The World Wide Web has revolutionised how academics find information. Internet nowadays is an attractive medium for seeking and obtaining information for the following reasons:
- It is accessible twenty-four hours a day.
- You do not have to visit a library.
- 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.
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. As expected, scientists used the Internet more frequently than did social scientists, and that social scientists used it more frequently than did members of the arts. 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.
It is 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
One of the many problems of being an academic is keeping track of information that might be useful in the future. Basically, this means setting up an effective storage and retrieval system. Initially, this may not seem important. Young researchers are likely to be working in a single field, and they will have most of the relevant papers at their finger-tips, but, as you get older, it gets more complex, both starting new areas of research and keeping up with old ones.
So what is needed is some way of storing relevant publications. In my research, I use a now old-fashioned system. I code with a number a copy of any paper that I wish to store, and I file it sequentially. I then enter the appropriate number in a card subject index. So, if I want to see if I have any papers on, say, ‘titles’, I look up ‘titles’ in the subject index, find the numbers and retrieve the relevant papers from the file. Using this card system allows me to expand the subject index appropriately as new but relevant materials appear. Using the unique number system allows me to enter the same number on different cards if the paper touches on different topics.
Well, that is how it started. I then found that I began to place copies of related papers in separate folders and, in turn, as these folders grew too small, into separate boxes. So now I have a card filing system with more than 2,500 entries, about fifty folders and twenty or so boxes . . .
It would be more useful these days to have a less bulky electronic system. It would be nice to look up topics (with a key-word system) and to print out the relevant papers when required. Google Scholar provides an example, but it does not have the selectivity or permanence of my paper system, and it is a bit hit and miss. And, as noted above, different search engines have different strengths in this respect.
New technology presents an additional problem. It is now easier to locate materials using the World Wide Web and specific search engines, but there is far more of it. This means that the materials required for storage are going to be more bulky if they are printed out (although this can be reduced by printing only the abstracts and keeping the URL).
I asked a number of postgraduates at Keele about how they keep track of relevant information today. The following extracts from three replies indicate that this ranges from doing nothing systematic to saving journals as PDF files.
My method of storing information is so disorganised that you definitely would not want to include it as an example. (Unless it is an example of how not to do it!)
When I first started at university, I obtained lots of articles, but did not use any specific filing method to keep them in order. A fellow Ph.D. student urged me to start putting my references into Reference Manager, so I could keep track, but I’m afraid I didn’t take his advice and acquired a large number of articles that were becoming increasingly unordered on my desk! Eventually, I thought I should come up with some kind of system otherwise I wasn’t going to be able to keep track. When I actually started using the program to manage my references, I felt stupid for not having done it before.
From the start of my Ph.D. I used Reference Manager. I decided to use this method because we had a training course on it and I realised that I needed a formal way of storing my references. I also thought I would need to use such a system right from the start so that I would get into a routine . . . When it came to writing up papers and my thesis it was much easier to do having put all my references in Reference Manager.
Now that many of the journals are available online I also save some of the journals on my computer as PDF files. I find that it makes journals really accessible. I also like the fact that I don’t have to physically print them off if I don’t want to, but I can still access them. This method has the advantages of saving space and is thus more environmentally friendly.
Although there were some studies of how academics organised their papers in the past, there is relatively little work of this kind with new technology. Twelve professionals were interviewed about how they managed and organised their electronic files on their computer hard disk at their workplace and scanned the disk in question. The majority of these people stored files both on their desktops as well as in folders on their hard drive. The desktop tended to be used for ephemeral or temporary files, as well as for working files in current projects. Some of the participants positioned their files on the desktop spatially, and some chronologically. All of the participants organised their folders and sub-folders in a variety of tree-like structures, with a considerable range in the number and the depth. Most of the participants were ‘frequent filers’, who stored documents in appropriate folders immediately, or ‘spring cleaners’, who cleaned up and tidied file documents into folders more periodically.
Finding and keeping track of relevant information is perhaps easier than it was in my day, but knowing how to cope with what you find is more daunting. One solution, perhaps, might be not to store anything, but simply look up the latest findings on the Web when starting something new and when writing it up. However, this, I think, is both unscholarly and premature. A chance reading of a paper on the topic of the effects of headings in text prompted me to look up how many papers I had on this topic in my files, how many were cited on Google Scholar, and how many of these were available in both sources. I found twenty studies cited in the first ten pages of Google Scholar, forty-two in my files, and an overlap of only six papers between them. Each of these separate papers, of course, had its own additional reference list . . .
USING THE INFORMATION
There have been few studies of how authors integrate materials from the Internet with that published in scientific articles. Junni (2007) examined the reference lists in masters’ theses in economics, psychology and mathematics, written in Finland in 1985, 1993 and 2003, and carried out semistructured interviews with a selection of students who had completed their theses in 2003. Junni found that the average number of items in the reference lists in the economics and psychology theses had increased between 1993 and 2003; that the average number of scholarly articles referenced in the economics and psychology theses had increased between 1993 and 2003; and that the average number of recent articles cited had increased in the psychology and mathematics theses. Junni attributed these differences to the fact that the availability of articles had increased dramatically for students and researchers via the Internet, and that the sources on the Internet were generally more up to date than were those in paper format.
In the good old days, authors typically sent preprints, or early drafts of their articles, to friends and colleagues and to interested enquirers. Today, most authors supply lists of their publications on the Web or, indeed, make the publications themselves available on the Web. This is extremely helpful for researchers, provided that the lists are regularly updated.
One point of interest here is that if you provide a web-based URL it might also be useful to include what is called the digital object identifier (DOI) number. The DOI number for online publications is similar to the ISBN number for books and the ISSN number for journals: it is a unique number for the document. URLs do not identify the document itself but only its location – and, as we all know to our chagrin, this may change, and the document may become irretrievable.
Hartley., J. (2008). .Academic writing and publishing : a practical guide . NY: Routledge.