Sunday, March 29, 2009

Finding that PDF

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a massive research library (or in some cases, any research library at all). Yet, the literature is an essential part of any paleontologist's repertoire. In this post, I'll briefly review some options out there for locating free or low-cost scientific publications on the web.
  • Google Search: Sometimes, all it takes is a quick Google search to find a paper. For instance, say I'm looking for Marsh's old paper on characters of Odontornithes. I type "Characters of the Odontornithes, with notice of a new allied genus" into the old Google search box, and what do you know? It gives me a link to Matt Wedel's archive of O.C. Marsh papers! Sometimes, of course, you might have to try a few variants on a search before you hit on the right PDF. Often, when I'm doing initial research on a topic, I'll type in "[taxon or topic name here] pdf". You never know what you might find! For instance, typing "Triceratops PDF" gave me a link to several very relevant papers. Google Scholar also works pretty well in this regard (and will often filter out most of the non-scholarly stuff).
  • Google Books: I have had some real success, particularly with older works, on this search engine. I strongly recommend setting the search settings to only find books with "full view," if you're not interested in just snippets of text. Once the recent settlement with publishers gets worked out, I think we can expect some really good things in terms of low-cost access to out-of-print but in-copyright publications.
  • Scribd: This website offers browsable documents for a surprising number of paleontological papers, although you must be a registered user (free) to download PDFs.
  • Journal Archives: Many museum publications, such as Fieldiana and all of the AMNH publications, are available online. It's always worth checking out museum web pages to see if their old publications are out there. A number of journals also have freely available archives. 'Nuff said.
  • Author's Web Page: More and more scientists have PDFs of their papers on their web page - so, it's always worth a quick search to see what's available.
  • Writing the Author: If you can't find the PDF for a recently published article through other means, send an email to the author. As I mentioned in a previous post, it's a great ego boost for those of us who write scientific papers!
Of course, these suggestions probably aren't news to some of the more experienced paleontologists out there - but I do hope this is useful for those just beginning in the field. What other sites do you find particularly useful for this sort of background research?

Disclaimer: It is entirely up to the user to be aware of any copyright restrictions that may apply to the download or use of any of the resources addressed here.

Dave Hone has posted a really nice continuation of this theme over at his blog.


Niki Russell said...

I would like to invite you to write an article about Open Source Paleontology for the Kitware Source. Based on your use of Slicer/VTK and your commitment to open source, I think you would be a perfect candidate to pen such an article.

Generally speaking the Source's feature articles are either technical articles with details on algorithms, concepts, etc. or practical articles describing new classes (i.e. "here's what I did and how I did it"). However if you have another format in mind, I’m all ears. A typical article tends to be approximately 1500 words, but authors may write more or less if they feel compelled to do so. Articles should be accompanied by images/screenshots with appropriate captions where necessary. In addition, your article may acknowledge others who have contributed to the work which you describe.

I do all of the editing in house (mostly grammar and style issues) and can pass back an edited version for your approval before we go to print. The deadline for articles in the July Source will be June 3, 2009. This submission must include all finalized text and graphics, which can be sent via email.

As a token of our appreciation we would compensate you with a full set of Kitware textbooks or, if you would prefer, a Kitware Land’s End Polo Shirt. Please let me know which book you’d like to receive or your shirt size as well as a mailing address to which we can send your gift.

Feel free to contact me if you are interested in contributing.


(Previous versions of the Source can be found online at

Anonymous said...

Thnaks for doing this Andy, very good and a couple on there I didn't know about. I should add that in addition to author catalogues, there are increasing numbers of online indices of papers for the Mesozoic at least - there are fairly complete online collection now for theropods, pterosaurs and ankylosaurs.

I do find it irritating with the number of e-mails on the Vert Pal list and DML not to mention all the blog comments where people constantly ask for PDFs and reprints when a huge number are available online free to anyone. I have btter thenings to do that do your research for you when it's not my paper. If it is, I'm more than happy for people to read it.

Writing to the authors should almost be the default for getting hold of papers, but apparently sending an e-mail to 500 people on a mailing list, the vast majority of whom work on something completely different, seems to be the norm.

Zachary Miller said...

I try to check the interwebs before bugging people about papers. And honestly, I always feel kind of bad asking for them, even from the author. Having said that, there are numerous resources available online, and a few journals have open-access publishing (I tip my had to them).

Also, happy birthday, Andy!

Andy said...

I'm recently back from the field, so only now getting around to responding to comments!

@Dave - 100 percent agreed!
@Zach - I wouldn't ever feel bad about emailing the authors for copies of their papers (especially if it's just a handful of articles)- this is a long-standing practice going back in some form or another to the dawn of paleontology.

dinogami said...

I wouldn't ever feel bad about emailing the authors for copies of their papers (especially if it's just a handful of articles)- this is a long-standing practice going back in some form or another to the dawn of paleontology.

I've actually dealt with this here among some of our biology undergrads as they begin actual research work. As near as I can tell, they suffer from some sort of "ivory tower" syndrome -- they appear to accept as a default that anyone that publishes is so far above where they are that they (a) don't feel worthy of notice by authors, and (b) don't want to "waste their time" with something as "pathetic" as a request for a paper. I'm not quite sure where this sense comes from, though it may come from courses in which they read papers as "authorities," and those kinds of people are, for some reason, untouchable. But I've tried to get them to overcome this by telling them that most authors, I think (probably especially in fields as small as vertebrate paleontology), would love to know that someone is interested in their work and would fall over backward to foster that interest by sending all sorts of papers! (I base this on my own experiences -- I love getting such requests because it's a measure of how much interest there is in anything I produce! 'Course, having them available for free download on a web site does make that more difficult to discern...) In addition, why on Earth would journals put up contact information for authors if they (and the authors) didn't expect that they'd be used for exactly this purpose...? Once the students realize these things, they seem to lose their inhibitions.

BTW, thanks for the shout-outs!

Andy said...

You're welcome, Jerry! And I too have encountered this ivory tower syndrome, even among some entry-level graduate students!!! I guess some of it may be due to the relatively hierarchical stereotype projected for scientists in the media. . .at any rate, five minutes at the SVP meeting is more than enough to smash this misconception!

100 percent agreed on your comment!