Taking the Easy Way Out Leads to Poor Information Literacy

Post written by Danny Dotson, Associate Professor, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist, and head of the Orton Memorial Library of Geology & the Gardner Family Map Room at The Ohio State University

At some point in their lifetime, many current university students have been given bad rules to use in their information seeking and use behaviors. I’m going to give some examples of these rules, why they’re bad, examples, and alternatives.

I’m going to make this graphical – that way, I won’t ramble (or rant).


So there you have it. Several rules I’ve heard over the years that, while good intentioned, end up doing some harm. They result in students making mistakes or not fully understanding they nuances or the WHY of what they’re doing. So let’s go more into those shades of gray.

I’m Using EBSCO

Post written by Danny Dotson, Associate Professor, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist, and head of the Orton Memorial Library of Geology & the Gardner Family Map Room at The Ohio State University


So have you ever had a student tell you that they’re using EBSCO or ProQuest – or some other “database” for their searching? If you’re a librarian, you’ll know this isn’t useful info. But I’m going to help demonstrate just HOW unusual it is.

For those that may not know why at all, a background.  EBSCO and ProQuest are database vendors. They sell many different databases. Many many databases.  And while their branded platform may make most, if not all, of their databases look the similar (if not the same in some cases), what these databases search for and their search features can vary.

Imagine if you asked someone what they were eating. And they replied “Nabisco!”  That’s not very informative. Are they eating Chips Ahoy!? Ritz crackers? Easy Cheese?

Using what Ohio State has to offer, here are the possibilities for when people name a vendor rather than the actual database:

Now let’s look closer at EBSCO’s database.  I mean, real close.  How small does the font have to be to get all of the databases to fit so that this blog can be drafted in just a 1 page Word document (1/2 inch margins)? Even using 4 columns, the Arial font has to be at 4 pt!

This just addressed two vendors. There are others with multiple databases..

So next time you have someone say they’re using EBSCO or ProQuest, let them know you had some Nabisco earlier!

Limit Yourself

Post written by Danny Dotson, Associate Professor, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist, and head of the Orton Memorial Library of Geology & the Gardner Family Map Room at The Ohio State University


One of my favorite things to do when visiting a course is to talk about the value of the limit options in library search tools. I go into this knowing that some will likely not make use of some of these and go through the habit learned from years of using Google of doing a more manual sift through of content. I’ve even had a student in my own credit course say they preferred the manual sift after being introduced to these advanced features. Until they were made to use them and then indicated they realize how much work they made for themselves by not using these options.

I try to demonstrate the value by showing how much less you have to look at. For example:

Why limits?

Maybe you don’t read another language….

Maybe you don’t want to get up from your computer…

Maybe you only want to focus on recent content…

Or maybe you want all of these….

Of course, in any case, there may still be items not relevant. Relevant items may be removed because they don’t fit the imposed extra criteria. But it means less (sometimes far less) items to examine for relevance.


So make your life easier – limit yourself.


How many ways can I cite thee? Let me count the ways….

Prepared by Danny Dotson, head of the Geology Library at The Ohio State University and subject librarian.

Per a number of conversations with librarians, teaching faculty, and select others I’ve had lately, I’ve been even more lately craving what I would call a Universal Citation Style that would be used by all publications and publishers.  Why? Here are scenarios that explain why the plethora of citation styles is problematic in multiple ways.

Would you like to see a Universal Citation Style? Or do you think there’s a huge reason for having so many options? Share your thoughts.

A Hodgepodge of Citation Styles

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist


Are instructors complaining to you about seeing a hodgepodge of citation styles in their students’ bibliographies? It may not be the students’ fault (at least not entirely) – it’s likely the fault of the publisher.

Increasingly, publishers are giving suggestions for how to cite an article – or outright saying to do it a certain way.

A quick search on some major publishers platforms indicate the following publishers do this, at least for some of their content, either on the items landing page or on the PDF:

  • SpringerNature
  • Taylor & Francis
  • Oxford University Press

Elsevier, Wiley, and Cambridge University Press were checked and I didn’t see this – but I only checked a few items.

So it’s entirely possible, and even quite likely, when students are provided a citation, they will assume it’s okay to use. Unfortunately, these citations are only in one style (although some of these give export options in addition to the default style). And for the three that give a default style, none appear to tell you what that style is.

This is a learning opportunity, but it is also perhaps a growing issue. Given that the three publishers that do this (for at least some of their content) are three of the biggest journal publishers, it’s quite likely this is a common occurrence.

So if instructors express stress over inconsistent bibliographies, this issue may be an explanation for some of these cases.


Renaming Primary

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist

If you read my previous blog entry, you know I have been pondering a bit lately about the topic of primary sources because I think there is too much emphasis on primary sources. Before anyone starts panicking, let me go into details.

The main reason is that I think the definition is not common across disciplines, yet libraries and librarians often apply a disciplinary definition on the concept to all disciplines. Many non-humanities disciplines would consider the journal literature to be their primary literature, but in reality do not really make use of terms like primary, secondary, or tertiary when describing or categorizing resources. So trying to apply a concept not even used in those disciplines will just create confusion. Sometimes librarians and libraries produce information about this concept as if it’s a standard definition that can and should be applied across all disciplines, which is not the case.

Second, “primary sources” found in libraries are very heavily slanted to certain disciplines. They are heavy on the humanities, medium on the social sciences, and light on the sciences. So trying to encourage the use of these types of items (or implying they are the gold standard) in certain disciplines will leave students of some disciplines with few choices.

A third reason is that the definitions often are applied to the format regardless of purpose or need. For example, a diary is usually considered primary. But what if the diary is used to garner information about a person other than the writer of the diary? That information is secondhand, so is the source being used as a primary source, or is it a secondary source given how it’s being used?

A fourth reason is that students in many courses likely will not use these types of sources. In many cases, books, journal articles, web pages, etc. are what the students will use and are what they need. It is not until students really begin digging deeper when they need what might be called primary sources. But in some disciplines, they may never need or use these types of sources.

A fifth reason is that the primary/secondary/tertiary terms implies value and that primary sources are “better.” Since journal articles are usually considered secondary, some disciplines are being told that their “gold standard” literature (peer reviewed journal articles) is inferior and that they should be using materials which will likely not meet their needs or don’t exist.

Given the above, when should primary sources come up? Only in discipline-appropriate courses when they are likely to be used. Bringing them up at other times is often meaningless for students’ needs or imposing one discipline’s definitions and values on another discipline. And distributing content across disciplines that pushes “primary sources” is doing just that.

So I’m not saying primary sources are bad. I’m saying the concept and term is murky when moving beyond specific disciplines and to act as if it’s a universal concept leads to confusion and problems. I think libraries and librarians should stick to these concepts only when it comes to the disciplines that recognize these concepts as part of their discipline. And I think that we shouldn’t be encouraging the use of these material types for courses/situations where they do not make sense.

I’ll leave with a question to ponder – is there something we can call “primary” materials and talk about them in a way that is more universal and accepted? Perhaps talk about these item types as unique, rare, special, etc. and why they’re important – but not in a manner that implies they’re “better” than other formats?

What’s Primary?

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist

I’m going to make this blog entry an exercise in making the concept of primary, secondary, and tertiary resources more confusing. Bear with me, it’s to make a point that this concept is confusing to students for a reason.

Scenario 1: A diary

Primary right? What if the person is using the diary because of what the person is saying about a relative? It’s second-hand information. So shouldn’t that be secondary? Is the source still primary if the person is using it in a secondary manner?

Scenario 2: A photograph

Primary, right? What if the photo is of a painting? Wouldn’t it be secondary since it’s a derivative from the painting? And what about a painting someone did from a photograph?

Scenario 3: A journal article

Secondary, right? What if the article is entirely theoretical in nature and has no citations? This can sometimes happen (although fairly rare). So is this primary or secondary?

I think this illustrated that the concept of primary/secondary/tertiary sources is quite gray in nature. It seems like trying to apply a definition based on format alone falls flat when the idea is that primary is meant to be “from the horse’s mouth.” If a diary is used for second-hand content, is it really primary? If a journal article is original theoretical work, is it really secondary? And can a work be a mix (a lit review might be secondary, but the bulk of a journal article might be primary)?

Do you think the primary concept is too gray and we should seek to define it by purpose rather than format?

Using Humor and Fun for Librarian Visits to Courses

By Danny Dotson, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist


When visiting courses, I try to add at least a few elements of humor to a visit, even if just very brief. I find it helps make my visits a bit livelier.

Here are a few things I have done that seem to get a good response from the audience:


  • Sesame Street: Cookie Monster In the Library: I use this when visiting survey courses. It usually gets laughs (sometimes even from the instructor). It serves as a bridge to dispel the idea that libraries are just a storehouse of books.  I go on to show we have all sorts of materials, spaces, services and – in some cases – cookies.  Although I am guessing Cookie Monster would not like the idea of paying for cookies.
  • Being Lazy: I point out some of the ways in which students can be lazy when I visit some classes. First is paging books from other locations. Do not walk across campus – have the book sent somewhere closer.  Also, citation management software (RefWorks, Endnote, etc.) allow people to be lazy – you do not have to key every citation by hand (although I emphasize they should still verify correctness!). In other words, make these things do more of the work for you. I also ask how many people get joy in life from creating bibliographies – I do not usually see many hands raised!
  • Working Late I sometimes ask how many people in the class – on rare occasions, of course – do work late at night / early morning. This segues into using limit options (particularly in the catalog) to get items that would be available immediately – particularly ebooks and streaming videos.  Of course I also emphasize the selection is much bigger if one works ahead of time!


Anyone else want to share ideas of how they use humor?