Scientific literature – A jungle full of obstacles

Within a scientific cycle, there is one part, which is quite traditional and the foundation of scientific work. It is the reading of the current literature on the topic the scientist is working on. Even when earth sciences are mainly experimental driven, either in the field or with a computer, it is essential to know what others have written about your topic and methods. In the following I would like to take a look on the background of the literature in science, its role and what consequences this brings for the scientists and others.Google Scholar, which is today the most important tool to find literature (even when it is far from perfect), starts with a quote, basing on literature from the 12th century: “Stand on the shoulders of giants”. Science has never really worked as a one-man(or woman)-show, but it bases on interaction with others. When not in your own lab, then at least by communicating your results in the scientific literature. Unlike the humanities, where books play a huge role, science is all about papers. It is expected that when you submit your own papers, you have read the literature around your topic, and demonstrate this by starting your article with a literature review.

In a write-up of the work the literature review usually takes the longest time, as it is always a process on weighting the arguments, thoughts about who you want to cite (and more important who not), and showing in which place your own work can be found in the scientific world. To reduce this time, many scientist have their own system on reading, storing and documenting the literature they have read. But it depends on many factors, which system is the best for you. Do you read your papers on paper or already digital only? Are you allowed to store the papers in the places you want to, or are there restrictions by licenses? Do you prefer chaos or a well structured overview of your work? And are you willing and able to invest some time on not only reading, but also the documentation?

And to have no illusions, the numbers of papers you have to read can be quite large. In my case I usually have around 100 papers per year on my reading list. Sometimes you just look for a single sentence in a paper, to back your argumentation, sometimes you have to understand every word and equation in full. And once read, you have to know perhaps a year later, where which argumentation was stated. So it is a quite complicate personal business on a large dataset, with many obstacles in the way.

The downside of the paper business in general are the costs for those who finance science, so basically the tax payer. The profit margins for the large publishers are extraordinary. Publishing a paper can cost 4 digit numbers and for the library each journal subscription can reach the order of 5 digit numbers and above. The ways how the costs are distributed (free publish and restricted access, or pay in advance and then open access) are evolving and change currently dramatically. The costs got too high and the requirements for well accessible scientific writing increase. Additionally, the restrictions on sharing your results and getting the papers you need to perform your own work, become really a problem for many scientists.

With all this background it is astonishing that these things are not more stressed in the education at the universities. Everyone has to find their own system on handling literature, while some students are not really aware that they have to (with enormous consequences). Structured work becomes so important in many parts of the scientific work, that discussions with young scientists are essential, on how they store and document their reading habits. Yes, it is important to teach them how to read and interpret literature, but it is also important to teach them its importance and show them best practices on how to find ways through this jungle.

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