AAAAH! Or, A(p)A A(nnot)A(ted) (Bibliograp)H(ies)!

I can remember, with some fondness in hindsight, the first and maybe only annotated bibliography I was assigned as a high school student. It was for Biology, and I was probably a senior because I am pretty sure that I drove myself to a semi-distant branch of the county public library system in order to access their periodical room. The topic was genetically modified tomatoes, as I recall. I spent a few hours there finding articles, taking notes, recording citations, maybe making some photocopies. This was a memorable experience because 1) I drove myself somewhere for scholarly purposes and felt awesome; 2) I figured out how to find and use periodicals in a library; 3) I never forgot what an annotated bibliography was and how it could be valuable in a research process. Writing those annotations made me take a deeper and more critical look at the sources I found and exercise some metacognition in the process.

Even though I had to drive to a public library (not even my local branch – and how did I even know where it was without GPS?), figure out where the back issues of these magazines were, spend hours combing through bound periodicals, find coins for photocopies, and create APA citations by hand, I think it was easier than the task before my Scientific Research and Design students. While they can, in theory, complete the entire assignment from their seat in the classroom or library, the sense of ease and convenience we are lulled into by online databases, Google Scholar, and citation managers has led to lessons in source evaluation that have to be reviewed many times in many ways. 

I know I am not the first among us to bring this up, not even on this blog, but it is a challenge for our students to understand what a journal is when every information source they gather is found the same way – through structuring a search query (with varying levels of expertise) either in a library database or an Internet search engine. I can tell them that they need to find scholarly, scientific articles, but when we’ve done such a good job teaching students to evaluate web-based sources using the CRAAP test or similar, there’s another leap from judging a source to be current, reliable, authoritative, and accurate to judging what qualifies as a scientific paper. Even checking the “peer-reviewed” box in the result limiters doesn’t always do the trick – we still see book reviews and news articles coming from academic journals. And how to distinguish an open access journal from a website, especially when that online open access journal isn’t really a periodical? I wish I had reread Dave Wee’s post including the  “super boring, boring, and easy”  source literacy exercise a few weeks ago instead of just now. 

Lesson for me: check the blog and the listserv archives before introducing a concept to students, even if I think I’ve got it covered. This assignment has been a good reminder for me that even though I think I am going slowly and taking time with each phase of the research process, there are some things on which I need to provide more direct instruction. For one, the annotation. 

I have worked with classes on annotated citations, but not always been the one to evaluate them. I’ve created embeddable slideshows for teachers and resource guides on the subject, all with great tutorials and tips from university libraries and writing centers. Nevertheless, while noticing that some students were having a hard time understanding that the annotation is not just a summary or rephrasing of an abstract, I heard this coming out of my mouth, and saw hands reaching for pens: 

Your APA annotation should tell your reader WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY,  and HOW.

This was a shorthand way of getting at the elements of an analytical/critical annotation.

Who – how can you assess the authors’ authority and expertise? What are their credentials and affiliations?

What – what sort of investigation is reported on here? Is this a review of the literature? An article on original research? A meta-analysis? What are the authors’ conclusions?

When – is this work current? Does that matter? Has much research been done since publication?

Where – where was the article published and where did you find it?

Why – what is the purpose of the investigation (or, what is the authors’ research question)? Why is it useful to you?

How – what was the authors’ methodology? How does this work fit with the literature, and your own work?

This is, in my opinion, actually a little bit of a stretch, but the familiar “who, what, when, where, why, how” starters seemed to help some students to take a more evaluative and critical view of the sources that had made their way into those NoodleTools projects. 

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