After my experience with using (or, as at least one of my readers has suggested, misusing) my blog to get an article to which my university does not provide online access, it occurred to me just how much our means of accessing the scientific literature has changed in the last decade and just how radical those changes have been. Again, those who are old farts with me may remember that a little more than 10 years ago at the institution where I did my residency, we could do electronic searches of the Medline database, but it wasn’t over the Internet. Basically, the library bought access to Silver Platter, which contained the entire Medline database on four CDs. We would then go to the library to search those CDs and would either print out the text results or copy a text file with our search results to a floppy disk. In fact, back then, that’s also how we searched the Genbank database as well for DNA sequences. All these online tools for searching the biomedical literature or the Genbank database didn’t exist just a mere decade ago. Indeed, I remember in the early 1990’s, when I was a graduate student, when we bought MacVector (software for analyzing DNA sequences), we also bought a license for access to the Genbank database for one year. Every three months, the lab would receive a set of CDs containing the entire Genbank database, and that’s as often as it was updated. Heck, to do BLAST nucleotide alignments, we used to have to use an e-mail-based system, where we would e-mail the sequence of interest to the BLAST server, which would then e-mail back the search results.

Pretty primitive, eh?

But that’s not all. If you go back just a few years further, to the late 1980s, even that didn’t exist. Instead, to find articles that I wanted, I’d have to go to the Index Medicus, plow through big stacks of books containing these indices, write down the results, and then go to the stacks to find the journals containing the desired articles. We’d then have to photocopy those articles.

Thinking back on that, I’m amazed at how easy we have it now. All anyone anywhere in the world needs is an Internet connection to search PubMed, which now contains links right to many of the journals and the articles, right from the search results. If your university has purchased online access to the journal in question, you can simply download the article as a PDF right there (if it’s not so old that the journal hasn’t put it online). Even if your university hasn’t purchased online access, you can still read the abstract, which is often enough to determine whether the article is even of sufficient interest to seek out. If you want to seek it out, you can often e-mail the author to ask for a PDF of the article or manuscript or e-mail colleagues at other institutions that might have access to the journal. If you use a bibliographic database program like EndNote, you can even search PubMed directly from within the program, download any citations you like, and then use the software to put the citations directly in any manuscripts and grant applications you may be writing. It’s truly amazing.

Man, I feel old. Next, I’ll be ranting, “You punks don’t know just how easy you have it! Back in my day….”


  1. #1 Carpus
    August 12, 2006

    Yeah – we are spoiled now aren’t we? I get upset now when an article I want isn’t available online and I have to traipse up to the library to get it.

    In fact, I even prefer to get articles in journals that our library doesn’t have – just order them through interlibrary loan and they’re in your mailbox in a few days! No movement from your desk even required!

  2. #2 Ron
    August 12, 2006

    You’re spoiled if you work in a big first world university or research center that has paid through the nose for access. But for the rest of us scientific information is increasingly difficult to get to.

    In fact, the old days were the good old days when we could photocopy just about any article we could get our hands on. Now, scientific information had been essentially privatized and is locked up behind the copyright barriers of a few big journal publishers like Elsevier. I work in a social science research institute in Chiapas Mexico. We barely have budget for the major journals in in social science. I use the biological and agroecological literature extensively and access is a real problem. PNAS, open access sources and some sources that allow latin american scholars access are a help, but the problem is serious.

    Even the bio research institute on the other side of town has limited access and I have to ask my friends in US universities to send me pdfs,(or the authors) which is a real hassle for them. In fact, every year it becomes easier to find citations and even abstracts online but increasingly difficult to actually get access. For people in the ‘general public’ scientific information is locked up, unavailable. We often have to resort to means that are, technically, illegal, to get important journal articles.

    And Mexico is relatively privileged compared to other countries.

    I really appreciate authors that find cryptic means of making their papers available online.Open access now! for those of us outside the privileged circle.

  3. #3 Orac
    August 12, 2006

    You’re spoiled if you work in a big first world university or research center that has paid through the nose for access. But for the rest of us scientific information is increasingly difficult to get to.

    In fact, the old days were the good old days when we could photocopy just about any article we could get our hands on.

    Actually, I can still get pretty much any paper through interlibrary loan, but it’s usually a badly photocopied copy that’s FAXed over. Also, our library has hard copies of pretty much every journal that they have electronic subscriptions to; so there’s always still the option of going over to the library. Finally, when requested, I’m always happy to e-mail the PDF of my galleys or the final article to anyone who asks.

    Maybe I am a bit spoiled in that I prefer the PDF that I can print out on our color institution’s color printer and turn my nose up at interlibrary loan. Even so, I still find it amazing how much easier it is these days to find articles. Just getting the abstracts off of PubMed is a quantum leap above the way we used to do it with Index Medicus.

  4. #4 erabt
    August 12, 2006

    Someone brought up the issue of copyright in a previous thread. It’s doubtful that copyright was violated when you asked for someone at another institution to send you an electronic copy of the article. Under the fair use provisions of copyright law, a portion of a book or journal can be copied as long as the use is for academic/research/educational purposes. Which is what your purpose was in asking for the article.

    If anything, having a copy of the article is to the benefit of the author, since it allows his/her work to be read by a wider audience.

    I don’t see how what you did is any different from you calling up a collegue at another school, asking to see if they can copy an article that you need, then having them mail it to you.

    Far different than copying a Robbie Williams CD; no academic purpose whatsoever can be attached to that.

  5. #5 Joe
    August 12, 2006

    We lose something when we rely so much on electronic databases and on-line articles. You see, you never know what you’ll stumble over when you visit the library stacks. No, not students trying to catch a quickie in a deserted area. I am talking about the articles you may happen upon while thumbing through a printed volume in search of the article you seek.

    My poast-doc advisor used to make sure to read the articles before and after the one he was after, in order to keep abreast of the field in general, and to look for good research ideas outside what he was currently planning. And it is easier/faster to browse a physical copy than an electronic copy. You never know when someone in another field has a problem you can solve, or a solution to a problem you have.

    Don’t get me wrong, I was an early adopter of computer technology (I wrote my first program in 1969). And I gladly embraced electronic databases; but, familiarity does breed some contempt.

  6. #6 Ron
    August 12, 2006

    Of course we use all those options, authors are usually generous, interlibrary loan is slow but it works. It is true that finding articles is easier than ever. But if you do frequent literature searches on specific topics, on the role mycorrhiza in the formation of stable soil aggregates, say, or high-fructose corn syrup and metabolic syndrome (to name two recent ones I was involved in), it is very frustrating to have Google Scholar throw up five recent reviews and a dozen articles. They may all be available online but one is unable even to browse through and see what may actually be useful. The time to request the articles from the author or to go through interlibrary loan, just to find out what is worth reading, really throws a wet blanket on the research process.

  7. #7 Ron
    August 12, 2006

    PS I agree with Joe, there is no subsistute for library browsing. Nice to have a US university library system at your finger tips. Most places in the world have nothing like it. Count your blessings

  8. #8 Eric Wallace
    August 12, 2006

    I look forward to the day when all scientific articles are open access, and we can look back on today’s mishmash and grump, “In my day…”.

  9. #9 Ian Findlay
    August 13, 2006

    Ah, happy days.
    Going down to the library with a bunch of postcards. Working through the abstracting journals.
    Sending the postcards and several months later, sometimes, receiving a reprint.

  10. #10 Koant
    August 13, 2006

    Getting hold of scientific papers is so easy now that I often end up with a huge number of pdfs after a search, always thinking “hmm, that could be interesting, *clicky*“. But I suppose it’s just me not being able to restrain myself.
    About browsing and serendipity, it is true that it’s somewhat missing but it can be reintroduced: CiteULike, for example, is really good to come across papers one wouldn’t have thought of.

  11. #11 Catherina
    August 13, 2006

    What about “submitting a paper” back in those days?! We would spend days in the darkroom to make the prints for the figure plates and then label them with letraset (rub on letters). The nightmare if the manuscript got lost in the mail during the submission process (including the 5 sets of figures)!

    Yeah, you are right! The young folk don’t know how easy they have it!

  12. #12 ivy privy
    August 13, 2006

    Recently, in discussion on an ID site, I had an IDiot complain when I cited a paper with title, author list, journal, volume, date, page number, but didn’t include a URL! Apparently he doesn’t know how to locate an obscure scientific journal like Science:

    Posting names of articles without URLs or summaries is unresponsive. If you read the article and understand it, it should not be difficult to point to the specific data supporting your case.

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