We spent last weekend remembering and celebrating the life of Eugene Garfield. He was the founder of the Institute for Scientific Information; creator of the “impact factor” now used so broadly to assess the value of a journal; and is considered the father of the field called bibliometrics.

I met Gene in 1976 when I was working as an information engineer for the NASA Technology Application Center. I was spending about 20 hours a week searching for research information using the brand new online databases. We searched them over an acoustic coupler, which attached the telephone line to the computer, sending signals similar to those of a fax machine to a remote location.

By Rama - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=906988

An acoustic coupler.

In my case, it went from Albuquerque to Phoenix over the phone, and then from there, wended its way eventually to the master computers to execute the query. This was a major improvement over searching for information using the secondary or aggregated indexes such as Biological Abstracts and Chemical Abstracts Services. Although huge numbers of journals and other publications were covered by those services, the services were frequently three years behind the actual publication date of the journal article. That meant that after searching the 18 large physical volumes every six months for the older information, we needed to then go to the primary journals themselves to get the more recent information. This resulted in many long hours in the library pulling primary and secondary sources to satisfy the increasingly complex questions asked by the research community we supported.

Often we searched tertiary systems as well, that is, systems that took the secondary publishers’ publications and made them available online. Dialog Information Services, SDC orbit, and BRS (the Bibliographic Retrieval System) were three of the major systems available in addition to the pioneering NASA Recon system. Our center, like most research organizations, had a subscription to ISI Current Contents in all its variations (eventually seven topical versions) as it became available, and each copy quickly became tattered and dog-eared from heavy use. Current Contents took the tables of contents of different journals and aggregated them into a print-based stapled publication, which brought us the most current information quickly. They helped bridge the gap between the secondary abstracting and indexing services and the primary literature, enabling us to come much closer to a comprehensive search of the literature, both retrospective and current. Current Contents took the table of contents of different journals and aggregated them into a mass print-based stapled publication, which brought us the most current information quickly.

The problem was that not all the journals that we as customers wanted were covered in Current Contents. They were also  not all in the library. Subscriptions to that many journals was not practical. The information that could be found in the secondary publications was often a long step away from actually getting our hands on the listed articles.  Getting those articles turned out to be more difficult. Without the research, we might not even know they existed, which would be a serious problem if someone was beginning to undertake primary research without a full understanding of the existing research and primary literature.

Eugene Garfield, recipient of the 2007 Richard J. Bolte Sr. Award, at Heritage Day, May 9, 2007, at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF).

So I, like many others in the field, would ask Dr. Garfield to add another publication to the Current Contents or to the ISI index called Science Citation Index. Depending on the publisher, they would often reply that they needed actual users to request the inclusion since the publishers saw the publication of their table of contents as an erosion of their marketplace. The publisher reactions to the inclusion of the table of contents from their publications ranged from unwilling to hostile. Therefore Dr. Garfield needed the support of the library community to increase the coverage in his publications. It was a long and slow battle. Today a similar battle has just been fought over whether publications should be crawled by Google for inclusion in Google scholar. These arguments sound the same as those from 40 years ago. At first they were arguments about “the death of the marketplace” and being taken over by “this upstart technology”. Later it became clear that the best way to leverage the market and sell more copies of the journal was helped by being included in ISI. Today it is now clear the Google scholar is the best way to get more hits on the publisher website.

For those articles and contents not available in the library, we would send postcards asking for copies of the articles. These might go first to Garfield’s organization requesting the original article tear sheet, through the OATS program, but if someone else had requested the article first they got the only copy. We then had to request a reprint from the author or purchase it from the journal published.  The process could take months before a primary review of the literature could be completed.  This situation gave rise to the document delivery services and certainly helped trigger greater interest in interlibrary loan.

Dr. Eugene Garfield did a great deal to increase the speed of this process, from months or even years to what happens today in a few hours. He was an information pioneer and the inventor of many services incredibly helpful to the researcher. Although he is no longer with us, his legacy lives on.

Margie Hlava, President
Access Innovations