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Reference Checking in a Web World: A Reference Librarian's Trek through Sci-Tech and News Sources

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Reference Checking in a Web World: A Reference Librarian's Trek through Sci-Tech and News Sources

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A request to find all publications and news items for an author, especially someone who has a fairly common name, is something reference librarians either look forward to as a challenge, face with dread, or both. This type of question first gave us our name--reference librarian--and it never goes away. Finding a good, complete answer has taken on added difficulty with the advent of institutional repositories.


In years past, one depended on standard bibliographic databases and library catalogs, supplemented with specialized indexes and biographies. Take chemistry as an example: Chemical Abstracts (CA) has always greatly facilitated searching for an author's publications. CA has a greatly expanded concept of chemistry, one including the chemical aspects of astronomy, biology, education, engineering, economics, geology, history, mathematics, medicine, and physics. The broadness of its coverage is exemplified by the fact that organic, inorganic, physical, and analytical chemistry combined comprise only 36% of the more than 25 million records (with more than 1 million currently being added each year). Biochemistry and biological and medicinal chemistry comprise about 34%, while applied chemistry (chemical engineering; materials science and engineering, including polymers, and environmental engineering) makes up 30%.

In addition, Chemical Abstracts uniquely indexes a wide variety of publication formats. Articles from journals and regularly published conference proceedings account for 73% of the records, while patents (16%), articles from one-time or first-time conference proceedings (7%), dissertations (2%), technical reports (1%), and books/edited research monograph chapters (1%) make up the rest. After an author search in CA, an article search then moved on to Science Citation Index, plus Current Contents and Chemical Titles for very recent publications.

Authors publishing in different subject areas required searches in multiple databases. For research articles, theses, and reports, one should use the Science Citation Index (SCI), Current Contents, Dissertation Abstracts, NTIS, and NASA STAR and then Index Medicus/MEDLINE, BIOSIS, and Zoological Abstracts for biologists; Science Abstracts and Spin for physicists; and Mathematical Reviews and Zentralblatt fur Mathematik und Ihre Grenzgebiete and Jahrbuch uber die Fortschritte der Mathematik for mathematicians.

Library catalogs, the Cumulative Book Index, and American Men and Women of Science helped locate monographic publications, but, except for "chemists," locating an author's book chapters required careful searching of cited references in the Science Citation Index.

Patent searching, in fields other than chemistry, was tortuous at best due to the lack of cumulated indexes.

Newspaper indexes were generally limited to The New York Times and regional publications (e.g., Los Angeles Times). Biographical information was retrieved from the Biography Index and the Biography and Genealogy Master Index (on microfiche). More ephemeral publications and new items might be indexed in The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature or other Wilson indexes.

And Then Came Online

The preceding sources I have named all existed in a print-only era. Beginning in the 1970s, online searching made searching easier and more efficient but with some substantial additional cost. Mediated searching was the norm; sitewide user accessible access was simply not available.

With the advent of the World Wide Web and end-user searching in the 1990s, and especially in the new world of Web 2.0, the fun really begins. We now have a wide variety of new and newly formatted, web-accessible databases (e.g., SciFinder [Chemical Abstracts], Web of Knowledge [SCIE, Inspec, MEDLINE], Scopus, Scitation/Spin, Cross Ref, PubMed, and esp@cenet [for worldwide patent searching]). …

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