Heather K. Moberly, MSLS, AHIP, FHEA, Pg Cert (Veterinary Education)
This talk provides tips, techniques, and resources that you can put into use immediately to search for and find veterinary information online. It is about searching to discover what has been published about a topic; finding newer articles that reference an article you already have; and downloading copies of full-text articles. All resources discussed are available online and, with one notable exception, all are free.
The care and husbandry of information are most often a collaboration among authors, publishers, and librarians. Certainly, individuals and organizations may contribute to more than one role in the lifecycle of a work, but a simplified view suffices here: Authors have ideas, gather information, and create works. Publishers guide refinement, format structure, and distribute works. Librarians select and collect works, create ways to locate information, and house works for posterity. Our topic, free online information, has a lot of awkward moments. This is one of them. All these steps require effort and payment; there is no such thing as a free lunch. Or, to use a veterinary metaphor, there is no such thing as a free kitten. Keep that in the back of your mind for later, and let’s move on.
In the context of this talk, free means using or acquiring something at no financial cost to you at the time you use it. It means that the true cost of, for example, a free online copy of an article has been paid at a different time and through a different method than you paying to read or download it here and now. This takes a number of forms and is described with a variety of phrases, but “open access” is a good phrase to know. Open access (or OA) resources and publications mean that the distribution of, and access to, the item is without cost to the end recipient. That OA refers to distribution bears repeating. The ownership or copyright of the intellectual content is different than distribution. OA does not mean the intellectual content is in the public domain or copyright free.
To keep formatting simple, the URLs for all resources are listed at the end of this paper.
Why Are We Searching?
To begin, why are we talking about finding published information to practice veterinary medicine? One reason is that identifying and acquiring published evidence are integral steps in the Evidence-based Veterinary Medicine methodology. To learn more, try the peer-reviewed, interactive tutorial, EBVM Learning. A new edition is expected in early 2020.
I’m often asked how to create the best single search the first time. The answer is that successful searching is iterative.
Searching is most successful when you have deliberately thought about what it is you need to find. It is both an art and a science. The art is the creativity and subject knowledge needed to decide what you’re looking for, whether it is likely to have been published, where it would have been published, and how you can locate it. The science is learning how online searches work and leveraging that knowledge. You do that by carefully choosing search terms, combining those terms with Boolean algebra operators (and, or, not), and searching both forward and backward in the literature (looking at cited references and citing articles). The EBVM tutorial mentioned above can help, as can the peer-reviewed PubMed for Veterinarians tutorial.
There is no single, all-encompassing index to articles that covers veterinary literature, zoo or otherwise. The best depends, of course, on what you are looking for in each search. PubMed is an index to articles published in the biomedical sciences. It covers a good hundred or so journals that comprise a core of veterinary medical literature. Interdisciplinary coverage crossing into the biomedical sciences can be a strength when searching for veterinary topics. The search interface is relatively intuitive; online help and tutorials are available. Results include several useful additional links: similar articles and full text links. PubMed can be customized with a My NCBI account. IVIS is a resource with a particular strength in searchable full-text veterinary proceedings; it requires you to create an account. Although this is a talk about free resources, I would be remiss if I did not mention VetMed Resource. It requires a paid subscription and includes CAB Abstracts, the most comprehensive veterinary literature index.
Looking for research syntheses can be a great strategy. There are not a lot of these in veterinary medicine, but the number is growing. Systematic reviews are secondary literature that investigate a specific question by identifying, appraising, and summarizing published research instead of conducting an original study. VetSRev is a database of citations for veterinary systematic reviews. Less extensive syntheses are also available. Two good resources for these are Best Bets for Vets and Knowledge Summaries published in the journal Veterinary Evidence. Each of these publishes the question, search strategy, resources evaluated, and a bottom-line answer. An additional use of syntheses is consulting their strategies for search ideas.
Finding Free Full-Text Articles
When you seek the full text of a specific article, there are several excellent tools: Unpaywall and OA Button. Unpaywall is a plug-in for your internet browser. Plug-ins, also called browser extensions, are executable programs. OA Button has both a plug-in and a searchable website. If you do not want to install plug-ins, you can visit the OA Button website to search for the full text of an article.
Google Scholar receives a heading because it is a multifaceted tool. It is a better alternative when searching for articles than Google, because it searches only for articles. It has a plug-in which can be efficient if you want to pop in and use it quickly from a different webpage.
In addition to the tools above, Google Scholar is an excellent tool to locate free full-text articles. Search Google Scholar for the article title in quotation marks (“ “) for the best results.
Yes, searching Google Scholar for your topic can identify articles not found in other searches. Google sees different online information than other resources and uses a proprietary search algorithm. Remember that Google search results can be impossible to replicate, so capture results you want when you find them. The nature of Google means they change their algorithm at will, and the nature of the internet means Google doesn’t always see the same content.
Along the bottom of each result is a line of links that are worth exploring. The All Versions link will show all the locations Google found for that single article. Sometimes this includes additional full-article links, which are useful if one doesn’t work.
Google Scholar results include two quick ways to expand your search results without creating a new search. The ‘cited by’ link displays a list of articles Google located that cite the article you are viewing. The ‘related articles’ link locates similar articles.
The Bottom Line
Is there a free lunch? No. There is always a Caveat Emptor with free resources. A question to ask yourself is, if you are not paying for the resource or product, who is? Are you the product? If you are not paying cash at a paywall, are you creating a login and paying through a datawall? For some resources, the cost is tracking your behavior. For others, you receive targeted advertising. It is a fast-moving model and increasingly intrusive to privacy. The bottom line is that you need to make choices you are comfortable with. Do a bit of research. Be aware. Be smart online.
Can you locate and acquire everything you need to practice veterinary medicine online and free? It is unlikely enough that we can confidently say no. Using freely available resources can help you stretch and allocate available funds in the best way for your information needs.
Resources in the Order Presented