The Biological Literature
Characteristics of the biological literature are typical of other scientific disciplines. Bonn and Smith report an estimated 55,000 scientific/technical titles worldwide, with about 9,500 titles from the United States. About 95 percent of the cited literature in the sciences is published in serials. Thus, biological literature is international in scope, and dependent on serial publications for dissemination. It is also interdisciplinary and overlapping, complex in origin, with the primary periodical as the most important source of new information. Biological literature is distinguished by its broad spectrum, its volume, its generator (who is also its user), and its appeal to the public interest.
In general, the number of scientific, scholarly periodicals has doubled every ten to fifteen years during the twentieth century. Since World War II, however, there has been a logarithmic growth of serial publications, and the growth in the number of biological journals has paralleled this burst. The increase during the last decade has been especially explosive for the life sciences, making it one of the fastest-growing disciplines.
The geographic origin of biological literature may be fairly described using the information provided by BIOSIS, the publisher of Biological Abstracts, the largest, most comprehensive biological abstracting service in the English language. A survey of the literature sources monitored by BIOSIS in 1995 reports that 50 percent were from Europe and the Middle East, 31 percent from North America, 14 percent from Australia and Asia, 3 percent from Central and South America, and 2 percent from Africa. Growth in the biological literature since World War II has been particularly great in Japanese, Russian, and Spanish-Portuguese publications.
In 1962 Bourne reported that English was the dominant language of scientific literature, and this is still true today as more and more journals are being published in or being translated into English. Even those journals published in other languages usually have English abstracts, showing the perceived importance of English as the language of science.
The most popular frequency of biological serials is irregular, followed in decreasing order by quarterly, monthly, and annual publications. Subject coverage and emphasis of biological literature are on basic and applied research that is interdisciplinary, scattered, and fragmented. Over the last decade, the interfacing, overlap, and integration of disciplines have been typical of biology, with tremendous growth, especially in areas relevant to endocrinology, immunology, and the neurosciences.
The vast proliferation of biological literature has made the computer an indispensable part of any biologist’s tool kit. Abstracts and indexes have been computerized since the early 1970s. This first wave of computerization made secondary tools such as abstracts and indexes more widely available and more easily used. The next wave, which is still in progress, will improve access to the primary literature, particularly journal articles. There are a number of services currently in place that provide computer-readable copies of articles to users for a fee. These services--and the more elaborate versions that are under development—are useful, since most libraries have been forced to cancel journal subscriptions, often resulting in much reduced access to less-used titles.
Both the first and second wave of computerization have built upon the earlier paper formats, indexes, and journals rather than replacing them. The few electronic journals at this time are largely CD-ROM or Internet-accessible versions of major journals such as the Journal of Biological Chemistry or the journals published by the American Society for Microbiology, and are often not published as frequently as their print equivalents. Electronic journals are still rare enough and new enough that librarians are uncertain about their utility and archiving; thus few have canceled print copies of electronic journals. Some publishers offer price breaks for keeping print subscriptions as well as electronic versions, providing another incentive for keeping the old familiar print copy. There are a few journals that are available in only electronic form; the first commercially backed strictly electronic scientific journal, Online Journal of Current Clinical Trials, had a slow and difficult start. Subscriptions were fairly good, but few authors were willing to write for it. More electronic journals are in the works, however.
Computer networks such as the Internet burst upon the scene in the early 1990s and profoundly changed the way in which researchers communicated. In many ways, the Internet is often used as an expansion of the eternal invisible college. It makes networking and brainstorming with colleagues from distant areas a daily occurrence rather than something that only occurs at conferences or symposia. In addition to using E-mail, many researchers subscribe to one or more discussion groups, such as USENET groups, listservs, or bulletin boards. These discussion groups make it easy to communicate with other people with similar interests, whether it is in Arabidopsis genetics or conspiracy theories. They also make it easy to tap into the vast amount of expertise held by other discussion group members. If one’s local library is unable to find an vaguely remembered article, perhaps someone on the Net knows the reference. The BIOSCI/bionet FAQ or Una Smith’s Biologist’s Guide to the Internet are good places to go for more information on these discussion groups.
One great advantage to the Internet is that it provides access to major databases. GenBank, the leading gene sequence database, is freely accessible through the Internet, for instance, as are a number of other gene or protein sequence databases. Academic and other institutions are beginning to accept the idea that Internet resources are valuable and are supporting the development of authoritative files sanctioned by societies or departments.
Aside from databanks such as GenBank, there is still a rather limited amount of officially sanctioned data available through the Internet. Much of what is available either is noncopyrighted information posted by volunteers or is rather narrow in scope. With the greater access of commercial ventures to the Internet, this is rapidly changing, but at present the Internet is still the domain of rugged individualists. Indexing projects are underway, but are still in their early stages.
While electronic resources seem likely to change the manner in which biological research and study is performed, the basics will remain the same. At the present time, Internet-accessible sources cannot begin to replace the authoritative print resources annotated herein. As cyberspace becomes more transparent to the casual user, however, its usefulness will increase. For now the Internet acts as a complement or supplement and is no replacement for the old-fashioned paper publication.