Literature Access in the Sciences

December 1997

A decade ago access to disciplinary periodical literatures was pretty straightforward: most sciences had standard bibliographic indexing sources in print (Biological Abstracts, Chemical Abstracts, Psychological Abstracts, etc.), and students needed only to learn to navigate the peculiarities of their own discipline's main source. Librarians provided guidance and presided over mediated online searching for 'advanced' queries. Development of end-user online databases has changed everything: students and researchers have access to keyword and controlled vocabulary searching, do most searching for themselves, and have many database possibilites among which they must choose. No single resource is sufficient for an exhaustive literature search, and the addition of full-text electronic journals and a spectrum of web documents and search engines further complicates the array of resources at scholars' fingertips.

The net result: far more information is available to the end user, searching tools are much more powerful, and a broader range of access skills is demanded of students and researchers. Librarians are faced with a shifting palette of resources as new databases and access services offer trial access, and they also suffer a rising level of uncertainty about price, archiving, and access. In this context it's important to assess where we are and whither we are heading.

The notion that "the Internet" or "the Web" is a source of what's needed for courses and general learning is well established in students' minds, though their skills in finding and evaluating relevant materials are not as highly developed as their conviction that electronic information is good. Improvements in such access tools as bibliographic databases and online catalogs may mean more focused use of resources, but librarians are beginning to express the fear that book-knowledge is losing out to cyber-facts, and that students are opting for quick answers and not learning to make good use of print resources (declining book circulation might be interpreted in this way).

We have been working to create a web environment for library resources that encourages and informs sophisticated use of online resources. At W&L the library's web gateway is a primary access point for a broad spectrum of electronic tools:

Reference librarians put a great deal of effort into augmenting these pages and teaching the use of the resources contained in them, but only about half of the students (and probably less than half of the faculty) are reached in classroom contexts in a given year. My impression (based on observation, conversation, questions at the Reference Desk) is that most students and faculty are really not active users (or at least not skilled users) of these resources, despite our continuing efforts to publicize and instruct.

Journal holdings

The Science Library receives more than 350 journal titles (the total cost for all science serials in 1996-97 was more than $190,000). Most of them are rarely consulted by students or faculty.

Part of the problem is that most primary research journals have little to do with the interests and knowledge base of undergraduates: in most disciplines, students can't read the research literatures and aren't called upon to try (Biology and Psychology are prominent exceptions). In an undergraduate and teaching-oriented liberal arts setting, many faculty have limited interest in research literature as well. Consequently, many of our journals are archived against the day when somebody is led to a volume by a search in a bibliographic database or an ILL request arrives from another institution. Is there anything we can do to facilitate better access to and more use of this form of information?

Access is largely a matter of appropriate selection and canny use of bibliographic databases, but the occasions for access may be the more salient issue, and the answers may lie in helping faculty to make fuller use of journal resources in the classroom context. Other possibilities involve locally-maintained databases and remote (e.g., UnCover, FirstSearch and DIALOG) and local current awareness services.

Quite a few journals offer online access to abstracts, often with effective search engines as well. Integrating the use of these resources into bibliographic courses seems like it would be worthwhile, especially in biology, but just how to accomplish this is less obvious --how to develop a sense for which journals to query for which subjects, etc.

Full-text online journals

In the not too distant future we are assured that scholarly journals will all be online, and that academic publishing will consequently be faster and more accessible. The current state is pretty chaotic, and the outlines of transition to orderly access are still unclear.

Every few days I get an announcement of another journal title with web access. Many offer free access until... and others offer combination subscription rates (paper and web, paper only, web only). A few are free-but-you-have-to-register, and some are just plain free. And some are available because we have paid for access (Academic Press journals, JSTOR) or because we subscribe to some titles (Springer journals). Consortial arrangements are generally a necessity, due to the high cost of these services.

W&L users have not responded very enthusiastically to these trial offerings, and seem to use electronic journals as infrequently as they use the print versions. Faculty generally have a preference for traditional paper (when asked if they think we should replace a paper title with its electronic equivalent), and students don't seem to be any more attuned to the possibilities of the electronic versions (even those linked via Annie records). I have yet to encounter ANYbody browsing electronic journals.

Librarians expect that a library user who finds a reference to a particular journal in a bibliographic database will look it up in Annie (treating the journal title as if it was a book title) to see if we hold it; few library users do this by reflex, as indicated by the substantial number of ILL requests which turn out to be in our holdings. And almost no library users have any very effective strategies for hunting for the possible electronic versions of journals.

What can we do about this? Eventually some central clearinghouse which interlinks bibliographic databases and local holdings and online versions and fax delivery of non-electronic items may emerge, but the approximations now on the horizon (like OCLC's Electronic Collections Online) are sketchy to the point of uselessness, and a service that could supply all those needs would surely be prohibitively expensive.

I don't know any easy way to determine which journals have electronic versions or to gather price information systematically. EBSCO may have that information (via their Title Information Department, or perhaps even their Title Database), but in any case it's something that can be expected to change from month to month, as more journals make the seemingly inevitable move. We need to find out something more about EBSCO's plans for dealing with the world of electronic journals --ordering, supplying, etc.

An outstanding issue: what guarantees do we have that electronic versions will be archived? With JSTOR it's quite clearly central to what they intend to do, and OCLC's service seems to offer electronic archiving as part of the package, even allowing access to any volumes paid for if a subscription is cancelled. But with individual titles we take archiving on faith.

Bibliographic databases

Library users make use of bibliographic databases in some pretty specific contexts, mostly research for assigned papers (in the case of students) and professional inquiries (for faculty). It seems that it is only librarians who see (and use) these databases as aids to general exploration and learning.

The sciences have access to an array of specialized bibliographic databases (in addition to such general utilities as UnCover, Periodical Abstracts, Expanded Academic Index, General Science Abstracts):

In some cases this list looks more impressive than it is, and in fact few of these resources are used in classroom teaching. Biology (with a large number of majors and a required course in Biological Literature) is limited by the fact that BasicBIOSIS is an emasculated version of the BIOSIS database (1994 to present ONLY, and not all subject areas within the full database), and effectively forecloses access to important literature. Chemistry's restriction of STN access to evening hours means that the online form of Chemical Abstracts can't be used in classroom teaching (even if Chemistry faculty wished to do so).

With respect to databases we don't have but could make good use of: it would be especially useful to Biology to have fuller bibliographic access, via the Cambridge Scientific Abstracts Biological & Medical Sciences databases, and the Environmental Studies program could make good use of CSA's Environmental Sciences database. But the single most useful database for all of the sciences at W&L would surely be ISI's Web of Science, a citation database (see my review of this product for some details). This product is expensive and can really only be justified if it contributes directly to improved teaching. This would involve a shift in approach by some faculty, orienting their teaching more toward research being done (and literature being produced) in their disciplines, and encouraging direct student engagement with research literatures. Some fields are more amenable to this reorientation than others, just as some research literatures are more accessible to nonspecialists than others.

Among the potential electronic sources: (I'll add others as I find them)

Some useful links

George Machovec wrote an Electronic Journal Market Overview in March 1997