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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2004

[Board accepted]

Access and Retrieval of Recent Journal Articles: A Comparative Study of Chemists and Geoscientists

Julie Hallmark
School of Information
The University of Texas at Austin


This study describes the methods of access and retrieval of recent journal articles cited by geoscientists and chemists who work in academia, government, and industry. Citations, originally published during 2002, were selected from the references in current articles in 20 journal titles in the geosciences and 14 in chemistry. Each author received a personalized letter and brief questionnaire that addressed the methods of access and retrieval of one of those citations. Not surprisingly, a majority of respondents in both disciplines reported using the Internet for both access and retrieval, and many added insightful, substantive remarks that added depth and detail to the data analysis. The return rates of 75% in geoscience and 57% in chemistry suggest a high level of concern among these scientists for their journal literature. A comparison of the present results with similar unpublished data from a 1998 study illustrates the rapid evolution and acceptance of electronic journals; five years ago a majority of scientists in both disciplines used traditional (non-electronic) methods for access and retrieval of recent citations. Analysis of the information-seeking behavior of chemists and geologists as represented by citation patterns offers a unique view of the scientific endeavor.

Introduction & Literature Review

This research focuses on the information needs and information-seeking behavior of researchers in the geosciences and in chemistry, as represented by their access and retrieval of recent journal articles cited in their publications. In both disciplines, rapid advances in electronic journal (e-journal) publishing have revolutionized scientific communication. The availability and accessibility of e-journals has made "keeping up with the literature" more convenient and efficient for scientists, even though they must deal with an ever-increasing number of journals. The emphasis on recently-published articles in this investigation insures that current approaches to access and retrieval are portrayed. Adding depth and detail to the data analysis are open-ended comments from participants on broad questions posed by the researcher.

It is crucial that information specialists be knowledgeable about the communication patterns of their users and the real problems that they encounter. In investigating these issues, the straightforward approach of contacting users directly and asking specific questions has proven to be effective. The high rates of return of the questionnaire, along with extensive comments from many of the participants, are evidence of the considerable concern and interest on the part of these scientists with regard to their journal literature.

Advances and innovations in scientific journal access and retrieval in the last decade have revolutionized scientific communication. The period of 1997-98 in particular could well be designated as a "sea change," as forward-thinking individuals predicted the coming transformation of traditional methods of searching, accessing, and retrieving scientific information (Holoviak and Seitter 1997; Morton 1997; and Resh 1998).

Today web-based electronic databases such as GeoRef and Chemical Abstracts provide rapid, efficient access to the literature in the geosciences and chemistry respectively. At the same time, electronic journals (e-journals) in all disciplines have proliferated, finding widespread, enthusiastic acceptance by end users.

Flaxbart (2001/2003) describes the importance of the journal literature to the academic chemist:

If an army travels on its stomach, then chemists surely travel on their journals. The cutting edge and the archival record of chemical research are both found almost exclusively within the realm of peer-reviewed journals. Chemists have never widely adopted other formats such as preprints or conference proceedings, and patents, another major segment of the chemical literature, are not used as intensively by academics as by chemists in industry.

In fact the American Chemical Society (2003) goes so far as to say that:

A preprint will be considered as an electronic publication and, according to positions taken by most editors of ACS journals, will not be considered for publication. If a submitted paper is later found to have been posted on a preprint server, it will be withdrawn from consideration by the journal.

Geologists are also heavily dependent on their journal literature and, in contrast to chemists and other scientists, use older literature and international publications to a greater extent. Thus, e-journals play a lesser role in their research. Joseph (2003) provides an intriguing in-depth analysis of the information-seeking behavior of petroleum geologists. She describes their sophisticated use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software, overlaying data from diverse sources to create customized maps showing location of pipelines, wells, power lines, seismic lines, etc. In contrast to geology, the literature of geophysics more closely resembles that of physics where electronic resources are paramount.

Complaints during the initial development of e-journals, such as problems with accessing and downloading formatted text, have disappeared. In licensing these expensive electronic resources for their clientele, however, academic library consortia as well as individual institutions have encountered other issues. Sathe et al (2002) noted, for example, that younger users (students and residents) preferred e-journals, while faculty preferred print journals. Overall, she found that patrons used print journals for reading articles and scanning contents, e-journals for printing articles and checking references.

Publishers' aggregated sets of electronic journals, offered as a one-price, one-size-fits-all package, may not correspond to the needs of a particular institution. In referring to these large data sets of journal articles as the "Big Deal," Frazier (2001) argues against comprehensive licensing agreements. He examines in some detail the dual risks of (1) weakening the collection by acquiring unneeded journal titles and (2) increasing the library's dependence on publishers who have already shown their determination to monopolize the information marketplace. Thus, he makes a convincing case for thoughtful, deliberate selection when subscribing to journal titles. Such selection becomes even more critical, given the high cost of scientific journals, the continuing cancellation of print titles as more electronic journals become available, the expansion of the scientific literature, and new communication patterns facilitated by the Internet.

Davis (2002) makes an equally compelling argument for the value of consortia based on homogeneous membership, such as "academic libraries," rather than consortia based on geographic criteria. The latter are typically eclectic, as they include academic, public, special and school libraries--institutions that have very different needs and concerns. Specialized consortia, on the other hand, permit selection of information resources more specifically geared to their clientele.

By examining the information needs and information-seeking behavior of geologists and chemists as represented by their citations, the present research employs a methodology that addresses the advantages of specialization promoted by both Davis and Frazier. Selecting and licensing appropriate journal titles for a well-defined clientele based on research specialties avoid the pitfall of paying for journals of marginal interest and insure maximum relevance of selected titles. Analysis of citation patterns provides unique insight into the needs of that clientele and aids in selection decisions.

In addition to examining citations of research scientists, this study also requested that participants describe issues and problems that they have experienced in accessing and retrieving journal articles. A comparison of their responses to those elicited in comparable (unpublished) data (Hallmark 1998) illustrates the remarkable advances of e-journals in the interim, particularly their development, implementation, and acceptance by end users.


Following a research methodology that was developed in earlier work (Hallmark 1994), the author selected 20 journals in the geosciences and 14 in chemistry. These journals, listed in Figure 1, were the source of the corpus of 110 articles in the geosciences and 97 in chemistry, published during 2002. Authors of these "source" articles represented academe, business, and government, and all were U.S.-based. The motivation of the geographical restriction was to remove possible variables that might have resulted from a mix of countries and electronic environments, as well as to avoid issues such as foreign postage for return envelopes and delays in receiving questionnaires returned from abroad.

Figure 1: Source Journals for the Citing Articles
Geoscience Chemistry
AAPG Bulletin
American Journal of Science
American Mineralogist
Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America
Bulletin of Volcanology
Deep-Sea Research
Economic Geology
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Ground Water
GSA Bulletin
Journal of Geology
Journal of Geophysical Research
Journal of Hydrology
Journal of Paleontology
Journal of Petroleum Geology
Journal of Sedimentary Research
Pure and Applied Geophysics
Analytica Chimica Acta
Analytical Biochemistry
Journal of Biological Chemistry
Journal of Chemical Physics
Journal of Colloid and Interface Science
Journal of Organic Chemistry
Journal of Physical Chemistry A
Journal of Physical Chemistry B
Journal of the American Chemical Society
Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry
Journal of the Electrochemical Society
Spectrochimica Acta, Part B

From each of the source articles in both disciplines one recent bibliographic citation was selected. The resulting group of 207 citations represented 38 chemistry and 54 geology journal titles, of which 93% in chemistry and 85% in geology were available electronically. Obviously, the scientists who participated in the research had varying degrees of access to electronic journals, depending on their institutions' financial policies and priorities.

Comparable unpublished citation data from Hallmark (1998) represented 53 cited journal titles in geoscience, 56% of which were available electronically at that time and 33 cited journals in chemistry of which 84% were available electronically. The same source journals (Figure 1) supplied the corpus of 107 articles in the geosciences and 104 in chemistry.

In these two identical investigations (1998 and 2002) the first author (or "corresponding author") of each of the source articles received a personalized letter requesting his or her participation in the study. An example of the letter appears in Appendix 1. Accompanying the letter was a questionnaire (termed a 'brief form' in the cover letter to imply a less onerous and time-consuming effort), along with a self-addressed, postage-paid envelope. The questionnaire included two check-lists that provided options for the authors to indicate:

Participants also described their specialties and the number of years they had worked as a professional. An example of the letter and questionnaire appears in Appendix 1.


The return rates of 74% in geoscience and 58% in chemistry (1998) and 75% in geoscience and 57% in chemistry (2002) suggest a high level of concern among these scientists for their journal literature.


The source articles consisted of 107 articles in geoscience and 104 in chemistry, all published in print (paper) format in 1998. Summary data for the study appear in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Access and retrieval of recent journal articles Geologists and Chemists: 1998
  Chemistry Geology
Return Rate 58% 74%
# of Journals Represented in Original Citations 55 53
# of Journals Represented in Returned Questionnaires 32 46
Use of Internet to Access 83% 72%
Use of Internet to Retrieve 5% 4%
Respondents Reporting Problems with Access and Retrieval of Articles 41% 32%
Training Available in Local Institution 35% 22%

A common pattern among the more than half of the respondents who used the Internet in 1998 to access articles was that, after locating a desired citation, they then went to their institution's library, their personal journals, or colleagues (to request reprints) in order to actually retrieve the article. Several commented that they had become more efficient and tended to spend less time in the library than formerly. For some, this situation did not necessarily seem an improvement:

I no longer have to go to the library so much. It's more efficient. In some ways that's not so good--I only retrieve what I know about.

I've been getting lazier about going to the library, which actually isn't a good thing, since I miss reading as wide a range of articles as I should.

I access material from my office, then decide whether or not I want to go to the library for a paper copy.

Our library started to cancel subscriptions that are too expensive (such as Elsevier journals) and use the argument that there is electronic access, but I have difficulties accessing electronic journals. Apparently, one can access with the correct privileges from the computer at my desk, but I have to go to the computers in the library. At this point I wish there were a hard copy in the library; it would be faster to photocopy.

The first two remarks reflect the decreasing influence of serendipity as a significant factor in discovering interesting journal articles, a situation to which several respondents alluded.

The data reported in Figure 2 confirm these patterns. A large majority of scientists in both disciplines in 1998 used the Internet to access the articles they subsequently cited in their research, but very few individuals reported use of the Internet to retrieve the articles physically -- 4% in geology and 5% in chemistry. In the same study a rather surprising 28% of the respondents overall did not use the Internet for access or for retrieval.

Furthermore, more than one-third of the participants described problems with access, downloading, and formatting electronic journal articles. These problems included crashes of various sorts--Acrobat Reader, Netscape, the Mac--as well as unacceptably slow downloading. Comments typically included words such as "slow," "frustrating," and "irritating." Respondents found graphics difficult to deal with, whether downloading or formatting for electronic submission. Many wanted more training for such activities as printing PDF files.

Difficulties with access included limited availability of electronic backfiles, particularly annoying for geologists, given their need for older material (relative to other disciplines). Search engines were often problematic:

Commercial search engines, even when using the 'advanced features,' cast too broad a net. [I often feel I'm wasting my time.] I always get hits that I can't explain.

A chemist in his early thirties described frustration with passwords, an issue that several commented on:

I have 'subscribed' to Nature's home page. I did this to check for current articles every week in this journal. I find the process somewhat cumbersome because I needed a password, and it took about 10 times to enter an acceptable password. In the future I need this password to re-logon. I have already forgotten what I used. Bottom line: it is still easier and more efficient to go to the library; however if the Internet were easier I would use it.

Others complained of access issues, often arguing that if a journal article were electronic and on the web it clearly should be available to all:

For many journals if you or your library does not subscribe to the journal you will be denied access to that journal!

I get frustrated that not all journals are free.

I'm annoyed at having to subscribe to e-journals when all I want to do is browse one or two articles or download them.

A geologist pointed out that elements of a journal issue such as discussions, replies, and maps associated with the articles were often missing from the electronic version.


With the exception of the Gutenberg's invention of movable type surely no innovation in scientific communication has been as significant as the Internet. In a few short years user-friendly Internet-based access and retrieval of journal articles have become simplified due to full text and PDF-formatted articles. International "invisible colleges" are electronic, thus sharing ideas, proposals, and articles has become fast and easy, as many pointed out:

My colleagues in electroanalytical chemistry all over the U.S. are in frequent contact with one another.

I can read and cite papers as soon as they are published on the Internet; I don't have to wait for actual publication in a journal.

I can access an article within minutes of becoming aware of it.

The Internet has made sharing articles faster and easier; a reviewer of one of my papers brought the paper you're asking about to my attention (before the cited paper had even appeared).

Summary data for the 2002 study appear in Figure 3.

One can recall with some amazement the "training programs" established by librarians in the mid-1990s that assisted users in dealing with the relatively primitive state of electronic journals at the time. The prevalence and ease-of-use of e-journals today leave little to be desired if one's institution has the funds to provide these resources.

FIGURE 3: Access and Retrieval of Recent Journal Articles Geologists and Chemists: 2002
Return Rate 52% 87%
# of Journals Represented in Original Citations 52 49
# of Journals Represented in Returned Questionnaires 35 40
Use of Internet to Access 85% 82%
Use of Internet to Retrieve 96% 88%
Respondents Reporting Problems with Access and Retrieval of Articles 3% 7%
Training Available in Local Institution none none

Visits to the library have become infrequent as any science librarian can attest:

It's great not having to trek to the library to get most journal titles.

I may never have to go to the library again.

I miss going to the library.

[The biggest advantage is] instantaneous access without having to walk to the library! I can get articles anytime during the day or night and on weekends, even when it's snowing (I live in upstate New York).

Chemists and geologists alike commented on the ease of accessing and retrieving the archival literature, given the numerous journals that have provided complete electronic backfiles. Several pointed out that their articles were qualitatively better for this reason. Comments from three chemists illustrate this point:

Access has expanded enormously-previously I "read" perhaps 4 to 6 journals. I now 'track" at least 15, although even that is not sufficient.

The far greater convenience afforded by the Internet has significantly increased the frequency with which we turn to the archival literature; so we can better integrate existing knowledge into our research.

Good databases allow substructure searches and searches for combinations of descriptors; I find articles I would otherwise have missed.

An analytical chemist described the "decadent" convenience of online journal retrieval; he has to consciously make the effort not to forsake important literature because his library doesn't have an online subscription.

The user-friendly systems have made training programs, so popular only a few years ago, disappear completely from the scene.

Problems and Constraints

The electronic world is not perfect however. Scientists from both disciplines were concerned about the quality of journals and the relative ease of publishing electronic journals. A hydrogeologist points out;

The biggest problem I face is too many journals. Tenure committees need to emphasize quality, not quantity of articles. We are getting swamped with marginal publications.

Several participants in the study in both disciplines worried about the possibility of losing access to a title in the future, an issue particularly critical in geology. A chemist exclaimed, "We lost the entire journal (including backfiles) when the subscription was cancelled!"

Physical complaints were not uncommon, exemplified by a remark from a geologist, "I prefer reading hard copies -- staring at the monitor for hours at a time causes significant eye strain." It is still very annoying to many scientists that, even though a journal is available electronically, their library must have paid for a subscription before they can access it. Thus, several commented on reading and printing articles posted on the author's web site if their own library did not subscribe to the journal in question. The "haves" and "have-nots" are still with us in the electronic age:

My library doesn't subscribe to many of the journals I need, but internet databases such as GEOREF are very useful for finding relevant articles, and interlibrary loan is efficient for obtaining the articles.

We are a small college chemistry library with limited funds for journals. I envy my colleagues at CalTech and Berkeley who have access to so many titles, even obscure ones.

And on a more positive note:

The days of budget cuts forced me to ask people around the country for reprints; this has opened up new doors and new collaborations for research.


This investigation illustrates the remarkable effect that the Internet has had on the access and retrieval of journal articles over a relatively brief period of time. By 1998 the Internet was widely used in all scientific disciplines to access journal articles and scientific data, but had had essentially no effect on the physical retrieval of articles. A majority of scientists had developed effective new patterns of searching for useful references on web sites or posted on mailing lists, as well as continuing to scan print and online journals subscribed to locally. They then retrieved articles directly from colleagues or through their library using the onsite collection or document delivery. The Internet's role in enhancing collaboration and communication among colleagues had revolutionized scientific communication in facilitating awareness, recommendations of useful articles to one another, and exchange of preprints and reprints. However both chemists and geologists reported frustration in downloading, formatting graphics, and printing PDF files.

By 2002 the Internet had revolutionized scientific communication. Not only did geologists and chemists use the Internet for rapid personal communication with one another, but also they depended on it for immediate access and retrieval of articles. Scientists in both disciplines emphasized this point--that the most significant advantage is the time saved in every step of the research process.

An electroanalytical chemist spoke for many when she pointed out:

The power of the search engine has enabled me to obtain far more breadth in my coverage of topics than I had without it. I can also access articles in press rather than wait the extra time for them to appear in the online journal.

Discovery of useful articles through serendipity has diminished, as several pointed out. A chemist described, "I never now discover random articles of interest, since I do focused searches instead of print journal browsing." Several specifically praised the Web of Science: "a fantastic help to find articles by keyword, author, or citation." A geologist pointed out simply that "The Internet has streamlined my research."

Clearly the electronic environment in which scientists work today has had an enormous influence on their information-seeking behavior. Journals in electronic format have become accepted vehicles of scientific research, retaining the look of the traditional printed article. In 2003 Flaxbart asked, "It remains to be seen whether electronic formats will spark a revolution in scholarly communication as profound as the ongoing revolution in access." From the point-of-view at the end of 2003, the answer seems to be clearly that indeed, such a revolution has occurred.


Appendix 1
Prototype of letter mailed to scientists (Word document)
Appendix 2
Questionnaires - 1998 and 2002 (Word document)


American Chemical Society. 2003. ACS Journal Editors' Policy on Preprints. [Online]. Available [October 10, 2003].

Davis, Philip M. 2002. Patterns in electronic journal usage: challenging the composition of geographic consortia. College & Research Libraries 63(6):484-97.

________. 2003. An IP-Level analysis of Usage Statistics for Electronic Journals in Chemistry: Making Inferences About User Behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 54(11):1062-8.

Flaxbart, David. 2001 (published 2003). Conversations with Chemists: Information Seeking Behavior of Chemistry Faculty in the Electronic Age. Science and Technology Libraries 21(3/4):5-26.

Frazier, Kenneth. 2001. "The Librarians' Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the "Big Deal," D-Lib Magazine 7(3) (March 2001) [Online]. Available: [October 5, 2003].

Joseph, Lura. 2002. Information Seeking and Communication Behavior of Petroleum Geologists. Science and Technology Libraries 21(3/4):46-62.

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

________. 1998, Geoscientists' Access and Retrieval of Journal Articles in an Electronic World. In Charlotte Derksen and Connie Manson, editors, Accreting the Continent's Collections: Geoscience Information Society Proceedings 29, p. 67-74.

Holoviak, Judy; Seitter, Keith L. 1997, Transcending the limitations of the printed page. The Journal of Electronic Publishing 3(1). [Online]. Available: [March 25, 2004].

Morton, Carol Cruzan. 1997, Online access is profoundly changing scientific publishing, The Scientist, v. 11 (no. 7), p. 13-14. [August 3, 2004].

Resh, Vincent 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. 23. [Online]. Available: [March 25, 2004].

Sathe, Nila A., Grady, Jenifer L., and Giuse, Nunzia B. 2002. Print versus electronic journals: a preliminary investigation into the effect of journal format on research processes. Journal of the Medical Library Association 90(2):235-43.

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