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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2011
DOI: 10.5062/F4G15XS5

Letter to the Editor

I'm writing in response to Fall 2010 article, "Shifting Sands: Science Researchers on Google Scholar, Web of Science, and PubMed with Implications for Library Collections Budgets" by Christy Hightower and Christy Caldwell.

The paper principally concludes that "since only three databases [Google Scholar, Web of Science, and PubMed] accounted for nearly all databases used most in this study, and since a majority of researchers surveyed supported paying for journal subscriptions over paying for article database access, the number of databases that are absolutely necessary if catastrophic budget conditions force librarians to cut deeply appears to be smaller than librarians once thought." These conclusions are derived primarily from a cross-sectional survey of behaviors and preferences of faculty and lecturers (63), graduate students (98), university staff researchers (20) and post doctoral students (14) at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) in October 2009. The authors also contrast their observations of the UCSC "study population as a whole and among faculty in particular" preference for multidisciplinary databases with a 2010 Ithaka report finding "faculty tend to prefer electronic resources specific to their own discipline". This UCSC study population appears dominated by the Life Sciences (83) although Geology formed "the second largest group in the study with 24 participants." Although UCSC has neither undergraduate nor graduate earthquake engineering program (several other UC campuses are leaders in this applied engineering research field), the inclusion of geologists may have rated the Earthquake Engineering Abstracts (EEA) database a mention in the paper and in the study's survey instrument. As a co-creator of Earthquake Engineering Abstracts, a relatively small, specialized abstract and indexing database, licensed to CSA-ProQuest since 2001 for production and distribution worldwide on the CSA Illumina platform, several implications of the authors' research that could help reconcile the Ithaka and UCSC findings and temper the paper's conclusions occur to me.

Although the paper is focused on journal paper discovery and access, subject specialized databases, like EEA and its repository sibling at UC Berkeley <>, need not restrict A/I coverage to journals. Conference papers, workshop presentations, university and government laboratory reports, dissertations, lectures, in-analytics, patents, research awards, engineering design standards, as well as non-text items such as datasets, software, figures, and images can be at least equally important elements in the research process. These are often not easily discovered through meta-data sweeps by large, multi-disciplinary harvest engines unless the small databases expose appropriate meta-tags for harvest. Niche research areas may be lost in the volume of unspecialized large databases. Recently library catalogs also attempt similar inclusiveness for journal papers and some non-text information objects but generally without regard to subject specialty.

Contemporary scholarly journal publishing is crawling toward sustainable, open-access models of production and distribution typically dominated by author article-processing-charges and high volume open-access journal content. Several large scientific publishers have become owners of databases of scientific knowledge with an array of access formats, rules, and prices. In providing discovery and access selectively to a range of good quality, published materials, the subject specialty database can act as a second tier, peer review process for those institutions not able to subscribe to increasing lists of journals. The subject specialty database emphasizes professional librarian responsibility in deploying useful research resources. If the most efficient use of scarce library resources is the goal of our vocationally-oriented university programs of study, spending money on subscriptions to unread journals may not be an efficiency gain. In fact, as in some corporate or 'special' libraries, the subject specialty database could be used to access journal articles from larger publishers on both a pay-per-view basis or free-open-access basis and each acquired article then added to an institutional repository for future scholarly work. The library would no longer be subsidizing unread journal articles and could build fine institutional resources using publicly reviewable associated costs.

The UCSC study finding that "perceived value of times cited" ranked as "less important" to two thirds of the study population suggests other issues in searching the relative worth of scholarly contribution may be at work. Distinguishing between browsing (e.g., glancing at what former graduate students, colleagues, competitors, etc. have published recently, or estimating the volume of literature addressing a particular topic, or conducting a cursory review of work being accomplished on current topics in the field) and searching (a more exhaustive literature survey on a specific topic or author or facet of a research project) may be useful in assessing the role of knowledge databases. Subject-specific databases, large and small, that can offer a fast browse of recent literature and authors, especially those subject databases associated with scholarly groups or learned societies, may offer membership contact, informal peer communication, and institutional gravitas that exceed citation counts.

This useful UCSC study raises findings exceeding this discussion: the low importance assigned to database e-mail or syndicated alerts by researchers; the access-preservation dilemma when current research synchronicity observes that a particular database is good "for older literature in professional publications" or "more obscure articles"; the longer term sustainability and library dependencies on currently free-access databases; the confirmation of user-opinions by database log reviews. What seems clear from the study is that prices will continue to govern access to scholarly work. Libraries must concentrate on limiting the cost of access.

Charles D. James
Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center Library
University of California, Berkeley

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