… they don’t know how lucky they are.
I am currently in the throes of a writing frenzy and in one of my less hectic moments was reflecting on the ease of finding information and incorporating it into my own work. If I need to find information on say, caffeine and fertility, I can simply put those terms into PubMed (other search facilities are available…) and pull up hundreds of papers that may be of relevance. I can scan through the abstracts pull up the full papers instantly, download them to my iPad or Kindle to read at my leisure, or within the day can put together my own 500 word summary of current understanding in that field. As a research tool the explosion of online searching and publication is incredible and not something that we should take for granted. Our undergraduate and postgraduate researchers have this amazingly speedy and flexible facility at their fingertips that has transformed the way in which they learn and go about the process of their own research. It was not always thus, and as a person of a certain age I remember a more challenging time.
As an undergraduate we might be given a reference to track down to support a lecture. That would result in a stampede to the library afterwards as there would only be one copy (no electronic version). I would often get to the stacks to find the volume had already been grabbed by someone else for photocopying and then not replaced on the right shelf, or (shockingly) that the volume was there but someone had torn the article of interest out.
From the time that I started my PhD through to around 1993 keeping on top of the literature in my specific field had to be a daily duty. There were no search engines to track material down retrospectively so the trick was to monitor the literature constantly. This involved scanning contents pages of favoured journals regularly (I had a list of maybe 20 journals that might publish in my area that I had to check every month) to see if something relevant had been published, or making use of Current Contents. Current Contents was a publication that listed all of the new papers published in the biosciences and medical sciences. I think it was published fortnightly and I would have to scan through it, looking under key headings, or looking for specific authors to see if there was anything new that I would then need to track down in the library, photocopy and read.
Having to keep on top of the literature as it was published was just the easy bit. If we needed to find something published in the past, without having the actual reference for it, that’s when the trouble started. The equivalent of the modern literature search involved a beast called Index Medicus. A typical scenario would be my supervisor saying “I think a papers was published on X in 1983 or maybe 84. The author was Smith. You should read it.” With this to go on I would hit the library and approach Index Medicus. IM was published monthly and listed all biomedscience publications for that month, searchable by author or keywords. Each issue was about a zillion pages. So I would have to hand search all 12 issues of IM of 1983 looking at all of the Smiths. Of course it wouldn’t be there, so then 1984 would need to be seated. No luck, so try 1982. After a couple of hours the reference would be found and it turns out my supervisor was wrong and it was Smyth 1985… Next step is to find the paper to read, but that particular journal is not stocked by our library. At this stage all I have is the title, so I am not sure if the paper is really going to be any good. I order it as an interlibrary loan and it takes 3 weeks to come and I have to pay for it. On opening the envelope in turns out that the paper is written in Russian and I can’t use it after all…
So youngsters, next time you curse because the paper it took you 50 milliseconds to find through PubMed is not available free online, think of us old fogies and all that we had to put up with. Use this great tool wisely and read the papers that you find carefully. Easily available information isn’t always high quality information.