Missing out

Some months ago I wrote a post about the proliferation of scientific literature and how hard it is to keep up, even with a relatively specialised field. Regular readers will also be aware of my paper on theropod feeding behaviour where I explicitly talk about and review the evidence for gut contents in large bodied theropod dinosaurs.

Not surprisingly there are not many papers out there on the contents of predatory dinosaur stomachs. I read what I knew about. I check those papers that had cited classic works that looked relevant. I read the papers cited in those classic works that looked relevant. I read reviews and check their citations. I spoke to other colleagues about the project and showed them the manuscript, and still other people read the paper during review and I’ve had numerous discussions about it since.

A couple of days ago in a conversation about this, Hans Larsson directed me to a paper on tyrannosaur gut contents. It’s by a well known theropod worker, in a well known palaeontological journal and deal with exactly the right subject. It was a record of tyrannosaur specimen with the bones of another chewed-up animal in it’s stomach. Yet, not only had I not cited this paper in my project, but I had not read it and indeed was not even aware of it. (OK, I might have forgotten, but the tile is clear and unambiguous and was exactly what I was looking for, it’s unlikely).

This brings home to me, stronger than even I had realised, how easy it is to miss things. I went looking for this kind of thing and everything about this paper meant I should have found it and indeed found it very quickly, yet it slipped through the gaps of my net, and it seems, quite a few others. Not that I am blaming my co-author or colleagues, but no-one else seemed to notice that this was missing or suggested that I include it, suggesting that at least some of them didn’t know about it either. There is a ton of literature out there and even when searching for something specialised, in a fairly systematic way on a subject where the material should be relatively easily available, it can be overlooked, even by a number of people.

If you’re looking for a kind of resolution to this, there isn’t one really. I wish I’d spotted this and I wish I’d found the paper and been able to include it. It would have strengthened my position in the paper and now it won’t, for me personally that’s a shame, but I suspect it might also be for the original author. He really should have got some credit for this from me and hasn’t, nor (in the literature) can he. Still, it might make me more lenient in the future when I try to puzzle how something has reached the literature without citing some of my work that appears (to my eye) to be essential to the proposition. I hope it might also reach the ears of a few referees who can be more lenient themselves when castigating authors for having missed key papers. It can, and does, happen.

5 Responses to “Missing out”

  1. 1 Jerry D. Harris 04/04/2010 at 10:02 pm

    My solution to this dilemma is EndNote: I have my entire library cataloged into it (over 20,000 references). For any particular subject, I can do searches for keywords (in any field, including titles, abstracts, and a customizable keyword field). Obviously, this isn’t a perfect solution: I started databasing my library in it c. 1998, before most journals had web sites or PDFs, and I did it all by hand (at that time, my library was maybe 5000 references), and the kinds of things I put in my keywords fields has improved somewhat over time, though it still isn’t perfect. These days, I can now just cut and paste abstracts from web sites into the Abstracts field, and those will be searched as well, which is a huge improvement, but still dependent on just the right word(s) being there. It’s other weakness, of course, is that it can’t search papers I haven’t entered into the db, but hopefully those would be referenced in something I do have cataloged and won’t be missing for long. Still, it is a terrific resource and a huge help…and it’ll create bibliographies for me in papers, to boot!

    I know that EndNote isn’t the only database/bibliography program out there, and there are open-source programs that can do the same sort of thing. I’ve just been with EndNote since v.2 and I’m stickin’ with it!

    • 2 David Hone 05/04/2010 at 7:01 am

      Yeah, it does take quite a bit of work to get EndNote sorted. And as you note Jerry, it is pertinent here as I just never found the paper. It’s not like I had it and didn’t realise, I never came across it, or saw it cited or heard about it, so no catalogue would be of any use. That said, yes, I do need to file my own stuff at some point, but wo0rk keeps getting in the way….

  2. 3 Nick Gardner 04/04/2010 at 11:58 pm

    Google Scholar is an amazingly helpful resource as well.

  3. 5 Dave Cunnah 06/04/2010 at 6:40 pm

    I find a similar problem when searching for papers in my field, I have often trawled for hours to no avail, only to find something very relevant months later, while searching fruitlessly for a paper on another subject. Alas!

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