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Friday, November 03, 2006

A couple of humble suggestions

Since I started work, I have done pretty much nothing but read. This necessitates me doing the "dreaded literature search".

As I trawl the databases and the reference lists at the back of papers, my frustration has led to a couple of ideas. One slightly more controversial than the other :-)

1) If you use a specific technique please either describe it in the methods - or reference an accessible source!

In order to save space, it is a perfectly legitimate for authors to use a phrase such as "the technique was performed as previously described (ref Jones et al 2006)". The problem is that it isn't always possible to track down or access that reference. Twice this week, I have found references to a technique in an out of print text book or in a paper too old to be accessible online. For myself, it is in an inconvenience - I can always take a 15 minute walk to the University library if I have to. But for researchers at independent research institutes the only option may be an interlibrary loan (a week or more and usually a few dollars) - for people in poorer countries, even the free access to journals that PubMed central etc have pioneered is useless if the paper hasn't been converted to PDF and posted online yet.

There are someways around the problem. For example, if the technique has been utilised often then a search for other papers that cite the original reference may turn up one that describes the technique in detail. Of the two I had problems with this week, one I managed to track down this way after an hour or so of hunting (the paper was worth it!). The other I will either give up my lunch break to photocopy or carry on hunting online for.

Obviously, that source may be the only written account of the technique, however it would be of great benefit if authors and journals considered this. One solution may be to cite the original (thus giving credit where owed) and then cite another more accessible paper. With online access to papers becoming the norm these days, authors should perhaps consider which journals to reference. If neither is possible, then perhaps editors could consider asking authors for more details in the text.

2) Compulsory Deed Poll.

I'm sorry for any offence this may cause, but if your surname is Smith, Jones, Wang or Xu, perhaps you could consider changing your name to one less common! Earlier this week I was advised to look at a paper by "Wang. Umm 2000 or 2001, maybe - I can't remember the title".

This confronted me when I put that limited information into Pubmed.
Items 1 - 20 of 14708

Even guessing at a few more keywords, such as organism and a couple of vague limiters (unfortunately, it was a general review paper, so I couldn't type in a specific gene name), I still had to trawl through the titles of almost 1000 hits.

So may I humbly suggest that if your name is rather common, you choose a new one. Seriously.
Just to help you, whilst "Kirk" had over 350 hits between 2000 and 2001, "Spock" only had 8 (and 2 of those referred to a neuromuscular proteoglycan called SPOCK).

Go on, you know it makes sense!



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