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The ISI Web of Knowledge

The Thompson Reuters corporation produces the ISI Web of Knowledge, which contains the Science Citation Index Expanded, the Social Sciences Citation Index, and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. These indexes are available online at most university libraries, and in many small college libraries. I used the paper versions of these indexes for 30 years before they went online. If the online versions vanished, I’d go back to the paper ones in a minute. They’re that good.

At the ISI Web of Knowledge headquarters in Philadelphia, hundreds of people pore over thousands of journals each year—about 8,000 in the sciences, about 2,700 in the social sciences, and about 1,500 in the arts and humanities. (Some journals are indexed in more than one database, but that still means about 10,000 journals every year.) The staff at ISI enter the title, author, journal, year, page numbers for each article and, where available, the e-mail address of the corresponding author—that is, the author to whom you would write if you had a question about something in an article.

The most important part though is this: The staff enters all the references cited by each author of each article in each journal surveyed. Some articles have a handful of references, but review articles, like the ones in the Annual Review series, can have hundreds of citations. All those citations go into the Web of Knowledge databases. So, if you know the name of just one author whose work should be cited by anyone working in a particular field, you can find out, for any given year, who cited that author, and where. In other words, you can search the literature forward in time, and this means that older bibliographies, like those in the Annual Review series, are never out of date.

Suppose you are interested in the sociolinguistics of African American Vernacular English, also known as Black English. If you ask anyone who has worked on this topic (a sociolinguist in your department, for example) you’ll run right into William Labov’s Lan?guage in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular, published in 1972. Look up the subject heading of Black English in your library’s catalog and you’ll also find Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, by John and Russell Rickford (2000) and Black Street Speech by John Baugh (1983). You’ll find Labov’s book mentioned prominently in both of the latter books, so right away, you know that Labov’s book is a pioneering work and is going to be mentioned by scholars who come later to the topic.

If you are starting a search today of the literature about Black English, you’d want to know who has cited Labov’s work, as well as the works of Baugh and the Rickfords. That’s where the Web of Knowledge comes in. The Social Science Citation Index alone indexes about 150,000 articles a year. Okay, so 150,000 sources is only a good-sized fraction of the social science papers published in the world each year, but the authors of those articles read—and cited—about 3 million citations to references to the literature (Web of Science Databases. That’s 3 million citations every year, for decades and decades. Now that’s a database.

That classic book by Labov on Black English? As of January 2009, some 1,500 researcher articles had cited the book across the sciences and the humanities. Of those, the Web of Knowledge shows you the full citation for about 1,100 (that is, articles that are in its own database). You can take any of those citations and clip it into another search window and keep the search going. And going and going.

Don’t get overwhelmed by this. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can scan through a thousand hits and pick out things you really need to take a closer look at. As you read some articles and books, you’ll find yourself running into the same key literature again and again. That’s when you know you’re getting to the edges of the world on a particular topic. That’s what you want when you’re doing research—you want to be working at the edges so as to push the frontiers of knowledge back a bit (box 3.4).

BOX 3.4


A word of caution to new scholars who are writing for publication: Online literature searches make it easy for people to find articles only if the articles (or their abstracts) contain descriptive words. Cute titles on scientific articles hide them from people who want to find them in the indexing tools. If you write an article about illegal Mexican labor migration to the United States and call it something like ''Whither Juan? Mexicans on the Road,'' it's a sure bet to get lost immediately, unless (1) you happen to publish it in one of the most widely read journals and (2) it happens to be a blockbuster piece of work that everyone talks about and is cited in articles that do have descriptive titles.

Because most scientific writing is not of the blockbuster variety, you're better off putting words into the titles of your articles that describe what the articles are about. It may seem awfully dull, but descriptive, unimaginative titles are terrific for helping your colleagues find and cite your work.

I use the Web of Knowledge regularly to keep current with the literature on several topics. I’ve studied bilingualism in Mexico, for example, particularly the development of bilingual education among the Nahnu of the Mezquital Valley. The Nahnu are widely known in the literature as the Otomi, so I scan the Web of Knowledge and look for everything with the word ‘‘Otomi’’ in the title or abstract. Doing this even once a year makes a big difference in your ability to keep up with the expanding literature in every field.

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