Tracking down articles from science news stories

Readers of this blog may be interested in a piece I wrote for the Scientific American Guest Blog, How to: Track down journal articles cited in news stories (when they don’t link directly).

Many blog posts will link directly to a version of the original article, but many news sources often have a policy of not linking to the original source. Even when a blog links directly to the original article, you may not be able to read the it without paying. But there are steps you can take to find the original article, and to find a version of it you can read.

Read more.

In which container is the journal article I need?

The other day, I got an email from a faculty member.  A scholarly society he is a member of just announced that their journals would now be available in JSTOR.  He went straight to JSTOR to look them up, only to see that he didn’t have access.  He promptly sent me an email saying, essentially, “What’s up with this?  Shouldn’t we have access?”  (Although his actual email was more eloquent).

In which container is the journal article I need? CC image courtesy of flickr user s_volenszki

In fact, we don’t have access, and it would cost us an additional $1000 to have access to those journals via JSTOR.

For non-librarian types (students, faculty, everyone else), there isn’t always a clear understanding of how they have access to information.

In the case of JSTOR above, most folks don’t understand the difference between the platform and the content (and quite frankly, they don’t really need to).  In this case, JSTOR is simply a platform for delivering journal articles.  You have to buy the content, and that tends to come in specific chunks.  In my library, we subscribe to several of the packages that JSTOR offers, and we have current access to some of the journals that are available via that platform.

But just because we have access to some content on JSTOR doesn’t mean we have access to everything.  The same can be said of other platforms like ScienceDirect from Elsevier, or Project Muse (for any humanities folks out there).

In much the same way, it can be difficult for folks to understand that libraries don’t always have access to journal articles direct from the publisher’s website.  We have access to a lot of journals via third party aggregators, like Proquest or the Ebsco packages.

For example, a student or researcher wants an article from the current issue of the Journal of Parasitology, and goes directly to the journal homepage.  When they get there, they encounter a paywall, asking for $20 for access to that article.  The student or researcher might think that they either have to fork over the money or move on to a different article.

While the student searches for a new research topic, a PDF of this exact article is sitting in our “MEDLINE with Full Text” database ready for them to download.  We’ve already paid for the content, just not through the journal website. Our current access to this journal is via a different platform.

In library instruction sessions we try to teach students to go through the library homepage to check on journal access, but it isn’t always the most intuitive thing to do.  And some students can go their entire undergraduate careers without seeing a librarian in their classes.  We also teach them to use special links we put into databases that will guide them through the library system (we call ours “Get It,” the generic term is OpenURL), but the databases don’t always help us out here.  Some databases provide direct-to-publisher links which, as we’ve seen, don’t always lead to the content.

Is this confusing?  Yes.  Could it be simpler?  Yes, but it would require a complete rethinking of the whole scholarly communication system.  Open access, anyone?

Author Order

One of the parlor tricks I occasionally do in an information literacy class is to the guess the name of a researcher’s PhD adviser, and sometimes their Post Doc adviser, simply by looking at a list of their publications.  This is most impressive when the researcher in question is the faculty member I’m working with and can confirm or deny my guess.

Students are usually impressed, but it isn’t difficult: you just need to know a little something about the meaning behind the order of author names.

Scientific publications are rarely authored by just one person. More often, they have 3-6 authors, and sometimes many more, depending on the field. Publications in high energy physics and genetics can sometimes have hundreds of authors: the record (as far as I can tell) is an article related to the installation of the particle accelerator at CERN that lists the group as a lead author and almost 3,000 co-authors.

My colleagues in the humanities sometime have trouble understanding how so many people could be the author of a paper – they equate authorship with actual typing and writing of words.  But in the sciences, the words aren’t the primary result – it’s the data, discoveries and conclusions that are important.  As a result, scientific publications encourage contributors to list as authors anyone who made a significant contribution to the work.

The definition of “significant contribution” can vary by field, however, and it isn’t unheard of to see authors who only made a nominal contribution.  In some places it was customary to add the department chair or lab PI as an author, even if he or she knew nothing about the work (see this 2006 article in Nature.)  Some journals are attempting to get a better handle on this by asking contributors for a list of credits, who did what (see this example).  And the medical community has outlined specific criteria for inclusion as an author.

Because of the quantity of authors, some thought has to go into how they will be ordered on the publication. The first author is typically the person who contributed the most to the publication, including carrying out the research and writing up the report.  After that, it can get a bit tricky.

In order to combat the trickiness, various disciplines have evolved strategies to keep the peace.  In some disciplines, additional authors are listed alphabetically.  In others, authorship goes in order of who made the biggest contribution.  Sometimes, the person who contributed the most (after the lead author) will go in second place, sometimes in last place.

In cases where author order is determined by the relative amount of an individuals contribution, disagreements, and even arguments can sometimes result.  You can actually download software that aims to help establish the correct author order.

I sometimes discuss author order in upper level classes.  If a researcher understands how this works, their ability to search for additional relevant publications by author goes up.