Finding keeping and disseminating information

The World Wide Web has revolutionised how academics find information. In writing this book I have not had to venture far from my office. The information that I have used to write each chapter has mainly come from books on my shelves, papers stored in my filing cabinets, previous papers on the topic that I have written, and papers located in databases and electronic journals on the Web. In searching these latter resources, I have roamed well beyond my own discipline. Only occasionally have I had to resort to the library and the inter-library loan service — mainly for books.

Junni (2007) remarks that the Internet is an attractive medium for seeking and obtaining information for the following reasons:

• It is accessible twenty-four hours a day.

• It is possible to find and obtain information relatively quickly and conveniently.

• You can choose between saving, printing or reading the information from the computer screen.

• Sources on the Internet are often more up to date than sources in paper format.

Bjork and Turk (2002) report on how, for scientists, the Internet is overtaking paper media, and that the most popular method for retrieving a publication is to download it for free from authors' or publishers' web sites. The ways that scientists retrieve information differ, of course, from those used by researchers in the arts and humanities, and in the social sciences. Jankowska (2004) showed, as expected, that scientists used the Internet more frequently than did social scientists, and that social scientists used it more frequently than did members of the arts. Vakkari and Talja (2006) found that Finnish academics used key-word searching more frequently in the natural sciences, engineering and medicine than in other disciplines, and that they all relied less on colleagues for finding information than they used to.

There has been some debate about the relative usefulness of different search engines for different tasks. Bar-Ilan (2005), for instance, compared Google, Yahoo and MSN on a huge variety of tasks, and found considerable differences between them. However, one difficulty with this kind of research is that web sites are constantly being updated, and newer ones introduced. (Google Scholar or Microsoft's Windows Live Academic Research, for instance, were not available to Bar-Ilan when this research was done.) Other studies have looked at the effectiveness of individual search engines for providing the different kinds of information needed by researchers. Valiela and Martinetto (2005), for instance, found that it was difficult to locate papers published before the 1970s by well-known authors on the ecology of aquatic environments, but that the position was much better for more recent publications. However, they too found that there was considerable variability between the success rates achieved for both early and later papers on different web sites. Furthermore, the value of all the 'hits' listed on a web site in response to a specific query needs to be taken with a pinch of salt (Jacso, 2006).

A more promising development in this area perhaps lies in the creation of electronic databases for specific disciplines. Mann et al. (2006), for instance, describe one such database that contains over 300,000 publications in computer science, and the Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) publishes booklets that list key databases in a variety of subjects (www. sosig.ac.uk). Using such databases, it is possible to find the most important papers, the earliest and the latest papers, and work in your own and related fields.

Finally, other sources of information that researchers need to keep an eye on are preprints. Schwartz and Kennicutt (2004) reported that seventy-two per cent of the papers in Astro-Physics Journal (Ap-J) were posted as astro-ph preprints, and that papers posted on astro-ph were cited twice as often as papers that were not posted. They concluded that, 'Pre-prints have clearly supplanted the journals as the primary means for initially becoming aware of papers, at least for a large fraction of the Ap-J author community'. Indeed, it is now becoming common practice for journals to publish online copies of articles that are to appear in print somewhat later. Email 'alert' systems allow researchers to obtain and download these papers in advance, and reading such alerts is much akin to browsing in the library in olden times.

Indeed, one can browse on the Internet too. I have found it particularly useful, for instance, to locate papers on Google Scholar, to trace them back to the journal where they first appeared and to see who has cited them and/or written articles on similar topics. Chasing up authors' email addresses and web pages too can lead to lists of further publications that might be relevant to the task at hand or just of general interest.

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