Burning the Midnight Oil: Using the Internet for Science Research

Author:  Reger Beth
Institution:  Neurobiology
Date:  May 2002

It's Thursday evening, almost midnight. Like many students, I have often worked late into the night writing a lab report or gathering data for a research proposal. Tonight is no exception. Since I work from my room and often burn the midnight oil long after the library has closed, the Internet has proven to be an invaluable resource. With a wealth of information at my fingertips even at midnight, I can gather genetic sequences and product data for enzymes, as well as investigate published studies. But the sheer volume of information can be daunting, especially for those who do not know where to start.

Where is the best place to start? I, of course, have my favorite sites, but that does not qualify me as an expert on all the available resources. Consequently, I decided to talk to some expert web researchers and attempt to determine which sites hold the most potential. Even after discussing the problem with friends and librarians, I have not come to any concrete conclusions, yet I did learn about many resources that even I, a frequent web-user, had not yet discovered. Here is just a sampling of what I found.

For general resources, ScienceDirect is my first choice. This site offers access to more than 1,200 of the most commonly-used academic journals, searchable back to 1967 and covering subjects as diverse as the physical and social sciences to business and management. If you are lucky enough to be part of an institution with a subscription to ScienceDirect, most articles are available in full text, ready to download and print from the web.

Furthermore, ScienceDirect's website is comprehensive and easy to use. The user can perform general topic, author, or title searches among all available documents, or narrow the search to a specific subject or year.

However, the site has two downfalls. One, as mentioned before, is the fact that a subscription is needed to access the site and search the journals. Although many colleges and universities subscribe to sites such as ScienceDirect, users may not be able to access the interface from their home computers.

In addition, according to Jody Caldwell, a reference librarian at Drew University, ScienceDirect may be selective. "I tend not to send people to ScienceDirect first because that is science according to one publisher (Elsevier)," she said. Caldwell added that she will rarely direct a student to a website that is run by a particular journal - because then the science on that page is "targeted towards that journal." Instead, she prefers general indexes, some of which are discussed below.

Another full-text source is JSTOR. JSTOR is a good source for material dated prior to the 1960s, which is not available on ScienceDirect. It contains mostly general science journals, such as Science and the Proceedings collections. JSTOR also allows the user to view and print full text articles in journal format.

However, JSTOR also has its share of downfalls. Its primary problem is the lack of current material. Also, a subscription is needed to access the documents. Although some social science journals can be accessed through the end of 2001, most of the science journals are only available though the late 1990s. This is due to the database's "moving wall" formula, through which it has an agreement with the publishers of certain journals not to make available issues more recent than 2-5 years. The specific length of time depends on the journal. JSTOR asserts that this policy allows "publishers some protection from the threat of lost revenues due to the availability of recent issues in the database." In addition, information targeted to specific disciplines such as neuroscience, molecular, or developmental biology are not available.

Not all reference sites require subscriptions. The U.S. government runs a free service, the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The site has several components: PubMed (journal searches), nucleotide and protein sequence databases, OMIM (Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man, a database of human genes and genetic disorders), a population study database, and many other resources. One such resource is NCBI's Bookshelf, which allows a user to perform a text search of certain books. Although the list of books currently contained on the "Bookshelf" is small, this looks to be a very promising site and will likely be more useful in the near future.

The primary advantage of NCBI's website is that it is free and open to all users. However, full-text journal articles are not always available from the PubMed subsite. The search results will include the availability of full-text and links to collaborating websites that may contain the full text. Additionally, users can register for NCBI's "Loansome Doc" service, through which articles can be ordered from a participating medical library.

PubMed is a favorite of Michael Legatt, a clinical health psychology student at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University. "I like how integrated everything is. The information is very well categorized and easy to find an article on a particular issue, and then other articles that share the same subject. It is very conducive to the evolution of searches," he commented.

Drew University chemistry student Carmen Drahl also prefers PubMed to other sources. "The search window is basic and I can use Boolean [searches], but I do not have to." Drahl also attested to the wealth of materials contained within the site, but added,"Earlier documents are not always indexed."

If you are looking for information on epidemiology, try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Rebekah Adamczyk, a biology major at Drew University, this site is full of frequently updated statistics and "interesting facts." In addition, she said, the CDC website has information you are not likely to find elsewhere, including information, "only science weirdos would be interested in."

I checked out this site myself. It is well maintained and easy to navigate. Among its contents: current event news briefs, health and laboratory statistics, a section debunking rumors and hoaxes, health news for travelers, and an alphabetical index of diseases and health issues.

Many websites offer index services, but not full text access. PubSCIENCE is one such site, run by the U.S. Department of Energy. Physical and chemical scientists may find this site more helpful than biologists will, owing to the availability of certain journals. Through PubSCIENCE I discovered another powerful search index, Infotrieve www4.infotrieve.com. Infotrieve has an index of 30,000 journals, although a user must buy the article to read the full text. Articles generally cost $12 plus copyright and delivery fees, which can drive up the total price to $35-$40. This may be a last resort for college students, who may want to see if their science department has a budget to cover such research costs.

Scientists who are not looking solely for journal articles may enjoy BUBL's life sciences website. This site provides links to websites containing information about more than 80 topics in biology, ranging from agricultural policy to zoology. BUBL also has a physical sciences site containing as much variety as the life sciences site. Also available are links to the health sciences, computer and technology, engineering, and the humanities and social sciences, all which can be found from BUBL's homepage.

At the suggestion of a colleague, I looked into Eurekalert, an online science news service. The site provides a forum where researchers and companies can post press releases intended for public distribution. Press releases on the site are free, except for those that are embargoed and thus require a subscription (only available to public information officers, journalists, and editors.) However, once the embargo is lifted, the article becomes available to the public. Eurekalert offers an easy interface, and users can search by keyword or browse by subject. Results can be sorted by date or relevance.

Occasionally, meta-search engines such as Google, Metacrawler, and AltaVista can yield helpful information, but just as frequently can return irrelevant or biased sites. It is important to check the sources of such websites, as the webmasters may not represent all information equally. However, these search engines can be immensely helpful in locating the homepage of an author or scientist, where full-text copies of their publications may be located.

As you can see, I have not come to any conclusions as to the "best" website for science research. There is no one-stop site at which you can find all your information. The resources suggested in this article represent just a sliver of the information available on the Internet. Certain websites are tailored toward certain fields of science, or specific information. Most often, searches at several sites are necessary to provide the depth of information needed. However, the Internet provides easily accessible and up-to-date information critical to scientific research. When used in conjunction with other resources, the Internet can be an invaluable tool for science.