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1 November 2005 Ineffective Bibliographic Search Engines?
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Ivan Valiela and Paulina Martinetto correctly point out the increasing volume of academic literature published yearly and the challenges involved in keeping up to date (BioScience 55: 688–692). It is, however, disturbing to learn only an average of 36 percent of known publications were retrieved from online bibliographic databases. As science librarians, we feel their strategy and findings warrant a response since our knowledge of database search and retrieval may explain their results.

First, ASFA and Biological Sciences provide good coverage of aquatic sciences; however, the choice of databases in the group column in table 1 is problematic since it was based upon what was available as opposed to their subject coverage. Better results may have been achieved if subject-relevant databases had been included such as BIOSIS Previews, Wildlife & Fisheries Worldwide, or Selected Water Resources Abstracts, instead of GeoRef, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and TOXLINE.

Second, the variability within databases occurs for several reasons. Databases employ indexing practices which may involve core indexing (full content) or selective indexing (less than 50 percent of the content) of journals. Valiela and Martinetto did not state whether they had verified the level of indexing and coverage of journals by ASFA or Biological Sciences, or if they had verified whether journal titles of unfound publications were indexed at all by the databases. Moreover, the lack of availability of publications prior to 1970 would be expected, considering that ASFA and Biological Sciences were first published in 1971 and 1982, respectively. Given the extensive date range of publications used in the study, the authors could have made the study format independent (i.e., print or electronic) for the publications dating back to the 1940s. This could include the print indexes Biological Abstracts or Zoological Record, as their coverage began in 1926 and 1864, respectively.

Finally, commercial databases are not constructed in the same way as Internet search engines such as Google or Yahoo and should not be expected to perform in a similar manner. Although the digital platform allows for keyword searching, a certain level of skill is still required. It is for this reason that librarians continue to provide formal instruction on the use of bibliographic databases to teach the finer points of searching and how to manage differences in indexing practices.

As the importance of these databases continues to grow within academia, it becomes increasingly crucial for researchers and students to gain an understanding of the intricacies of commercial resources. The Internet has overwhelmed society and given the illusion that one can find anything, anytime, anywhere. However, in reality, this is not the case. Online searching is an evolving technology, and the practice of supplementing with traditional research methods, as suggested by Valiela and Martinetto, is recommended. For more than a century, librarians have developed their expertise in literature searching, and a partnership with these professionals should be an integral part of any scholar's research practice.

E. E. ATKINSON and HEATHER V. CUNNINGHAM "Ineffective Bibliographic Search Engines?," BioScience 55(11), (1 November 2005). https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0924:IBSE]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 November 2005
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