Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Using CiteULike for Teaching

I recently rediscovered CiteULike, a free web service for bibliography management. I know I had used it in the past (I still had an account, though I had not logged in for four years) but stopped using it in favor of Zotero and Endnote (because of the latter's integration with Word). But then I stopped using Zotero, partly because it tied me to Firefox (I now use Chrome almost exclusively, and love it), and partly because it was often slow and occasionally crashed (I think it's better now - it even has word processor integration! - but I had one too many bad experiences).

Anyway, there's no software to install with CiteULike and no browser dependencies - it's just a bookmarklet - and you can easily transfer your data to and from Endnote and BibTex. (Incidentally, LaTex is great for Greek-heavy writing on Ancient philosophy with one of the Betacode packages. It's too bad most of the places I submit my work to tend to demand Word files, and that converting a file from LaTex to Word can be such a pain). But it also occurs to me that something like CiteULike would be great for teaching as well.

I typically maintain a large bibliography of recommended works and suggested readings for the essays in my courses, and it's a bit of a pain to add new entries to it and make sure the new entries appear in all the appropriate places and are appropriately organized and formatted (partly this is just the fault of the Blackboard course management system we use at Victoria - which, despite some good points, is still a pretty cumbersome piece of software). So, for example, for my POLS 209 course on Dictatorships and Revolutions I might have some recommended readings on Venezuelan politics (which I suggest the students consult before writing an essay on the relevant topic in the course), or a set of readings on the comparative economic performance of dictatorships vs democracies (for students who are writing on the topic, or might want to learn more). But every time I need to add a new reading, I have to change things in four or five different places, and manually add links and other things. Moreover, though students can add items to the general bibliography (it's maintained in an internal wiki - though the Blackboard wiki tool is terrible) they may add things formatted in odd ways, or in the wrong categories, and they cannot easily download the sources to a bibliography manager.

But with CiteULike I can maintain the entire course bibliography in one place, and then provide links to specific topics using tags (you can even subscribe to the whole thing or to specific tags using RSS, if you want to keep up with the latest additions). Readings on Venezuelan politics? Here! Or I might tag some readings as recommended for the first week of the course, or some particular lecture, and post the link in the course outline and in the appropriate place in Blackboard. And students can of course download the citations to the citation manager of their choice, click on the handy links to read the actual articles (the point of the exercise, after all), or simply copy and paste the plain text of the citations they used to their bibliographies when they finish writing their essays (too much student time is, I think, spent worrying on minor details of bibliography formatting rather than actually reading the sources).

Moreover, students who create an account with CiteULike can easily contribute readings to the common course pool, perhaps with their own review notes (I can always tag them appropriately); they just have to join the class group. (I already incentivize this sort of thing in the course outline - adding to the course bibliography in appropriate ways, or contributing to the course blog/discussion board/wiki, are all things that help students get points in my courses). In fact, that's the part I'm most interested in: I keep trying to foster collaborative research in the classroom, and if students are easily able to contribute sources to the common pool of readings, they can basically help each other in constructive ways. And they can help me as well - I have found some very interesting sources for the course (even whole new literatures) in essays that students have written in the past - sources which sometimes end up in the course bibliography (you really do learn lots from your students).

I am actually considering requiring my honours students (in POLS 401, a course on contemporary political thought) to actually create a CiteULike account and contribute readings to it periodically, perhaps with some review notes. (I tried something like this once with a wiki, but the wiki is too cumbersome for this). To be sure, there's some upfront investment on their part (I probably will have to demonstrate how to use the software in the first few classes, or write a detailed handout with an explanation and pictures) but once they learn, I imagine it could be helpful to them (both in this and other courses).

Has anybody else done similar things? What potential problems am I missing?


  1. Let us know if we can be of help

    Alan Cann has done similar stuff for his courses.

    Fergus (CiteULike)