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The Hunt for Research Articles is Getting So Much Easier
I didn't expect the invention of Tetra Pak to be part of why, though!
Back in the day, long before the internet, I spent a lot of hours roaming the stacks in medical libraries, with typed lists of articles I was looking for. Individual paper issues of journals were bound into volumes like the ones in this photo. First you would find the shelves for the journal, then locate the volume number that included the issue with the article you wanted to read. Once you had that in your hot little hands, you could leaf through to the pages you were looking for.
I was an activist and what’s now called a citizen scientist. Since I wasn’t affiliated with a university, I’d be lucky to be inside a medical library at all. There was a particularly big one a couple of hours’ drive from where I lived. But it was only for staff and students, and they were stringent about that: No card, no entry. So I’d lurk, inconspicuously, until the librarian at the front desk went on a break. Then I’d sneak in and do my illicit reading.
When the internet arrived, it got easier and easier to find out about articles I wanted to read. There was a giant leap forward in 1997 when US National Library of Medicine (NLM) putting the giant medical literature database, PubMed, online for free. But even when articles were online, you couldn’t get them most of the time because they would be locked behind publishers’ paywalls. That’s been improving, though painfully slowly.
Then came Google Scholar in 2004, and suddenly it wasn’t just medical literature that was easy to discover. Bliss! Far too often, though, I couldn’t get access to the full text of what I found – other areas were even worse than biomedicine. There were worrisome consequences of our increasing reliance on Google’s whims, too, and I blogged about that in 2019. That year, I also blogged about some superior aspects of the academic search system Microsoft was developing. Within a couple of years, though, Microsoft had pulled the plug on its academic search service. It’s not paranoid to be worried about academic dependence on commercial search services.
And that’s where the Tetra Pak comes in. Yes, the food packaging.
Developing the Tetra Pak made the Rausing family one of the richest in the world. Lisbet Rausing, one of the granddaughters of the Rausing who first marketed the Tetra Pak, is a science historian, open access advocate, and philanthropist. In 2010 she wrote in the New Republic, “The guardians of learning can no longer allow the Library to be surrounded with barbed-wire fences. It is time for the academe to liberate scholarship.” She wanted a new, free, online Library of Alexandri.
In an interview in 2021, Rausing could have been speaking to my frustration as an activist all those years ago when said that “citizens, communities and social activists around the world – are disempowered and kept in ignorance… How can we engage ourselves in fights for justice and for the planet, when we are kept ignorant? A great deal of the scholarly knowledge that we need to become effective change agents is not accessible to us. If we are to level up our societies, as indeed we should, we also need to address knowledge injustice.”
Rausing and her academic historian husband, Peter Baldwin, have a charitable fund, Arcadia, that supports open access. They’re one of the biggest benefactors of Wikipedia, too. In 2021, Arcadia awarded a few million to OurResearch, the non-profit that developed Unpaywall. When Microsoft announced the end of their academic search, the newly flush OurResearch leapt in, working with Microsoft’s help to create a successor, OpenAlex. It’s one of the main reasons I feel optimistic that, not only would we be fine if Google dumped on Google Scholar, open academic search is likely to become far better than Google’s offering. You can check out why in my new blog post, and explore some of the alternatives I link to there.
Below my sign-off, there’s metascience and social media news that caught my eye recently, as well as some interesting additions to Wikipedia.
I hope you have a good week!
Image of the underground stacks at the US National Library of Medicine by DjemBayz via Wikimedia Commons. It was taken at a Wikipedia editathon I organized with James Heilman of WikiProject Medicine in 2013.
New from me this week, the Absolutely Maybe post I discussed above: Could There Be Some Viable Challengers to Google Scholar on the Horizon?
It’s been a few years since I checked in on the evidence about journals awarding badges for open practices. (tldr; I’m a sceptic, and critical of the way they’ve been hyped.) Sophia Crüwell and colleagues attempted to reproduce all badged articles in an issue of Psychological Science, concluding that the badges “did not ensure the required higher standard… [A] check of reproducibility during peer review may be preferable.”
Necessity is the mother of invention, pandemic style: For this group, the adaptations needed to run global clinical trials in resource-limited countries had advantages - and they'll keep doing it when it's not needed. There was increased south-to-south support, they report, and the network's now stronger, and it's all up "more sustainable and equitable." [On Mastodon]
Want to find academics on Mastodon? David Adler has made a bunch of lists browsable and searchable. Major fields are missing, so if you know of lists that can fill those gaps, please let him know.
And a look at “before” on Twitter: 24 hours of tweeting on September 21, 2021. Must be drowning in bots. About 1% of the tweets came from less than 100 accounts, and roughly 175,000 accounts (0.44% of accounts) produced 50% of the day’s 375 million tweets. Tweets came from 40 million accounts that day. [More summarized on Mastodon]
Some amazing stories from indigenous American history were added to, or expanded on, in a recent virtual course on editing Wikipedia. Included are activists Mary Cornelius Winder (1898-1954) – a land rights activist from the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation; María Urquides (1908-1994) – an educator of Mexican heritage regarded as the “Mother of Bilingual Education” in the US; Patricia Whitefoot (b 1950) – educator and activist for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, of the Yakama Nation; and Mitchelene BigMan (b 1965) – a US Army veteran who established the Native American Women Warriors (NAWW) Color Guard.