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The Information-Gathering Habits of American Medical Scientists

SAUL HERNER

Since the Royal Society Scientific Information Conference in 1948, and before, there has been a growing interest in the methods by which scientists obtain information and communicate information to one another. For the most part, this interest has stemmed from a rapid growth in the world’s scientific activity and a corresponding growth in the written and published output of scientists. It has also arisen from an increased appreciation of the economic and political significance of scientific information.

One manifestation of the increase in the appreciation of the political and economic aspects of scientific information has been the organization of efforts, in the United States and abroad, to increase the availability of Soviet scientific information. This preoccupation with Soviet information came to a head with the launching of the first Russian satellite.

But even before the advent of the satellite there were various Soviet information programs in operation among a number of agencies of the United States Government. These programs took various forms and went in various directions, but all shared the common goal of making Soviet scientific information more readily available to the American scientist.

One of these Government Soviet information programs gave rise to the study upon which the present paper is based. The specific mission of this program was the dissemination of information on Soviet medical research to American medical scientists. In order to ascertain the most effective directions that such a program might take, a project was organized to determine, on a statistically dependable basis, the current use that 500 American medical scientists in 59 institutions and organizations make of Soviet information in their fields.

For purposes of comparison, the project was designed to consider not only the scientists’ use of Soviet information, but also their use of information in general and foreign-language information in general. Thus, the project under

SAUL HERNER Herner and Company, Washington, D.C.



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--> The Information-Gathering Habits of American Medical Scientists SAUL HERNER Since the Royal Society Scientific Information Conference in 1948, and before, there has been a growing interest in the methods by which scientists obtain information and communicate information to one another. For the most part, this interest has stemmed from a rapid growth in the world’s scientific activity and a corresponding growth in the written and published output of scientists. It has also arisen from an increased appreciation of the economic and political significance of scientific information. One manifestation of the increase in the appreciation of the political and economic aspects of scientific information has been the organization of efforts, in the United States and abroad, to increase the availability of Soviet scientific information. This preoccupation with Soviet information came to a head with the launching of the first Russian satellite. But even before the advent of the satellite there were various Soviet information programs in operation among a number of agencies of the United States Government. These programs took various forms and went in various directions, but all shared the common goal of making Soviet scientific information more readily available to the American scientist. One of these Government Soviet information programs gave rise to the study upon which the present paper is based. The specific mission of this program was the dissemination of information on Soviet medical research to American medical scientists. In order to ascertain the most effective directions that such a program might take, a project was organized to determine, on a statistically dependable basis, the current use that 500 American medical scientists in 59 institutions and organizations make of Soviet information in their fields. For purposes of comparison, the project was designed to consider not only the scientists’ use of Soviet information, but also their use of information in general and foreign-language information in general. Thus, the project under SAUL HERNER Herner and Company, Washington, D.C.

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--> discussion was actually a trichotomous study of the habits and patterns of American medical scientists in the use of information in general, foreign-language information in general, and Soviet information in particular. The thinking behind this project design was that the most expeditious way to make useful Soviet information available to American medical scientists was by utilizing the already established channels and mechanisms by which they obtain other types of information. Obviously, if Soviet information is channeled to American scientists through uncommon or unfamiliar media, it will not be used as effectively as it would be if it were channeled to them through media that they are already using. Thus, the purpose of the project was to determine the media used by the respondent-scientists to obtain Soviet information at present and in the very recent past. Where respondents had made no recent use of Soviet information, the study sought to determine how they gained access to other foreign-language information. In cases where respondents had not made recent use of any foreign-language information, the study turned to their use of information in general. The focus always was on existing, familiar channels of information. The findings of the respondents’ use of Soviet and other foreign-language information have already been disseminated in the form of a report entitled, “The Use of Soviet Medical Research Information by American Medical Scientists,” which was prepared and distributed in 1957. The present paper treats of the findings of the part of the study dealing with their use of information in general. Method of study The study was conducted by means of detailed interviews with the 500 respondent-scientists. The interviews were conducted by trained interviewers, all of whom had had experience in face-to-face interviews with working scientists. The interviewers were guided by carefully designed and pretested questionnaires. While the majority of the questions in the questionnaire were of the preceded or check-off type, they were kept sufficiently open-ended to permit answers other than those anticipated. The interviewers were instructed to record verbatim all information volunteered by respondents in answer to questions. In the case of discussion questions, the interviewers probed to obtain the most detailed answers possible. The average interview consumed approximately an hour and a quarter. The 500 respondent scientists were selected randomly in 59 medical research institutions and organizations in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, and Cleveland. These scientists represented all the major

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--> fields of medical research. Their median age was 36. Forty-five per cent had M.D. degrees; 45 per cent had Ph.D. or D.Sc. degrees; and the remaining 10 per cent had various other degrees. The specific establishments from which the respondents were drawn were obtained from such reference works as the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Laboratories in the United States and Canada, the American Council on Education’s American Colleges and Universities, and the National Science Foundation’s Grants and Contracts for Unclassified Research in the Life Sciences. The selection of organizations for study was intentionally skewed so as to ensure the inclusion of the highest possible proportion of establishments having well-rounded library and information facilities. This was done to maximize the number of respondents likely to have had recent or current experience in the use of Soviet information. In view of this intentional bias, the sample cannot be considered representative of all American medical research activities, and the conclusions and implications drawn from the study are valid only for those organizations represented in the sample. However, in view of the size of the sample and the method of sampling, there is reasonable assurance of a tolerably small sampling error and a proportionately representative profile of the limited universe. The method of study, the face-to-face interview, is based on well-established and generally recognized procedures developed and used for many years in polling and sampling survey activities. Various criticisms have been leveled against the use of face-to-face interviews for the purpose for which they were used in the study under discussion. These criticisms have come primarily from librarians and documentalists, and not from professionals in the survey field. Actually, the specific question of the applicability of face-to-face interviewing techniques has been studied in considerable detail at the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan. The results of the Michigan study established (if indeed there ever was any doubt about it) that “…even such a complicated matter as science can be handled using survey interview techniques. Meaningful answers can be obtained by this means to a series of searching questions….” (Cf. University of Michigan Survey Research Institute, “Science Writing and the Public; A Report of a Pilot Study for the National Association of Science Writers,” p. 48, The Institute, Ann Arbor, 1955.) Methods of keeping abreast of current developments The first question put to the respondents was the following: “How do you generally keep abreast of current scientific developments in your field?” This

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--> question produced a total of 65 different tools and techniques. However, only eight were named by 10 or more respondents. Three tools or techniques stood out among all others. These were the regular scanning of research journals, attendance at meetings and lectures, and face-to-face contacts with colleagues. These three tools or techniques constituted 77 per cent of all those mentioned. The remaining five of the eight primary tools or techniques mentioned were indexing and abstracting publications, textbooks, review papers, correspondence with colleagues, and visits to other research organizations. Solving problems and answering questions A second question (actually a set of questions) addressed itself to the methods used by the respondents to solve problems and obtain answers to questions that they could not answer from their own immediate knowledge. In order to minimize problems of recall and to obtain the most accurate responses possible, each respondent was first asked to describe a recent instance in which he had a problem or question that he was not able to answer from his own immediate knowledge or background. Then, focusing on the case described, the respondent was asked how he had gone about finding an answer or solution. In all, a total of 12 major categories of problems and questions, and seven primary sources of solutions or answers were named. The categories of problems and questions are correlated with the sources of answers or solutions in Appendix I. It will be noted that the total number of times that the various sources of solutions and answers are mentioned in Appendix I is far in excess of 500, the number of respondents interviewed. This results from the fact that many of the interviewees used more than one means to obtain their answers or solutions. Of the 12 major categories of problems and questions, the largest number were concerned with characteristics, occurrence, diagnosis, or treatment of specific diseases. The second, third, fourth, and fifth most prominent categories of problems or questions were: physiological or chemical makeup of tissues, organs, or organisms; analytical chemical methods; biological effects of chemicals, drugs, or radiations; apparatus, equipment, or supplies; and surgical or dissection techniques. The last two categories were mentioned with equal frequency. As might have been expected, personal advice from colleagues constituted the most frequently used means of obtaining answers to questions and solutions to problems. Close behind were papers in scientific and technical journals. Indexing and abstracting publications were a rather distant third, followed by

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--> the utilization of cited references in literature read, and the conduct of laboratory experiments. Sources of ideas Still another general category of use to which information might be put was investigated by means of the question, “Do you recall where you got the idea (or inspiration) for your present or most recent project?” Here again, the question was worded in such a way as to minimize the problem of recall, and to give the respondent a specific case upon which to focus. In the greatest number of cases, it developed that the respondent’s current or most recent project was merely a continuation or out-branching of work he had been doing. Aside from this self-generating source of ideas, the primary source was face-to-face communications and discussions with colleagues. Then came reading the literature, observations made in the course of treating patients, assignments or suggestions from superiors, hearing lectures, and various others. There were in all 11 major sources of ideas among the respondents studied. These are listed in Appendix II. Methods or tools for locating or becoming aware of sources of information The question of how the respondents learn of the existence of or locate publications or other sources of information which might be useful was approached by handing each respondent a list of common bibliographical tools or techniques and asking them to state which they had used in the previous six months. “Chance or accident” was included in the list of tools or techniques. The relative use of the various tools and techniques is given in Appendix III. In general, there was significant use made of all those listed, and the intervals among the percentages of respondents using the various tools and techniques were relatively small. There were no significant differences in the percentages of the respondents who had used the three most frequently used tools or techniques. These three most prominent tools or techniques were the following: footnotes or other cited references, chance or accident, and indexing and abstracting publications. After these came personal recommendations, personal reference files, book reviews, library card catalogs, publishers’ advertisements, library acquisitions lists, and separate bibliographies, in that order. The average respondent had used an average of 7.6 of the aforementioned tools or techniques in the previous six months.

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--> Tools and methods used in literature searches As an enlargement of the question on how the respondents locate or become aware of useful sources of information, each was asked to describe the most recent question or problem that involved a literature search and to tell how he went about doing the search. Once again, the question (or set of questions) was so worded as to induce the respondent to focus on a specific, recent case, thereby minimizing the problem of recall. The types of problems described paralleled approximately those described in answer to the set of questions on how the respondents get answers or solutions to questions or problems that they cannot handle from their own immediate knowledge or background. The one notable difference was that a fairly large number of the respondents had conducted literature searches not to solve a specific problem or to obtain the answer to a specific question, but to obtain background information in connection with the writing of a paper or book. There was a total of 75 different tools or techniques used by the respondents in the conduct of their searches. Of these, 12 were named by 10 or more respondents. Of these 12, three were distinctly more prominent than the others. These three were: going directly through the most likely journals and browsing, consulting indexing and abstracting publications, and following up footnotes and cited references. The role of personal recommendations was significant in the conduct of formal literature searches, but not nearly as significant as in the respondents’ other information-seeking activities. The relative significance of the 12 major searching tools or techniques is given in Appendix IV. Significance of literature searches One final aspect of literature searching which was considered in the present study was the significance of searches as a means of avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort. Each of the respondents was asked two questions in this connection. The first was: “When you started your most recent research project, did you precede it with a literature search to see what had already been done on the problem?” The second question was: “Would you say that you generally precede or begin new research studies with reviews of the literature to see what has already been done in the fields in which you’re going to do your research?” In answer to the first question, 303 of the respondents had preceded their

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--> most recent projects with literature searches, and 197 had not. In answer to the second question, 341 of the respondents stated that they did, as a rule, make a literature search before starting a new project. While no further questions were asked about preceding projects with searches, all qualifying remarks made along with the “Yes” or “No” answers were recorded, and detailed analyses were made of these remarks. Particular attention was given to the qualifying remarks of those respondents who answered either or both of the questions in the negative. From the analysis of remarks, it developed that many of the respondents who answered negatively did do searches in connection with their projects, but they did them in the course of the projects rather than before they started. Another common qualification of the negative answers was that most new projects are not preceded by searches because they are not really new projects but continuations or outgrowths of old projects. Here again, we have an instance of literature searching on a continuing, informal basis, rather than a formal basis. Of the various reasons for not searching the literature, the following cropped up most frequently: Respondent had previous knowledge of field and its literature; there was a lack of literature in the field; literature searches bias or inhibit a research worker; literature frequently contains errors; literature searches are not the job of the respondents. Conclusions The primary conclusion that can be drawn from the foregoing paragraphs is a reaffirmation of the significant role of personal contacts in the getting and transmitting of scientific and technical information. Face-to-face communications emerged as the most important method of answering questions or solving problems, the most important source of ideas (after the respondents’ own researches and observations), and as one of three most important means of keeping abreast of current developments. While the role of personal contacts was still quite formidable in the conduct of literature searches and in locating or becoming aware of useful sources of information, footnotes and cited references and indexing and abstracting publications were significantly more important. The obvious implication of these findings is that in the day-to-day aspects of information communication, informal tools are foremost, but where formal searches are done the searcher leans more heavily on tools of a more scholarly or formally bibliographic nature.

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--> APPENDIX I Categories of problems and questions correlated with sources of solutions or answers   Methods of solution Problems or questions Texts or Monographs Cited refs. Personal contacts Indexing and Abstract publications Journals Own experiments Miscellaneous Analyt. chemical methods 11 4 36 11 21 16 11 Structure or synthesis of compounds 0 6 0 6 14 0 24 Physical or chemical properties of compounds or elements 0 5 14 14 12 11 0 Apparatus equipment or supplies 12 5 14 0 0 0 0 Biological effects of drugs, chemicals, or radiations 0 0 54 16 4 9 11 Pathological activities, physiology, or determination of micro-organisms 11 0 12 0 11 16 6 Physiological properties or chemical makeup of tissues, organs, or organisms 18 16 10 4 9 12 0 Physiological analytical techniques 6 0 14 3 4 4 21 Anatomy or embryology of tissues or organs 12 0 0 5 14 0 6 Surgical or dissection techniques 12 5 4 6 13 5 0 Information on specific diseases 36 48 25 41 60 16 15 Experimental methodology 0 0 6 4 0 0 0 Miscellaneous 0 0 16 19 31 0 11 Totals 118 89 205 129 193 89 115 APPENDIX II Sources of ideas for current project Source Number of respondents Own previous work 215 Colleagues 133 Reading literature 105 Observation of patients 70 Assignments or suggestions from superiors 58 Hearing lectures 40 Omissions in the literature 38 Disagreement with literature 18 Teaching activities 13 Taking courses 8 Manufacturers or suppliers 8 Miscellaneous 53

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--> APPENDIX III Tools or methods used for locating or becoming aware of sources of information Tools or methods Number of respondents Footnotes or other cited references 486 By chance or accident, while looking through publications 481 Indexing and abstracting publications 477 Personal recommendations 439 Personal reference file 405 Book reviews 351 Library card catalogs 346 Publishers’ advertisements 332 Library acquisitions lists 291 Separate bibliographies 212 Others 12 APPENDIX IV Primary tools or techniques used in literature searches Tools or techniques Number of respondents Consulted colleagues 215 Correspondence 35 Footnotes and cited references 258 Texts and monographs 168 Indexes and abstracts 263 Went to journals 348 Journal indexes 33 Asked librarians 48 Card catalogs 25 Personal reference file 113 Review papers 123 Bibliographies 33

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