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What is the scientific literature used for?

For better or for worse, we paleontologists (and many other scientists) view the use and importance of the literature in terms of citations. Citations are what drives the ever-beloved impact factor, as well as other metrics such as the h-index. Indeed, this focus on citations colors many discussions on access to the literature, such as the relative importance of rapid electronic access. You’ll hear lots of statements along these lines: “If you are in the business of writing a manuscript, but don’t have access to a particular piece of literature, you can always use interlibrary loan or a similar service. Or just got to the university library next door. Patience is a virtue. It won’t kill you (or science) to wait a few extra days.”

Oh, for everyone to have a library like this on their doorstep! Or at least the electronic equivalent. Stockholm Public Library, photo by Samantha Marx, CC-BY.
Oh, for everyone to have a library like this on their doorstep! Or at least the electronic equivalent. Stockholm Public Library, photo by Samantha Marx, CC-BY.

Although I don’t completely discount this idea (indeed, we all have seen our share of PDF requests that could have been fulfilled with a few extra seconds of Googling), I think it reflects a rather anemic view of how the scientific literature is used by scientists. Citations are certainly an easily trackable mode of literature use, but (as noted time and time again by advocates of “alternative metrics”) the literature is used for more than just writing papers. Particularly in a field like paleontology, which has a strong record of public interest and public engagement, these non-citeable uses can be myriad.

So, I decided to put together a quick list of the different ways that I use the scientific literature on a day-to-day basis. In particular, I’ve noted some areas where timely (i.e., near-immediate) access is highly desirable.

How do I use the literature?

  • Background research for teaching. I teach a one month introduction to paleontology / evolution in the fossil record course for high school freshmen, and this is a topic for which there isn’t a good textbook for all of the content we cover (although Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish does an excellent job with talking about homology, development, and the fossil record). And even if there was a comprehensive textbook, I still want to sprinkle my lectures with examples from the literature, images from papers, and the like, as well as bring in relevant material from recent publications. Thus, I not infrequently turn to the primary literature.
  • Background research for a media interview. Every once in awhile, I’m contacted by a member of the news media to provide an opinion on a piece of new research. Although I do not generally accept interview requests for topics outside my area of expertise, even for topics within my area of expertise I sometimes want to brush up on a particular fact or research some of the context behind a particular story. For instance, I’m quite comfortable talking about horned dinosaurs–but if it’s a horned dinosaur from a place I don’t know much about, I might head to the literature to brush up on the overall context. This may or may not come up in the interview, but I want to be prepared to represent the science as accurately and completely as possible. Time is of the essence here!
  • Research for public talk. When developing a talk for a public audience (I give between 5 and 10 annually, for museums, community groups, and other events), I sometimes need to delve into a new topic. Maybe it’s to see what else has been found in a particular formation (it’s always nice to throw in “local color”), or just to understand a particular point on a related topic.
  • Reviewing manuscripts. Although I only accept review requests for manuscripts within my area of expertise, I frequently refer back to the literature to double-check claims made by the authors, suggest additional references, and refresh my memory on relevant details of anatomy, statistics, or geology. Review turnarounds are usually between 10 and 30 days, and it is not uncommon to be polishing a review a few days (or hours) before it is due. Waiting two weeks for an ILL isn’t a good use of time, or fair to the authors and editors who expect timely reviews. I’m certainly not going to drop $40 for a PDF in this case, either (particularly because publishers don’t reimburse for these kinds of expenses).
  • Reviewing grant applications. The same logic as for reviewing manuscripts applies to reviewing grants.
  • Writing manuscripts. I’ve buried this one in the middle of the list to emphasize that it is only one of many uses. There are few things more frustrating than being in the final push to finish a manuscript, and finding out there is a seemingly critical paper tantalizingly out of reach behind a paywall.
  • Identifying specimens in a museum collection. In the process of curating a museum collection, I am called upon to ensure that all of our cataloged specimens are identified as precisely and accurately as possible. In some cases, past experience guides me and others who work in the collections. However, parts of our collections (particularly historically collected ones) are somewhat outside my expertise (e.g., oreodonts and trilobites). Off to the literature! A well-illustrated paper can be invaluable for pinning down an identification. (how well some papers achieve this, though, is the topic of another post)
  • Providing information on a topic to a colleague or member of the public. At our museum, we’ll sometimes have folks drop by for a fossil identification, or we might get a question about a particular paleontological topic. If it’s something that’s outside the realm of popular books (and let’s face it, if it’s not a dinosaur, it’s probably not in a book), off to the literature!
  • Writing museum exhibit text. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to assemble temporary exhibits for my museum sometimes, focusing on fossils from our collection that tell a story about Earth’s history and our connection to it. But, I am not necessarily an expert on every fossil that I think is exhibit-worthy. So, off to the literature I go! Temporary exhibits here are frequently the result of reading or skimming at least a few papers on the topic.
  • Reference for artistic project. Every once in awhile, I’m lucky enough to work with an artist to illustrate a new discovery made by my museum and colleagues, or I am contacted by an artist who wants an opinion on a particular piece of work. My extensive photo library comes in handy, but I also rely extensively on the literature. If there’s a question about the plants found in a particular environment, or the scale pattern on the skin in a particular group, or the types of non-dinosaurs that lived at a relevant time in history, I’ll often turn to previously published work.

I’m sure I’ve probably missed something–how do you use the literature? Sound off in the comments section!

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