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Every time I blink I seem to get another email from a science journal that I haven’t heard of inviting me to contribute to their most prestiguous publication.  It’s all very flattering to get emails telling me that as a world leader in organic chemistry research I am invited to contribute to their well-read journal, but I am beginning to wonder about the validity of the science-journal based system of documenting and disseminating scientific research.   (NB In case you are wondering, I am NOT a world leader in organic chemistry research, but send out the email to enough people and you’ll hit one who is…)

When I was a PhD student in the early 1990′s (cue soppy nostalgic violin music)  I spent a lot of time in the library looking at journal articles.  Every month, a publication called ‘physics abstracts’ would appear in the physics library in Bristol – a huge thick thing that contained short summaries of research that was published in physics journals that month. It was nicely indexed by way of topic, and I could browse through it pulling out articles that might be relevant to my research. I’d then go and get the journal volumes off the shelf, find those articles (or maybe have the librarian order them for me from another library) and read them. Some of them would be useful, others not, but in this way I kept up to date with relevant work.

Now, I don’t leave the office.  I can search the library catalogues, pull off PDFs of relevant articles, check which subsequent articles cite them, all without leaving the comfort of my office chair. The University of Waikato library has a fantastic new extension to it but I am yet to see the inside of it – I just haven’t had cause to actually go down there to consult something that is not available online.

All that is great, but it has led to an absolute explosion in information. The ISI Web of Science, a popular tool for searching publications, looks at about 10,000  journals.  That’s a huge number. I dread to think how large that ‘physics abstracts’ publication would be now. Finding a piece of relevant work can be like looking for a needle in a haystack of irrelevant information. I am forced to wonder just how many of these journals actually contribute significantly to the advancement of science.  How much work is never read, and how much gets repeated in several places across the world because the various groups are unaware of each other’s existence? This is where conferences can be very advantageous – by putting people who are working on similar things together, in one place, it is much easier to become aware of who in the world is researching what.

More information is not necessarily better, but more information is what we are getting.