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FEBS Letters is this month carrying out an interesting experiment that could make literature searching easier for both humans and computers.
The experiment centres on Structured Digital Abstracts (SDA). SDA are extensions of the normal journal article abstracts that describe the relationship between two biological entities, mentioning the method used to study the relationship. Each sentence is preceded by one or more identifiers pointing to the corresponding database entries that contain the full details of the interaction e.g. protein A interacts with protein B, by method X.
The aim of SDA is to assist data entry, text mining and literature searching by extracting the salient data from the article into simple sentences using a defined structure and controlled vocabularies.
Gianni Cesareni, Editor of FEBS Letters explains:
Many articles in biological journals describe relationships between entities (genes, proteins, etc.) yet this information cannot be efficiently used because of difficulties in retrieving from text. Databases capture this valuable information and organize it in a structured format ready for automatic analysis. The experiment of using SDAs will facilitate database entry and improve disclosure, to the benefit of authors and readers.
This month's edition FEBS letters contains a number of articles annotated with SDA, along with some articles on SDA itself.
This is a simple but very good idea and I would certainly appreciate anything that makes literature searching easier.
But I can't help noting the delicious irony in the title of the first article in the issue that trumpets the arrival of SDA: "Finally: The digital, democratic age of scientific abstracts".
The first irony is that reading this article on digital democracy requires a subscription to FEBS Letters.
The second irony is that while SDA make it easier to find articles of interest, reading the original article also requires FEBS Letters subscription, effectively making them marketing tools for the journal.
So useful they may be, "digital" they may also be but "democratic" they are certainly not.
Wouldn't the flow of information be better served if everyone just published in open access journals?