Scopus is useless
May 29, 2012
Scopus bills itself as “the largest abstract and citation database of research literature and quality web sources covering nearly 18,000 titles from more than 5,000 publishers.”
Sounds useful. But it’s useless. Literally.
Because it’s a subscription-only resource:
Now I am an associate researcher at the University of Bristol. UoB is part of the UK Access Management Federation, so I select that in the Shibboleth authentication page:
But the list of member universities doesn’t include Bristol, instead skipping straight from “University of Birmingham” to the intriguingly named “University of Bolton – Do Not Use”:
I can’t use it.
So it’s useless to me. Literally.
This is why it’s frustrating to me when I read statements like this from Elsevier’s Alicia Wise:
Commercial publishers are especially able to command resources to … develop new technologies and platforms to access journal content and improve researcher productivity (e.g., ScienceDirect, Scopus, Scirus, CrossRef, CrossCheck. Article of the future, text-mining tools, measurement tools).
I’m sure those things are all very nice (though I doubt they are better than what other people might build given access to the data). But it makes no difference how nice they are if I can’t access them.
Other people who also presumably can’t access Scopus include: Mike Benton, my head of department at Bristol; Greg Paul, who’s not affiliated with a university; Jere Lipps, who recently retired from his post at UCMP; and, as it turns out, Heather Piwowar, data-miner at the University of British Columbia. I’ve picked those four names our of millions of candidates, more more less at random: Benton is probably the UK’s most prolific palaeontologist, Paul is the most influential living palaeoartist, Lipps has had a hugely distinguished career, and Piwowar is in the vanguard of the current efforts to mainstream the text-mining techniques that we can all see are the future.
For all these people, Scopus might just as well not exist. If we’re working with collaborators who do have access, they can’t send us URLs that point into Scopus, so it can’t be a shared resource within such collaborative projects.
Google Scholar is better option for Benton, Paul, Lipps, Piwowar and me: it’s free to use and has a pretty good “cited by” feature. But it’s not flawless. For example, it claims that our 2009 sauropod neck posture paper has been cited 38 times, but as you work your way down the list, you find that some of the “citations” are from SV-POW! articles, or from news reports, rather than from proper published works. And Google Scholar is rather opaque: there’s no published list of what journals its database includes, or how often it’s updated.
Building a better alternative
The obvious solutzion is for someone to build an open competitor. But for them to do that, they need access to the papers that are to be crawled, analysed and indexed. And of course, they don’t have that access in general, because (all together for the chorus!) publishers put most papers behind paywalls.
If we want something better than Google Scholar, something more available than Scopus, something made by people who care deeply about citation graphs and who want to open them up as objects of research in their own right, then we need entrepreneurial programmers to have access to papers, so they can crawl them and access the references lists.
If you want this to happen, there is something you can do right now that will accelerate it: go and sign the White House’s public access petition. Make a difference to opening up the world of research.