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Academic Research – The Process is Changing

December 7, 2005

Academic research is changing, just as academic writing has changed with the arrival of the computer. Academic writing is radically different since I was an undergrad many years ago. When I wrote my Ph.D. thesis a year and a half ago, I made rich use of the capabilities of word-processing as an integral part of my writing process. I used Styles for my headings and for generating a table of content. I used the caption feature to describe the images I inserted, and to generate a table of figures. Of course I used the spell checker and the word count and all the flexibility of copy-and-paste. Plus I made sure the font was attractive and readable, and for my particular thesis, I used the font to help deliver the meaning. Writing with a word processor is more fun, more visual, and easier than the ugly old manual typewriters of my youth.

I also used EndNote to make my citing much easier and to generate my “Works Cited”, and I paid highly for the privilege; it was expensive. During the process of writing my thesis, I was forced to switch from an IBM laptop to a Mac iBook; (don’t ask.) I had to pay again for EndNote to get a Mac version. But anything was better than the picky work of sorting out the anal details of citing the the “Works Cited”.

(These days I point my students to easybib http://www.easybib.com where they can generate MLA bibliographies for free and APA for, I think, about $6.00 U.S. a year. Not quite as good as EndNote but much cheaper.)

And now researching and citing is going to get much easier, in the same way creating a document got much easier with the advent of the computer and wordprocessing.

I wrote a couple of months ago about changes coming for the University of Toronto library and for all the Ontario universities – http://elgg.net/vinall/weblog/2769.html – and today Stephen Downes http://www.downes.ca/ posted a link to this site – http://echo.gmu.edu/toolcenter-wiki/index.php?title=Firefox_Scholar_(aka_SmartFox) – on the upcoming SmartFox.

SmartFox will enable users, with a single click, to grab a citation to a book, journal article, archival document, or museum object and store it in their browser. Researchers will then be able to take notes on the reference, link that reference to others, and organize both the metadata and annotations in ways that will greatly enhance the usefulness of, and the great investment of time and money in, the electronic collections of museums and libraries. All of the information SmartFox gathers and the researcher creates will be stored on the client’s computer, not the institution’s server (unlike commercial products like Amazon’s toolbar), and will be fully searchable. The Web browser, the premier platform for research now and in the future, will achieve the kind of functionality that the users of libraries and museums would expect in an age of exponentially increasing digitization of their holdings.

SmartFox is being developed by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Being a scholar is becoming more and more about knowledge and ideas and less and less about arcane processes and details. And that’s great, in my opinion

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