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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2003

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[Board accepted]

Information-Seeking Behavior of Meteorologists and Other Atmospheric Scientists: Access and Retrieval of Cited References

Julie Hallmark
School of Information
The University of Texas at Austin


This study describes the methods of access and retrieval of journal articles that were cited during 2000-2001 by atmospheric scientists from universities, federal government agencies, and private research institutes. Citations to articles originally published during 1995-2000 were chosen from the bibliographies of current articles published in eight journals in the atmospheric sciences. Each of one hundred authors received a personalized letter and brief questionnaire that addressed methods of access and retrieval of one of their cited articles. A large majority of those participating in the study reported that they used traditional (non-electronic) methods for both access and retrieval of that particular citation. Participants were also asked to comment on problems encountered in using electronic journals as well as problems with access and use of data for their research. Results provide a snapshot of the current information-seeking behavior of these scientists. The return rate of 61% suggests a high level of concern for their journal literature in this user community.


The accelerating adoption of technology, as well as constraints and challenges within the traditional journal system, continue to revolutionize scientific communication in all disciplines. As science libraries evolve along a continuum from the physical to the electronic, scientists and librarians alike are concerned about future information services, especially access to scientific journals. The atmospheric sciences are particularly vulnerable in this regard. Given their very broad interdisciplinary range of interests, researchers must have access to a large number of journal titles with wide-ranging scientific coverage. Concerned about the implications of the increasingly electronic environment, members of Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) approached the author and suggested that she undertake a study of information-seeking behavior in the atmospheric sciences. ASLI meets annually at the same time as the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and the two groups maintain cordial relations.

Scientists' opinions toward electronic journals have evolved considerably in recent years. Tauber (1996) proposed an optimistic view of the world of e-journals: reduced submission-to-publication time of an article, opportunities to enhance the text through video and audio clips or other supplemental material that would not fit into a print version, increased hyperlinked text, the ability to offer access to large data files and software related to the research, and improved graphics. At that time, however, most scientists were less than enthusiastic.

Morton (1997) raised issues of cost, access, quality control, and usability of electronic journals, issues that were at the time significant deterrents to use. In research conducted in 1998, Brown (1999) reported that the majority of scientists at the University of Oklahoma preferred journal articles in print. Hallmark (1998) found similar preferences among geoscientists who described in considerable detail their problems with accessing, downloading, and formatting electronic journal articles; the quality of graphics was particularly annoying. Throughout this period, objections to e-journals were primarily those of overall usability and cost.

Attitudes changed remarkably quickly, however. By 2001 Gleeson reported that scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health had adapted to electronic journals, integrating them into their information-seeking routine as an important resource; the use of electronic journals among her subjects surpassed the use of those in print. However, along with the increasing popularity of e-journals, some questions have emerged. Will publishers maintain their electronic journal backfiles in perpetuity, once demand has significantly decreased? How can librarians cope with the unexpected, such as the announcement from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in November 2001 of a 100% increase for institutional access to their electronic journals in 2002? (Geonet Listserv).

Resh (1998) offers a fascinating view of additional issues that arise in the transition from paper to electronic journals. One of his estimates indicates that printing costs of nonprofit journals range from 30-50% of the total budget of producing the journal. If the journal is published by a society, the smaller the society, the greater is the percentage of its budget devoted to printing. Citing an article by Hayes (1995), Resh points out that Reed Elsevier, a publisher of over 1,100 academic journals, had pre-tax profits of 40% on $225 million in journal sales that year. Such data suggest to librarians and end users alike that increased prices for e-journal subscriptions are unwarranted.

Higher prices for subscriptions, cancellation of print titles by libraries, increasing availability of electronic journals and indexes, and new communication patterns facilitated by the Internet create an environment for users that is in constant change. The present research focuses on meteorology and other atmospheric sciences, specifically, the extent to which trends in journal publishing, access, and retrieval affect the information-seeking behavior of end users. Also addressed are problems encountered in the access and use of data.


To investigate communication patterns of scientists and the real problems that they encounter when accessing and retrieving journal articles and data, it is effective to contact them directly and ask specific questions. The enthusiastic response in this study to the questionnaire is evidence of concern and interest on the part of atmospheric scientists with regard to their journal literature and other information resources. Following a research methodology developed in earlier work (Hallmark 1994; 1998), the author chose articles from eight journals published by the American Meteorological Society; all offer complete electronic backfiles. Selected with the goal of representing variety and quality, these journals, listed in Figure 1, were the source of the corpus of 100 articles that were published during 2000-2001. Authors of these articles were in universities (55%), government agencies (32%), private or university research institutes (12%), and the commercial sector (1%), and all were U.S.-based. This geographical limitation served to eliminate variables that would result from a mix of countries and electronic environments, as well as to avoid practical issues such as foreign postage for return envelopes or delay in receiving questionnaires returned from abroad.

Figure 1
Journals Used to Provide Citing Articles

Journal of Applied Meteorology
Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology
Journal of Climate
Weather and Forecasting
Monthly Weather Review
Journal of Physical Oceanography
Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences

For each of the 100 articles, the first author received an explanatory cover letter accompanied by a short questionnaire or "brief form" concerning a specific citation in his or her article. The letter supplied complete bibliographic information for both the citing and cited articles. (See the Appendix.) The request to complete the questionnaire solicited information on (1) how the citation had first come to the atmospheric scientist's attention and (2) how the citation had actually been obtained, as well as opinions and comments on open-ended questions concerning:

Participants also described their specialties and the number of years they had worked as a professional (an indirect way of estimating age).


The return rate in the study was 61%. The original 100 questionnaires dealt with a total of 33 cited journals; these are listed in Figure 2. The ways by which the scientists discovered the article that they cited and the methods they used for actually obtaining the article are shown in Figure 3. The fact that two-thirds of the respondents found their cited article through reading the literature or by interaction with colleagues is typical of other disciplines (Hallmark 1994). With the exception of the Web of Science, databases such as Meteorological and Geoastrophysical Abstracts, as opposed to journals offered in electronic format, played a negligible role in the discovery process.

Most researchers (83%) obtained their article through very traditional means: through their library (either hardcopy or use of an electronic resource subscribed to by the library), the author, or a personal subscription. For both discovery of the cited article and its acquisition there were no significant differences related to the age of the researcher.

Figure 2
Journals Cited by Meteorologists

Advances in Space Research
Annales Geophysicae
Atmospheric Environment
Atmospheric Research
Boundary-Layer Meteorology
Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
Climate Change
Climate Dynamics
Climate Research
Dynamics of Atmospheres and Oceans
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Geophysical and Astrophysical Fluid Dynamics
Global and Planetary Change
Global Atmosphere and Ocean System
International Journal of Climatology
International Journal of Remote Sensing
Journal of Applied Meteorology
Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology
Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics
Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry
Journal of Climate
Journal of Geophysical Research
Journal of Physical Oceanography
Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Journal of the Meteorological Society of Japan
Meteorology and Atmospheric Physics
Monthly Weather Review
Natural Hazards
Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society
Tellus Series A-Dynamic Meteorology and Oceanography
Series B-Chemical and Physical Meteorology
Theoretical and Applied Climatology
Weather and Forecasting

Figure 3
Discovery of Cited Article

37% reference in the literature
29% suggestion or reprint from colleague
14% browsing literature
10% ISI Web of Science
8% don't remember
2% other
Method of Obtaining Cited Article

46% library
24% preprint or reprint from author
13% personal journal
6% supplied by colleague
6% directly from publisher
5% other

Many of the 61 meteorologists who responded offered lengthy and detailed remarks, facilitated by the open-ended aspects of the questionnaire. These comments add detail and context to the quantitative results. All of the citations were from journals available electronically on the web as well as print (paper) format. Although all of the journals are available electronically, obviously not all are necessarily available to a given individual, as access usually depends on whether the scientist's institution has subscribed to the title.

Access and Retrieval of Journal Articles

"Meteorology is a relatively small field with low-volume journals; libraries cannot carry all of potential interest," one librarian explained when asked about the usage statistics at her institution. 35% of the respondents in this study do not use e-journals, citing expense and lack of availability. Some typical remarks summarize their views:

Most of the journals I need to use, while they are available in electronic format (in addition to print), are not subscribed to by the university. Therefore my only options tend to be personal electronic subscriptions or print versions.

We can't afford expensive non-AMS journals such as Climate Research or Atmospheric Research; this tends to make literature searches rather U.S.-centric.

I have yet to access an electronic journal because I can access journals free in our library. It would cost too much to subscribe to each journal I need.

If I have to pay to see something, I just go to the library for the print copy. I think all online journals should at least provide free abstracts.

I haven't used electronic journals. The library is just down the hall, and they have hard copies of most of the journals that I use. Also they have bound historical journals that date back to the first issue. If I can't locate a particular article, I will usually call the author(s).

Our institution doesn't have the funds to subscribe to electronic journals. However, free access to the tables of contents and abstracts alone (which many journals allow) is of great value. From the abstract one can follow on to get a reprint from the author.

At the other extreme, the majority of scientists responding to the survey who do have access to electronic journals praised the convenience and rapid retrieval offered by this medium. Two users elaborated:

I'm very dependent on electronic journals; if I have citations for two seemingly equally relevant articles I will most certainly find and print the online article first and perhaps not bother with the print-only journal article. . . . The cost of having scientific literature online and accessible from one's own computer is always well worth it in my mind. I find myself frustrated when I have to make a trip to the library. Sites like AMS, MGA and ISI are wonderful. . . .I wouldn't give up my web access of articles (or data for that matter).

I haven't used electronic journals much in the past, but I am beginning to use them more, especially electronic journals from the AMS. I find it very easy, quick, and cost effective.

At the same time, e-journal users raised a number of problems and issues. Several respondents complained about the slow access to AMS journal backfiles. A comment from one typifies their views: "Scanned-in articles [from earlier years] take a lot longer to load and peruse." Another complained that "some electronic journal databases do not include specific articles that I know exist." And, a view from a scientist obviously feeling pressed for time, "Using MGA, ISI and AMS for journal articles is overwhelming; there's just too much stuff. . . . It's like drinking from a fire hose."

The lack of backfiles for many e-journals was a dominant issue for several respondents: "Old journals are often not available and (obviously) are not online." "Only the journals published by the AMS are available electronically from Volume 1, Number 1; for the most part the non-AMS journals are available electronically from the mid '90s." These comments were substantiated by an analysis of the availability of the journals in Figure 3; indeed the mid-1990s or later dates mark the onset of electronic files for all except the AMS titles. One user praised a unique service offered by his library that was a variation on the ever-popular photocopying of articles: scanning a requested article that is not electronically available and then posting the PDF file on the user's web account.

A final significant problem raised by users of electronic journals was the poor quality of color graphics, variously described as "fuzzy," "low-quality," and "not as good as print graphics."

Access and Use of Data

The question in the research project regarding data arose from issues and problems raised by meteorologists in earlier research (Hallmark in press). A majority of the participants expressed no significant problems with data. Some typical remarks illustrate this state of affairs: "Data sets I use are readily available, either directly downloadable at no cost from institutional or individual web sites, or by obtaining an account on the computer system of a particular archive (e.g. The National Center for Atmospheric Research Data Archive)." One meteorologist provided interesting details:

Most meteorological data are accessible free-of-charge via a Global Telecommunication System in real-time. These observations are collected at forecast centers that then archive the data and make it available for climate studies and weather research. However some European nations are withholding their observations or are charging for those observations-a practice the U.S.A. is opposing. Satellite data are either captured in real-time or are procured for research from a number of centers that archive the data. We capture most of our data in real-time from the Navy or other forecast centers via FTP.

In fact, several scientists pointed out the degree to which the Internet has revolutionized data access and transmission. One remarked, "I have had very good success using the internet and FTP in accessing data for my research."

Others, however, commented on various difficulties they have encountered. For example, several cited the cost and slow access of radar data from the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). Some national meteorological agencies are mandated to recoup operating expenses by selling data, sometimes at great expense. And data may be temporarily inaccessible when the "data owner doesn't want to release data until research results derived from the data are published," a comment that calls to mind one of the issues in the race to determine the structure of DNA so many decades ago. Data formats and media incompatibility may be problematic, especially for older data sets. "A common problem is format, i.e. translating or converting from an available format to a format useful for our analysis and interpretation." "Nonstandard formats require time to develop software to ingest the data." "Some data sets have a hard format to understand for programming purposes." Finally, metadata associated with meteorological data sets (whether operational data or special field project data sets) are sometimes lacking, posing challenges for new users.


Access and retrieval of scientific journal literature may be variously described as expensive, convenient, or frustrating. All of these terms are accurate, given specific circumstances. The present research clearly reveals a dimension of user communities in meteorology best described as "haves and have-nots," a dichotomy that appears to be more pronounced in the atmospheric sciences than in other disciplines such as chemistry or geology (Hallmark 2002). The fact that 35% of the respondents do not use electronic journals is notable and somewhat surprising, given the availability of complete electronic journal backfiles offered by the AMS. As one meteorologist pointed out, "We don't have the money and the political clout that the chemists on campus have." Those scientists and librarians who do use the Society's electronic journals, however, are high in their praise of their usability and quality. For this majority, the convenience of using journals from office or home is enormous.

As a visitor to the annual conferences during the last two years, the author has been impressed with the mutual respect and cooperation of ASLI and the AMS. Open communication between the two groups seems to be productive and beneficial. A recent issue of concern for librarians and users alike, that of using the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) instead of page numbers, serves as an interesting example. In contrast to the American Geophysical Union that instituted a DOI (Digital Object Identifier)-based system for its journals, doing away with page numbers and stirring up a storm of controversy among geoscience librarians, the policy of the AMS is rational and considered. AMS Director of Publications Ken Heideman, explains:

I think that eventually DOIs will replace page numbers in our journals but we are going to be very conservative about getting to that point. We are currently introducing DOIs to reference articles/data that are supplemental to the associated primary manuscript appearing in our journals (Heideman 2002).

Clearly, meteorologists and other atmospheric scientists have embraced the world of electronic journals if their institutions make them available. When a greater number of journals in the atmospheric sciences have extensive electronic backfiles, usage will certainly increase.


The author is grateful to the members of ASLI, Atmospheric Sciences Librarians International, who invited her to participate in their annual conferences in 2001 and 2002. Their stimulating sessions of invited and contributed papers, along with their professional concerns and personal enthusiasm, insure successful meetings.


Letter Sent to Meteorologists

May 14, 2001

Dr. Ernesto Hugo Berbery
Cooperative Institute for Climate Studies
Department of Meteorology
University of Maryland at College Park
College Park, Maryland 20742

Dear Dr. Berbery:

In your recent article, "Mesoscale Moisture Analysis of the North American Monsoon," published last year in the Journal of Climate, you cited the following reference:

Castro, R., M. F. Lavín, and R. Ripa, 1994: Seasonal heat balance in the Gulf of California. J. Geophys. Res., 99 (C2), 3249-3261.

I am investigating the ways by which meteorologists first become aware of and then obtain the journal articles that they cite. I am also interested in problems arising from journal cancellations in libraries as well as access and use of data needed in your research.

Studies such as this one which contribute to our knowledge of the information-seeking behavior of scientists should provide useful data for improving access to the journal literature, so critical to the scientific endeavor. Would you please take a moment to complete the enclosed brief form and return it to me in the self-addressed envelope? If a co-author came up with this reference, please forward this request to that person.

Thanks very much for your help.


Julie Hallmark

[Note: The "brief form" referred to in the letter requested information on how the scientist first learned of the cited article and how it was actually obtained, along with open-ended questions regarding the use of electronic journals and the access and use of data.]


Brown, C.M. 1999. Information-seeking behavior of scientists in the electronic information age: astronomers, chemists, mathematicians, and physicists. Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50(10): 929-943.

Geonet Listserv.

Gleeson, A.C. 2001. Information-Seeking Behavior of Scientists and their Adaptation to Electronic Journals. University of North Carolina dissertation.

Hallmark, J. 1994. Scientists' access and retrieval of references cited in their recent journal articles. College and Research Libraries 55(3):199-209.

Hallmark, J. 1998. Geoscientists' access and retrieval of journal articles in an electronic world. In: Accreting the Continent's Collections: Geoscience Information Society Proceedings (ed. by C. Derksen and C. Manson), 29:67-74. Toronto, Ontario, Canada, October 25-28, 1998.

Hallmark, J. 2003. Information-seeking behavior of meteorologists and the role of information specialists," Science and Technology Libraries [in press].

Hayes, J. R. 1995. The Internet's first victims? Forbes 156 (Dec. 18, 1995): 200-201.

Heideman, K. []. "AMS policy on the use of DOIs." Private e-mail message to Julie Hallmark, [] 19 June 2002.

Morton, C.C. 1997. Online access is profoundly changing scientific publishing. The Scientist 11(7):13-14. [Online]. Available: {} [Accessed: August 12, 2003].

Resh, V.H. 1998. Science and communication: an author/editor/user's perspective on the transition from paper to electronic publishing. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship. 19 (Summer 1998). [Online]. Available: [Accessed: August 12, 2003].

Tauber, G. 1996. Science journals go wired. Science 271:764-766.

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