yesterday if I knew how to use Diigo or del.icio.us for limited collaborative use. Now I know where to direct him.

  3. Steve Hayes says:

    Thanks very much for that. I found it very useful.

    I would make one distinction though, which I think is important.

    While I would not like a student to use Wikipedia as the main source of information for an assignment, I have no objection to their using it to look up incidental information, and I use it like that myself. If I don’t have the information in a book in my own library, it might mean a 20 km schlep to the university library just to look up one or two facts to check on them, and that could waste a morning. If all I want is to be reminded of the date of accession of King Charles I of England, or whether it was Louis XIV or XVI who was reigning in France at the time of a certain event, then Wikipedia is invaluable. It enables students to check this background/subsidiary information without a disproportionate effort, and of course gives them less excuse for getting it wrong.

    But above all, I want to add you to my del.icio.us network!

  4. Paul Roberts says:

    All: thanks for your helpful comments on this post. Unfortunately, due to dozens of spam comments I must close the comments to this post now. Comments are still open on all other posts.

    –Paul Roberts

Comments are closed.