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!