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> Maybe it has even improved to the point that academic literature is half as easy to surf as, say, tvtropes.org.

It is. try google scholar, pub med, or academic.research.microsoft.com for starters and Mendeley for building a personal "library" (note Mendeley isn't perfect but it is a lot better than not using a paper manager.) Things aren't great but they are better.

> I bet it's still impossible to construct a hyperlink from Nature directly to Science, mostly because they've got different and incompatible DRM.

I have no idea I don't read Nature or Science. The Computer Science literature I read is all easily searchable these days.

> Mind you, things are heaven compared to when I was in grad school, when following references from a paper meant going into the stacks, laboriously collecting one heavy paper volume per footnote, physically hauling them back to a photocopier, and copying the articles two pages at a time.

I still do this (but for Religious Studies research in my spare time) and don't really mind it, although I try to avoid photocopying when possible as it is a pain.

> All they can see is that it's fifty times easier to research the plot of any episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion than it is to follow a chain of citations from a Nobel-winning publication back two generations, and that a popular article about a videogame from 1980 can link to its sources but a popular article about a publication from last Wednesday's Nature can only link to a paywall.

I am usually against the idea of progress, but in this instance I do believe this will not be the case forever. Already we are starting to see changes in the publishing industry. Search tools are improving, archiving tool are improving, library collection tools are improving. Yes it is slow, but the problems they are solving a much harder than the problem of generating new content. New content can be put the days leading format (papyrus, scrolls, codex, books, pamphlets/newspaper/magazine, websites/blogs/wikis) at zero extra cost. Old content however costs a lot to update. Libraries and academic journals have a lot of content that existed before the web, before the pdf, and before the wiki. It takes sometime of the format transition but if the past is any guide the old formats eventually become historical curiosities rather than knowledge repositories.

Oh, I'm not surprised to find the CS literature leading the way to our hyperlinked future. CS folks are the first to know the score when it comes to online publishing.

Unfortunately, I was never a CS guy, I was a cancer researcher. And if you can't read the Nature journals you're not going to keep up with medical or genetic research -- everyone in the field openly lusts after Nature publications; Nature gets first crack at every manuscript -- and Nature sits firmly behind a paywall.

Let's try your helpful suggestions on the legendary paper, Viable offspring derived from fetal and mammalian cells, a.k.a. "the Dolly-the-sheep paper", Nature 385, 810-813 (27 February 1997). Surely I can write a blog post in which I link directly to the methods section of this famous work, which contains the first-ever working recipe for cloning an entire mammal? I mean, this is from 1997. We even had the web in 1997. Don't try to tell me that this has to be painstakingly transcribed from some faded papyrus.

Pubmed has the abstract, of course -- they have abstracts for everything:


And Microsoft provides lots of cute metadata about this paper, but no actual contents:


...so if I want to talk about the methods section, it looks like I'll have to tell my blog readers to click through to, e.g., the Nature Publishing Group and pay thirty-two dollars for the privilege [1]:


Or will I? Google Scholar to the rescue:


The first link is to a reprint of most of the article, in a book. And they've managed to include every page. Today, anyway. For me, this time. (Other pages of the book are "not included" in the preview, so maybe others won't be so lucky?)

Oops, except the figures and tables aren't there. Sure hope there wasn't any data in those figures and tables.

So I'm saved, sort of, thanks to Google's big scanning budget and even bigger legal budget, provided I want to cite the words of Wilmut et al, and not their data. Or their slightly-more-obscure references, or any of their many citations -- for those, I will have to repeat this dance, and hope I still get lucky.

I know I've got a bit of an idee fixe here, but I cannot get over how utterly lame this is. My god, it is lame. Much of the best work of modern civilization, the pinnacle of hundreds of years of scientific advance, work which our society invests billions of dollars in, is hidden inside this pitifully obsolete rent-seeking system while we use state-of-the-art infotech to exchange pop-music lyrics and annotate famous games of Magic: The Gathering.


[1] No, that is not thirty-two dollars per year, or even per month. That's one paper. You're probably better off springing for a subscription ($199) although that only gets you Nature: all the other journals in the Nature family, like Nature Medicine, are extra, and of course every other journal is also extra.

And even in CS you are mostly out of luck if it has been published by any of the usual anti-progress rackets like the ACM or IEEE or the other usual suspects (Springer , Elsevier and their ilk). Sometimes authors are allowed to publish a copy on their homepages, and sometimes they even do, but you still have to find it. Just yesterday I tried to find a description and current assesment of an algorithm from the late 60ies (arc labeling for shortest paths with turn penalties), and most references I found were north of $35 for twelve pages.

I completely agree about Springer and Elsevier, but the ACM and IEEE both offer "Digital Library" subscriptions that give you complete access to the entire archives of all of their publications for a couple of hundred bucks a year (including their membership fee.) That's a small price to pay for the quantity and quality of material available, at least in my opinion-- and I'd be ecstatic if Elsevier or Springer offered a similar option. (I've probably paid more than that to Springer this year alone just to get a half-dozen individual articles.)

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