Wants a MASSIVE database with everything in it kthx


Mindful of what happened last time I tried to comment that a non-librarian blogger might be a bit mistaken regarding access to information issues, I’d just like to point out that I am not having a go at Andrew! Just find users’ perspective on this stuff interesting. K?


Stumbled across this blog post recently, written by Andrew Taylor, a PhD student, reflecting on his lit review. He made the very good point that lack of access to prior research harms the scientific process – if everyone has easy access to discoveries others have made then they can work on and improve them that much sooner. He points out that “scientific knowledge is still trapped in PDF versions of paper journals, behind a myriad different paywalls and arbitrary institutional subscription lists. That’s a terrible system” – which I would have a very hard time disagreeing with (although I do take issue with the suggestion that institutional subscription lists are “arbitrary”!). It actually reminded me of a point that one of the speakers at UKSG this year made – that scholarly journals only look the way they do because they’re based on the communication methods of the 18th century. If we were inventing the scholarly journal today, wouldn’t it look less like a collection of letters and more like Facebook? And the “myriad different paywalls” issue is one I couldn’t agree with more – it’s frustrating for everyone that there isn’t just one way into all paid-for content.

However, Andrew follows up this very sensible and understandable comment with this: “It should be on a big database, searchable by any parameter you like. If I’ve got a question to which mankind has found an answer, I should be able to run a quick-and-dirty search and get a good idea what that answer is in about fifteen minutes”.


Now, I totally see where he’s coming from. As a student (not long to go now though – should have my dissertation more or less finished by christmas!) I know it would be sooooooo useful to be able to search everything in one place. And even with my librarian hat on, I can still see the appeal – wouldn’t it be great if all published information was just there, in one enormous package (properly indexed, of course!)? Think how much quicker renewals would be!

Of course, this hypothetical mega-database simply wouldn’t work. It’s a wonderful, utopian idea – but there’s just too many issues around rights and cost and so on to actually build something like it (not to mention the technical issues – I actually can’t imagine how you could hope to get meaningful search results from something that huge, the precision would be terrible). I’m probably taking this a bit too seriously actually – I suspect that Andrew didn’t mean it as a serious suggestion! I just find it interesting, looking at how users think about these things. Because what it really boils down to is that nobody wants to spend hours wading through masses of abstracts in dozens of databases, looking for something which may not exist, but worried that if they don’t exhaust all possibilities then they may miss something relevant. It’d be nice if there was a quicker way to do literature reviews, but sadly there isn’t. Sorry!


14 comments on “Wants a MASSIVE database with everything in it kthx

  1. A wonderful uptopian idea indeed! I see the problem of numerous databases in my current job, as new students are always confused as to whether they will find the law report they need on Westlaw or Lexis and want everything to be on one or the other! When I was a student I always longed for a big central database for everything (or everything in my area of study at least) partly because I wasn’t even sure which database out of the many listed on my library website would be useful. Knowing where to look for information was a huge issue when I began my dissertation, if I’d had all the tools I do now I’m sure my dissertation might have turned out better. Most of the time I resorted to google scholar as any easy search all option for looking for information using a keyword.

  2. I don’t know, speaking as another student of librarianship I really don’t think it’s too much to ask. What are the odds on Google expanding their Scholar databases to include the abstracts at some point? Unfortunately it’ll be a long time before we’ll actually be able to access full text of everything we need (although some subject areas are definitely heading the right direction), but why shouldn’t it be possible – even easy – to track down enough information about a journal article to know whether it’s worth paying to obtain it?

  3. I hated, hated, hated doing a Lit Review. It’s a ridiculous Social-Sciences / Sciences hoop to jump through which gets in the way of doing proper work (and also partly why my dissertation didn’t get a Disctinction, meaning my overall Masters only got a Commendation, not that I’m bitter…).

    I agree though that too much info can be as problematic as too little. I suspect the future of librarianship may be that very process you describe, spending hours looking through information to find the diamonds in the rough. The big database Andrew wants is essentially Google with more advanced search criteria and free access to all informaiton – that is too much for most people, which is why I believe the knowledge and discernment of Information Professionals will still be required in years to come (hopefully preventing us from being bypassed entirely by the information revolution).

    • Wikiman, you have a very good point. The idea of a giant database with everything in it really is a just a more sophisticated and tailored google, I can imagine the average undergrad getting swamped with information and not knowing what to do with it! Plus the bigger the database the wider the results range and a greater scope for useless results anyway. We need libraries and institutions full of information professionals ready to help the user find the information they want; its an aspect of my job that I very much enjoy and hope will continue. It’s quite good fun to go to work and help people with research enquiries!

  4. Wow, that has to be a record – 4 comments within an hour of posting! Obviously a popular issue 🙂

    @laura – totally agree, I found the same problems when starting to research coursework assignments last year. Luckily, the learning support librarians at City were really good at talking us through what sources were good for what (and since I worked there too, I could always have a chat with them in the staff room!)

    @Niamh – the problem is partly that it would be a mammoth task to collect and index all of that information in one place, to the point that it’s searchable with a high enough precision to be useful for scholarly/scientific research. I don’t think full-text searching is accurate enough for that kind of work. I agree that if Google Scholar started including abstracts it would be a step in the right direction, but their search just isn’t accurate enough. We actually did a really useful assignment in the second term where we had to directly compare 4 databases/search engines (Dialog, Factiva, AltaVista and Clusty – I threw in Google Scholar for mine too, ‘cos I’m nerdy like that!) with a self-defined topic and search strategy, and evaluate the first 10 results using a binary relevance judgement. While services like Dialog are much harder to learn to use, they give far more accurate results. Google Scholar threw up more results in total than Dialog and Factiva, but only a couple out of the top ten were actually relevant. I just don’t think the kind of precision that Dialog (etc.) provide is replicable on a Google-sized product.

    @bethan – Ha, nice! I’d seen that before, but I couldn’t remember where – should have put a picture of that button into my post!

    @wikiman – Good point. I too can see that being the future of librarianship – that’s actually a lot of what I do in my job at the moment, since lawyers are generally too busy to wade through search results themselves! (oh also, I know what you mean about the lit review thing! The dullest part of my dissertation work. Luckily, is nearly done now!)

  5. can I out myself as exceptionally dull and say that I actually really enjoyed doing my lit review? There’s something terribly satisfying in distilling the gems of real importance out of a huge mass of papers. (my dissertation had nearly 100 references; the endnote database I kept all my research leads in had over 250 refs.)

    I do appreciate that this marks me out as slightly, umm, unusual?

  6. Bethan I totally agree with you – I like that side of research a lot. What filled me with crossness was the ridiculous business of having to provide a critique over *everything*, which struck me as laboured and in my case, irrelevant. I was writing about digitisation in HE – I just wanted to cite the good sources, and report what they had to say. Instead I had to include a load of arse about the authors and how legitmate the sources were etc – which amounted to me basically saying things like, “Although Anne Author was correct about such and such, she also said CD-Roms were the future, how quaint; time has shown that she’s clearly a fool! mwhahahaha” etc…

    It didn’t help that I’d previously done a Music MA – for that, I was able to do proper research, just investigating stuff and developing the sources into a narrative – without the all the associated judgement on the writers concerned.

    • ahh, fair enough – fortunately we weren’t required to explicitly evaluate like that (although we were for my English MA – I’d supressed that memory!). That would have driven me mad too – I think as long as you can show that you generally have a good idea of what makes a source authoritative/legitimate, there is no point having to repeat the same old guff for every source. You have my sympathy!

      • Thanks! I feel soothed…

        By the way, Woodsiegirl, this is the best title for a blog post ever.

      • I have enjoyed doing all the reading for my lit review, it’s the writing that’s driving me up the wall, for similar reasons to @wikiman. Oh by the way, I really hope you actually wrote “she’s clearly a fool! mwhahahaha” at some point when you were drafting your lit review!

        Oh, and thanks for the comment on my title, I do try… 🙂

  7. Honestly, I wish I had just written it like that – instead I went with a sort of Radio 4-esque condescending sort of smug sort of ellipses at the end of a sentance sort of unbearably sort of ‘funny’ remark about the “inaccuracies of some of her other predicitions”, which made me feel a bit sick when I was proof-reading.

    Good times! 🙂

  8. Is what this boils down to a matter of deciding which skills are actually part of the process of a literature review?
    Is it the understanding, synthesis and critical evaluation of one’s core of knowledge?
    Is it being able to run sophisticated and precise searches and therefore understand how to use what are essentially the tools of one’s current trade?
    Is it both?
    If we simplify the latter do we risk undermining the former? If there’s a tendency to keep searching various databases because one is not sure that one has found ‘everything’ (this is something I myself am guilty of); and this is replaced with a simple find-it-in-15 minutes search – one has to take the search engine’s word for it that it is indeed a comprehensive search, because one has no other tools for a second check.
    These are currently the questions I am pondering.
    @Laura Williams – do you have Justcite? It makes that whole ‘where do I get this case from?’ dilemma an awful lot easier.

    • I would argue that both sets of skills are important, particularly for postgrad research. You need to understand where your information is coming from. I think what you say about having to take the search engine’s word for it that it’s done a comprehensive search is a really important point. The problem with things like Google (and the federated search that Kathy Jacob talked about at the SLA thing the other week, and this hypothetical mega database – which I’ve started thinking of as Google Ultimate, btw. Catchy, no?) is that they give the illusion of a comprehensive search, while actually falling far short of that target.

      To some extent, this is a problem with over-reliance on online sources in general. I see this at work sometimes, especially with the trainees – we’ll get a call/email from someone whose searches are drawing a blank, and they want to know if we have any other sources that might give them an answer. Often they will have actually searched all of our e-resources, not just Google – but at no point will it have occured to them that their answer might be in one of the books and looseleafs we hold on the subject. I worry sometimes about the ones that don’t call us when this happens – that just assume that if their answer isn’t on Lexis, Westlaw, PLC or Google, it doesn’t exist.

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