Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Indexes and Resources for Science Research

To do science, one has to play the game of science, and that involves a lot of responding to the literature, and a constant contact with new research and trends. One of the great and profound tragedies of college is how few people really know how to do a search and how professors expect students to already have academic research skills. The lack of decent research skills is the single greatest unspoken crisis in higher education. How many college kids have been in college for a very long time and barely know their way around the university library?

How “current” new research has to be depends on the field of science. With Geosciences, for example, materials are useful for longer, and it’s often necessary to view print-paper academic journals more than five years old (nothing short of astonishingly old, at least in scientific terms). For that reason, Geoscientists have perhaps an unfair reputation as conservative, stodgy, and most importantly, late technical adopters, despite the fact they get their journals online through university databases just like everybody else.

With Physics, however, there’s a thriving pre-publishing field where new research materials are shared extensively and informally between colleagues by mail and web abstracts as well as databases for unpublished manuscripts through FirstLook – something absolutely unthinkable in other sciences where placing research online or on a database is pretty much an automatic disqualification from publishing in most scientific peer review journals!

In any case, this is where your university library can be your best friend. In the past, most professors obtained their journals by personal subscription. Now, the majority get their journals from the university library, and the majority get their journals online. The real importance of science and engineering journals is on the online copies; copies of the print journals are(I suspect) just a tacked-on scam just to jack up the price of a journal subscription.

Something I didn’t discover until I was a grad student was how your science librarian is the most useful person in the world. They can cut down your search strategies from 2 or more hours to fifteen minutes. They are nothing short of miracle workers! Especially if they have content area knowledge (my university science librarian has a Masters in Biology).

Databases and indexes are your best tool, and you have to head to your university website to discover which ones they subscribe to and are available. With the crisis-level price gouging by those bloodsucking vampires in academic journals, not all are available; I was nothing short of gobsmacked to see that my college didn’t get (of all the basic reference sources) Encyclopedia Britannica!

As a mathematics undergrad, I eventually became entirely familiar with MathSciNet, an international bibliographic resource of the American Mathematical Society useful for both mathematics and statistics. Likewise, I found “GeoRef,” a database index created by the American Geological Institute, to be totally invaluable for Geoscience References.

There are other subject area databases that should be consulted, and the first one to consult would be “General Science Full Text,” which is typically for students and non-specialists. Other databases for students include the “General Science Index” and “Applied Science and Technology Index.” “Science Full Text Select” includes over 360 journals, and is mostly targeted at high schoolers and community colleges.

Other Databases to discover and consult:

  • “Oceanic Abstracts,” dealing with marine biology;
  • “Zoological Record Plus,” run by the English Zoological Society;
  • “Biological and Agricultural Index Plus,” which is exactly what it sounds like;
  • And last but certainly not least, it’s impossible to even try an academic search without at least consulting H.W. Wilson’s First Search, which sometimes includes full-text, or at least points someone in the right direction.

Finally, one piece of advice: always pay attention to a professor’s curricula vitae, and if possible look them up on “LIS Web of Science,” which tracks academics by name and lists the times their works have been cited. If you’re studying, say, nanodiamond formation and your professor is a foremost expert on the field, he’s going to be pretty miffed and think you’re a shallow researcher if at least you don’t even try to bring up their own work on the topic.

Finally, something has to be said about Wikipedia, the eighth most visited website on the internet. There are some things, like the growth of Wal-Mart esque giant stores and the discussion on why people don’t use public transportation in many cities, where the entire discussion revolves around asking the wrong questions. Few people ask themselves why many people in some cities refuse to use public transportation, and why many people prefer to shop at huge Wal-Mart esque megastores. The answer for both is usually convenience: it’s more convenient for people to not use public transportation, and the huge size of giant megastores means a greater selection – people go to stores because they hope the product they want is available. We can get as sanctimonious as we like, but the truth is convenience is important, and that’s something that critics are disingenuously not acknowledging.

Contrary to the popular belief of many information professionals and snotty librarians, Wikipedia does play a legitimate role in the information infrastructure. If you need the answer to a question fast and RIGHT NOW, Wikipedia can tell you. Want to know the difference between Centipedes and Millipedes? Need a quick look at the Gaussian Integral? Need a fast value for Planck’s Constant? Who was the 25th President of the United States? On what day is Yom Kippur starting in 2011? It’s possible to know these things within five seconds. Not everything requires a Lexis-Nexis search. It’s nothing short of incredible that we live in an age where that’s possible. The ability to know basic facts within five seconds should be the dream of any given information professional.

Sure, writing a paper based on a source that unauthoritative is a dumb idea, since Wikipedia is basically a reference source like an almanac or encyclopedia. However, I’m astounded at Information Professionals and librarians, the single most intransigent profession ever, dedicated to justifying their own existence at a time when it should be one of the most relevant field in our society. In library science, the emphasis is on standardization, something no user really cares about. The resistance to Wikipedia is the most pointless and unproductive fight imaginable. It’s already been lost, as more people use it than any database put together.

Librarians hate change. I have no idea why that statement is even contentious at all. Records for materials are still written in MARC, a code language created in the 1960s. If I’m not mistaken, in the 1960s, dinosaurs ruled the earth. Can you imagine IBM still using a format from the 1960s? What’s more, when library card catalogs were updated to the modern OPAC, they chose to just upload the traditional card catalog online, one of the greatest missed opportunities in the entire history of technology. And how long did it take even very advanced academic OPACs to introduce keyword searching? Images for products? And how many actually have reviews from other users or use Google-style algorithms for determining hit frequency? Many still don’t have these things.


  1. I went to one of the large state universities in NY and it pained me how people left the place dumber than they came in (and they came in pretty dumb). The library was a sanctuary, I'm still friends with some of the librarians (though I never used them as throughly as you probably have).

    I've been out of academia for a while, it feels, it's good to be reminded of all the resources that are out there for when/if I ever go to grad school. One thing for sure, while I trust Wikipedia I can't be going back there as often as I did in undergrad. The comparison to Wal Mart is valid. I figure if everyone asked WHY Wikipedia is so convenient it would get them looking into the other databases and taking library science as an important skill, which in turn would bring out a more holistic (for lack of a better word) approach to this sort of thing, from the professionals that devise the databases to the students who use them. Kind of how if people looked at, understood and lived the positive aspects of smaller business and alternative transportation, things like big box stores and cars would fit into our society in a healthier way.


  2. Sergio -

    As Randy Newman said:

    "College men, from LSU
    Went in dumb, went out dumb too."

    I've always thought that one possible solution to the crisis of college students with bad research skills would be a one-credit course required of students in their first semester, along with many Freshman Experience courses, of Research Skills and Methods that explain how to use a library, basic research skills, and how to utilize databases.

    One of the greatest problems I have with Wikipedia is the gigantic authority problem, and the fact that experts don't play a specialized role in the community. I think we can all agree that Wal-Mart are a bunch of assholes, but all the same...if you're guaranteed to find a variable power supply of the right range there, and it's more up in the air at your neighborhood electronic parts or hardware store...where do you think you're going to shop? We can talk all we like about how Wal-Mart is "evil," but there's a very real reason people go there and it's disingenuous to ignore that.

    When I was writing the article on Lord Kelvin's brother Jimmy, I went to Citizendium, a website that is supposed to "correct" the problems with Wikipedia, e.g. greater expert involvement. However, there was NO article there on James Thomson at all! And plenty on Wikipedia...!