Friday, July 17, 2009

Aggregating sources for academic research in a web 2.0 world

Introduction

In this rather long post, I will talk about the different sources one could add to stay on top of one's research area. These include RSS feeds from traditional databases (citation alerts, table of contents of favourite journals), library opac feeds of searches and new additions, book vendor sites (e.g Amazon) book sharing sites (e.g LibraryThing), social bookmarking sites both generic (e.g. Delicious) and research 2.0 sites (e.g. citeulike), Google alerts and more

Next I cover three main types of RSS aggregators one can use including traditional RSS feed readers (e.g. Google reader), Startpages (e.g Netvibes) and lifestreaming services (e.g Friendfeed) that one can use.

Lastly, I mention why I think using RSS aggregators this way is not ideal mainly due to the lack of bibliographic management functions, and that existing services and products like Mendeley, Zotero, 2collab should incorporate RSS aggregation features.


What sources should I monitor?

When I do research, I'm pretty through in the Literature review phase. I'm the one who does the broadest possible search in Google scholar and then ploughs through over 300 results looking for anything relevent.

But thoroughness in terms of going through results is pointless if you look at the wrong places.

In the "old days" it was "easy", you basically setup alerts for your favourite journals/databases and you were done.

Today this isn't sufficient, thanks to the explosion in social networking sites as well as the rise of Science 2.0 and open science models means that the research that you need can be found in blogs and wikis.

More importantly, the rise of web 2.0 services means that more online communities exist, where members rate/recommend/like/comment on books, articles, links. which gives the smart researcher an edge if he is able to leverage on such sources to spot 'hot' research. On the individual level, you can follow or watch research collegues or other researchers in the same area and see what they are reading.


Some like Zotero and Wizfolio are evolutions of traditional bibliographic managers like Endnote and Refmanager. Others like 2collab and Nature Network are services from traditional Journal publishers like Elsevier.


How can one keep track of all these diverse sources? Forunately, pretty much everything can be consumed via a RSS feed (or you can screen scrape (another list of services here) if you are desperate) and the smart thing to do is to put them all together into a RSS reader.

I was just musing over the types of sources you would want to include, and I realized that there were several different possible sources, though you might not add all of them, some might be useful.


Type of sources


Academic databases like Scopus, Web of Science, Open source archives etc.

This would be your traditional sources where you create/setup

1) Keyword search alerts
2) Table of contents for your favorite journals
3) Citation alerts of your papers or very relevant papers


Remember to use this trick to insert the ezproxy stem if needed.






Book/library sources

Many libraries now allow you to run searches in the catalogue and export the results as a RSS feed. Some maintain a "new additions" RSS feed by subject etc. Definitely add this to your stream to keep update with latest books published in your area.

Many of the new generation OPACS, allows you to do tagging, and you or your research colleges could tag the books you are interested in and create a RSS feed for that to import into your stream.

Still chances are most libraries don't have an active enough community doing tagging on their catalogues to be worth tracking tags. However book sharing sites like LibraryThing, GoodReads, Weread, Shelfari might have a sufficient mass of users. I know LibraryThing provides outputs in RSS, is it likely the rest do as well.


You are not limited to your library of course. Try WorldCat (you can create rss feeds from user created lists, and new additions, might be possible for keyword searchs but requires a api key), or OpenLibrary or even Amazon (use built-in API or Yahoopipes)! How about Google books?

Want to catch prepublication books? Maybe try one of the book vendors like Globalbooksinprint, Blackwell Book services etc, not quite sure if they offer RSS feeds though.







Popular blogs

This is somewhat rare, but if you happen to be fortunate enough to be in an area, where there are relevant blogs covering the area (For instance my old research area was on measuring information quality of Wikipedia, and there were 2 or 3 high quality blogs covering research in that area), you would definitely want to include that as a source.

If you are just looking for some general reading rather than something specific, you can use the method here find top blogs and to filter/rank the results using Postrank


Social bookmarking sites - E.g. Delicious, Twine, Diigo or Social media sites like Slideshare, Scribd


The paradigm example would be Delicious.

Two main approaches here, you subscribe to relevant tags, or better yet identify people in your area and subscribe to their bookmarks (and or tags). To do the later, a very crude approach is to search for a link/paper that you feel is very relevant to your research and look at who else is bookmarking it. You can do the same for tags or better yet tag bundles





Once you have done the search you want, you can get the results via RSS



Lifestreaming aggregation sites

As discussed in an earlier post, Lifestreaming aggregators allow users to pull all their activities from various web 2.0 services and or RSS feeds into one centralized area. The paradigm example here is Friendfeed where there is a thriving community of life scientists apparently.

Why is this helpful?

You find a guy who seems to be in your area posting on Delicious. But Delicious is not the sum total of all his activities. He might be doing stuff on twitter, posting documents on Slideshare etc.

If he has a Friendfeed account, and he has thoughtfully added them all into his Friendfeed account you can get one aggregated feed to use into your stream!

Chances are though, you might not want to import his whole lifestream since it will include personal tweets etc. No problem! Friendfeed has the most advanced search I have seen from showing only results from a particular service (e.g. Delicious only) or particular person or if it has a number of "likes" or comments and of course on keywords. See below










Social networking/bookmarking sites for academics. E.g Labmeeting, citeulike, Mendeley, Connotea, 2collab, ResearchGate, Nature Network, Zotero, Wizfolio etc (see list here and here).


The problem with generic social bookmarking sites not designed for research is that most links shared are likely to be non-academic sources. But citeulike and their cousins are designed explictly for academic research, so it solves this problem.

Most of them remind me of old school Citation managers like Endnote, Refmanager but adding social bookmarking and networking options. Zotero in particularly had zero social networking features until 2.0 (currently beta), and they just announced supporting of RSS feeds of public Zotero libraries.


They not only allow you to keep track of citations but also incorporate web 2.0 sharing options.

Keep track of what people in your research area are reading, or what are the most popular articles on an aggregate level. The same advise above applies on finding people to watch, tags to follow.





Others

This could include everything from Google alerts (you can also do it for Google scholar only using these yahoo pipes), real-time searches (Twitter) or aggregators like Social Mention, Samepoint, WhosTalkin? for searching across web 2.0 services. Maybe even wikis (Scirus topic pages ?)





Filtering


Obviously you should customize your rss feed to provide targeted and relevant results, and this is often possible (e.g. RSS generated from results from a powerful Boolean keyword search in Scopus) , but in many cases you can't.

If your RSS aggregator has powerful filtering options (or even recommendation systems), the problem can be lessened, but still you might consider filtering the rss feed first before pushing it into the stream.

There are many options out there, Yahoo! pipes is the most powerful, but you can see some options in lists here , here.




Type of RSS aggregators



There seem to be 3 main classes of such services/software that you can use to aggregate all your sources but unfortunately none of them were designed for the academic researcher in mind, so there are some problems with using them to keep track of research.


1. Traditional RSS feed readers - e.g Google reader, Feed Demon, bloglines


These are traditional rss feed readers. They tend to come in two forms, either web-based or program based.


As they were created back when the sole purpose of RSS was to read blogs, traditionally they tend to be relatively weak on the social sharing aspect (Note: Google reader has being slowly moving improving on this allowing you to "like" or share articles and connect with friends, while Feeddemon has similar etc.)

A sub class of these aggregators allow you to "build" your own newspaper from RSS feeds, essentially these are just RSS feed readers but with more innovative layouts that mimick newspapers (in pdf etc).

Examples include FeedJournal, Feed Chronicle

Of course most modern browsers including Firefox and Internet explorer 7+ as well as email desktop clients like Thunderbird, Outlook 2007 support RSS feeds natively so that is yet another option, though they tend to provide very basic functionality

In addition Firefox has several addons but Feedly (which works with Google reader accounts) is probably one of the best.


There are many more RSS feed readers, see this long list compiled in 2007 and this list in 2009.







2. Startup pages - e.g. Netvibes, Igoogle, Pageflakes

Such services resemble their web-based cousins but allows you to embed not just rss feeds but widgets (e.g. search widgets) as well. They are typically much more flexible in terms of layouts and provide some minimal sharing features.

Some libraries have used these services as sources for research on a general subject (also see my more detailed blog post), but it could obviously be used by an individual with a more specific focus.






3. Lifestream aggregators - e.g Friendfeed


Friendfeed has already being mentioned. As Friendfeed allows you to add unlimited number of rss feeds as well as specific web 2.0 services into your stream it can be used to aggregate rss feeds you are reading as well.

There are in fact some Friendfeed accounts created solely for that purpose. For example this is a Friendfeed account that aggregates Library 2.0 related feeds.





A big plus about using Friendfeed to aggregate your sources is that it clearly has the most powerful search.

On the social front, while it is no Facebook, it does have a very loyal following and was clearly designed to encourage networking (though by no means for academics)

It was the first to allow other users to "like" (as well as comment) on entries and allows you to filter results based on how many "likes" or comments a particular entry has allowing you to spot hot topics.

Friendfeed also allows you to be informed about updates (or update the stream) in myraid ways from email to instant messaging (or to be exported into RSS if you prefer).

Another virtue of Friendfeed is that it implements "Real-time" push technologies if available (e.g for Twitter (details)), compared to just straight RSS which uses the slower polling technique.

There is a ton of similar services around (e.g. http://www.plaxo.com/ etc) but few offer more features than Friendfeed , though I personally feel the layout of Friendfeed is inferior to say Streamy.

If you are tired of Friendfeed type aggregators, have a look at Genwi or some of the "smarter" systems that try to learn what you like , e.g http://www.feeds2.com/ , though personally I'm not a big fan of automated learning/recommendation systems.


Disadvantages

So you have made your choice and you have all your sources aggregated nicely and formated in one place. But there's a catch, as these tools weren't designed in mind for academic research, you will find that there is no way to do citation/bibliographic management!

Want to attach the pdf to an article or save the webpage? Too bad you can't. Want to convert all your sources and cite them in APA style? No can do.

The best you can do it seems is to use a class of services already mentioned - networking/bookmarking sites for academics.

As these were designed from ground up for academic research, they also basically incorporated citation manager features of Endnote, Refmanager etc. They also have the advantage of being geared of allowing profiles to be tailored more academic research, compared to the more generic fields of other social networks.

As they are designed for academic use, they have many powerful features like support for ezproxy, openurl, doi), provide useful analytics, and other little nice touches like allowing you to annotate pdf, full text pdf search (features from Zotero, Wizfolio, Mendeley etc.



So why not use one of these services instead? I think this is where, they have missed the boat, they don't offer RSS aggregation services!

For "discovery", social networking features are fine as it goes, but given that most researchers are not on such specialized networks (I found only 5 relevant papers shared in 2collab - though to be fair it is probably the the best example of such services), the main source of discovery still comes from rss feeds from other sources! (I think some services allows you to search directly some databases and even save searches?)

For now, the hybrid approach would seem to be best. Use one of the RSS feed aggregators above for discovery, then pull them into say Mendeley or Zotero in the usual manner.

So what do you think? Are there social networking sites/services for researchers that help discovery the way I am using RSS feeds for? What types of rss feeds do you add for your research that I didn't mention?


References

Doing science online - About open science models

























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