Friday, 10 February 2017

Reading the literature

In November 2014 I wrote about citations in science - where one scientific paper acknowledges the foundation on which it is built by mentioning previous papers in the area in a list of references. These lists and lists of references (each paper will cite dozens of others) are data and have been collected and analysed, as a sort of meta-science, since the 1960s. The idea of tracking who is talking about whom in science was floated by Eugene Garfield in 1955 in Science. Garfield was educated in the Arts Block and was interested in the sociology of science. Garfield thereafter founded the Institute of Scientific Information and launched SCI Science Citation Index and its paper booklet Current Contents in 1964. His interest was to compile a record of the process of science as it drove forward on a widening front in the post-war/cold war years. Governments were edgy and believed that science could give them a technological lead on The Other . . . and could improve the 'quality' of citizens' lives by generating more glittering stuff. Transistors (1947) Teflon (TM - 1945) hula hoop (1958) Pop Rocks (1975) Amoxicillin (1958) .  .  .

Current Contents became an essential tool in scientific research, originally published in booklets of flimsy paper which consisted of lists and lists of scientific papers, their titles and their authors. Various indexes and lists of keywords allowed you to find papers-of-interest and see who was citing whom. It was one of the key reasons for visiting the library in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. With the WWW (1991), obesity began to increase the girth of scientists because they didn't need a regular to walk to the library to scan SCI any more. Traditionally a literature search was always backwards in time: you read a key paper and then dug out the papers which those authors had cited, and dug out the papers they had cited until, if necessary, you were in the Vatican Library reading Galileo.

One of the key datums in Current Contents was the street address of the lead author and, IF your library didn't have that journal, THEN you could write and ask for a reprint of the paper. One of the standard conditions of getting your paper over the line was that you a) paid page charges out of your grant to "defray the cost of publishing" [=boost the bottom line for Elsevier, Springer and Wiley] and b) you got 50 free reprints for distribution to admirers of your work - here's one for you Mum. When your paper was accepted, the publishers sent out a form offering to run off more than 50 copies at an advantageous price. Reprints became a minor industry; if you were active in science you'd want a lot of them to keep abreast of the literature and you couldn't be sharpening a quill pen to write a letter for each. The reprint request card [example] RRC was born: this printed out your return address and left gaps for the title, journal, vol, page# of the desired paper. The post-office did very well out of this.

When I was in graduate school in the early 80s, my gaffer was an adjunct professor working from home, so I was billeted in Bob Tamarin's vole lab in a BU basement. An end of one of the shelves was designated reprint corner and any reprint requested was left there for a week in case anyone else in the lab wanted to read/copy it. Tamarin also put his copy of Science there and if you wanted a copy of an article you could initial it. At the end of the week, Science was dismembered and distributed, some articles photocopied if in demand among the chicks. There was a bill to pay for posting, and indeed printing, out all those RRCs and for the photocopying, but we graduate students didn't pay that.

After several months, we noticed that one of us was a) numbering each reprint and b) had hundreds of them. Greg Adler was a serious scientist obviously going places and we assumed that he'd been collecting reprints since he was a teenager. But no, it turned out that his #1 reprint had been obtained since starting at BU a few months before. He'd cottoned on early to the idea that postage was "free" and reprints were an asset. Famous story told about Sydney Brenner [bloboprev] meeting earnest graduate student slaving over a hot photocopier and asking him "Have you tried neuroxing all those papers, my boy?"  I also accumulated a huge stack of reprints which served as the bibliography of my thesis. Back then, for a brief period, I knew everything about my field of study; that's normal in the months of periPhDhood. I'd read all the papers (honest!) and distilled them with my own original data into a thesis which became a single paper in the Journal of Biogeography. Heck, I'd even translated a couple of the papers from the French to fulfill my post-graduate language competence requirement.

Those tuthree xerox boxes full of history were schlepped around for the next 20 years until The Boy came back from New Zealand and was At Home for a few weeks. He was tidying out a shed and came across the stack of papers. "These papers, Pa, when did you last open these boxes? If you wanted the information again, they are available as PDF, right?" . . . and the whole caboodle was sent for recycling. Sic transit gloria . . . clutter.

1 comment:

  1. Another example of positive change perhaps, it's so simple to store a pdf😀