Electronic Full-Text Journal Articles: Convenience or Compromise
Multidisciplinary library databases index hundreds of journals and provide the full-text of many articles. The producers of these aggregator databases-such as InfoTrac (Expanded Academic ASAP and Info Trac School Edition), EBSCO (MAS Ultra-School Edition and Academic Search Elite), and ProQuest (Periodical Abstracts)-pull together hundreds of journals from all fields, make them accessible with an attractive interface, and market them to libraries with the promise of providing instant entrée to the world of scholarly articles.
The educational community has enthusiastically embraced these full-text databases. The ability to retrieve complete articles through a library's Web site has imparted a new level of convenience to traditional research. But the full-text articles have become so popular that users are reluctant to confront their downsides; as a result, they jeopardize the effectiveness of their research. Therefore, educators must understand and communicate the scope and limitations of full-text databases in order to enable their students to become contentious consumers of electronic information.
Web vs. Web
Until recently, library databases came only in print or CD-ROM format. Because these resources were housed in the library, students were rarely confused about who provided the sources and what their scope and authority was. But now that libraries mount resources on their Web pages, confusion reigns. Subscription databases cost thousands of dollars, but seamless access makes it difficult for students to understand that articles retrieved through these databases differ substantially from those located free with a Google search. Peer-reviewed, scholarly journal articles appear the same as anonymous Web pages simply because they both can be printed from a computer. Students consult non-authoritative sites instead of referred journal articles and do not understand the difference.
Commercialization of Information
In the past, scholars relied on printed indexes to locate citations to articles on specific subjects. While publishers of periodical indexes select the journals to include by soliciting the recommendations of subject specialists, only prestigious journals are included in standard indexes. Inclusion in an electronic aggregator database, in contrast, is not a sign of quality but the sign of a business contract between the journal publisher and the database provider. Users of databases are no longer reviewing only the discipline's premiere journals. On the contrary, in the race to provide access to the most journals, some databases obscure the best articles by overwhelming the user with material that is neither respected nor relevant. As a result, the responsibility to identify the most appropriate resources is shifted from the experts in the discipline to the users-often students who lack the skill to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable.
Massive databases that combine articles from every discipline can overwhelm users with information. In the past, students automatically limited their searches to resources in a specific discipline, format, or level by selecting which index to use. Now, searching these conglomerations of diverse journals can retrieve articles about Plato that have nothing to do with philosophy, or articles on ghosts that relate to computers rather than phantoms.
Keyword searching differs radically from subject heading searching, and yet few students recognize the difference. To assign subject headings, discipline experts read the articles and select descriptors from a standardized terminology. Once a user identifies the proper heading, he is rewarded with highly relevant citations. In contrast, the default keyword search means that every word in the title, in the abstract, in the subject headings, or even in the entire body of the article can retrieve the article. A search may retrieve thousands of resources, most of which are only marginally relevant to the topic. Rather than making research easier, this imprecise retrieval overwhelms the user. The resulting mishmash of unrelated articles is bewildering for the user and makes the sophisticated analysis of content unlikely.
Good Technology = Good Results
Most students are so comfortable with the Web that they believe their technological skills will automatically lead to successful searches-if they can create Weblogs and streaming videos, they can locate scholarly journal articles. Unfortunately, sophisticated computer skills do not translate into effective searching. Web-savvy researchers are much less likely to ask librarians for help with Web-based resources than they were back in the days of print indexes. Without assistance, students feel certain that they have located all available material. They do not realize that their results would vary dramatically if they changed their search terms or repeated their search in a more relevant database.
Full-Text That's Not Always Full
Because many aggregated databases provide the article text rather than page reproduction, graphical features disappear from the articles. And articles stripped of graphs, photographs, charts, special characters, tables, or illustrations are not the same as the original versions. Even more deplorable, full-text databases do not always include every article from each issue of a journal. Cover-to-cover full-text is rarer than most vendors lead their customers to believe. Letters to the editor, book reviews, editorials, p'etry, and brief articles are routinely skipped, while in some instances, so are major articles. When the Supreme Court ruled in the case of New York Times Co. Inc. v. Tasini that freelance authors were entitled to additional payment when their work was republished electronically, publishers responded by pulling thousands of articles from online databases. Interestingly, comparisons of printed journals and their articles' availability in full-text databases have shown an inclusion rate as low as 60 percent.
Users are often misled about the currency of the material offered in electronic databases. Although vendors load articles into their databases on a daily basis, print and electronic versions of the same journals are not necessarily issued simultaneously. Indexing sometimes appears weeks before the full article. Many journals also embargo electronic access to their recent issues as an incentive to retain their print subscribers. It is often difficult to identify these embarg'ed or tardy journals from the lists provided by vendors.
The delivery of full-text documents to desktops is a phenomenon that is not only popular, but one that will alter the world of research over the next decade. This information revolution holds the potential to empower both the sophisticated and the inexperienced. No serious educator or student would ever want to retreat back a decade or two into the "dark ages" of information technology.
As with any new invention, however, the repercussions of adoption are not always foreseen. Educators cannot automatically assume that their students understand the pros and cons of this popular method of delivering library materials. The following suggestions are offered to guide students to a more sophisticated use of electronic full-text articles:
- The single most persistent myth to be debunked is that articles from journals can be accessed for free on the Internet with any browser. This simply is not true. Publishers' promotional sites may offer tables of contents, article abstracts, sample issues, or archival materials, but not a complete duplication of the periodical. Journals still require paid subscriptions and do not pop up with a browser search. Effective utilization of electronic resources requires that students understand the difference between a periodical article supplied by a Web-based subscription database and a document created for, or reproduced on, a Web page. Without mastering this basic but crucial distinction, students will confuse the authority and reliability of the documents they cite.
- Students do not inherently know how to identify and locate appropriate library materials or how to evaluate them once they are found. Requiring the use of specific magazines or journals helps beginning researchers limit their retrieval to suitable sources. Recommending a specific database in which to search also helps students focus their results to materials fitting their level or the discipline. Helping students distinguish between refereed, scholarly articles from respected journals and articles from general interest magazines, newsletters, or Web sites will enhance the quality of students' research today and enrich their professional lives in the future.
- Teachers should break down large projects into smaller assignments, each requiring step-by-step documentation, to guide students through the research process. Instructors might ask students to compare the features of several databases and justify why they chose one over another. Students who are required to submit copies of their search strategy and/or journal articles along with their outlines will provide teachers with an insight into the sources used. Assigning grades based on the quality of the resources will result in better projects and more sophisticated bibliographic skills.
- The educational community should be aware of the shift in authority in information delivery. Database vendors no longer simply offer products for sale; they now make library collection decisions that used to be the sole province of librarians and bibliographers. Their formatting decisions can manipulate the written word. They can water down retrieval with sources of questionable authority. In the name of convenience and speed, they can compromise academic integrity. To compensate, teachers, students, and librarians should recognize the problems inherent with these popular delivery systems and encourage their informed use.
About the Author…
Kathleen Joswick is a reference librarian and professor at Western Illinois University's Leslie F. Malpass Library (www.wiu.edu/library/info/info_web.sphp?id=233). She has a Master's in Library and Information Science from Northern Illinois University and a Master's in English from the State University College of New York at Buffalo. E-mail:
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.