Scientific Commons: Cleaning Up Science's Basement

If publications are the front porch of science, dissertations and theses are its basement. Virtually every bit of information that makes its way into a scientific paper can also be found in some form in a thesis or dissertation. But theses and dissertations also hold vast quantities of information that never made it into a publication: the experiment that failed for no identifiable reason; lines of what was considered at the time dead-end investigation; one-off experiments that don't reach the level of minimum publishable unit; and varying degrees of speculation.

And like many basements, science's basement has been in desperate need of spring cleaning for years.

Collectively, working with theses and dissertations has been much more difficult than working with publications. For starters, they're not indexed as well or comprehensively as papers. And even if you manage to find the abstract to a dissertation that looks like it contains something important, getting your hands on a copy can be challenging at best.

Scientific Commons is a service aimed at, among other goals, making it easier to work with dissertations. This remarkably low-key service has gathered references to over 20 million scholarly publications by over 8 million authors in over 900 repositories worldwide. These documents can be searched by keyword, and search results can be filtered by year and language, and sorted by relevance or year.

Although many of the documents contained in Scientific Commons are dissertations and theses, many are manuscripts for papers. This figures prominently in another of Scientific Commons' goals: to make visible the relationship between authors and their published works.

For example, we can search the term 'heterocycle', find this paper, and then click on this author's name to get a listing of his papers.

One of the limitations of Scientific Commons appears to be a high barrier to adding content. If you run a repository, it must meet strict requirements to work with Scientific Commons. If you have personal content, it must meet other requirements.

Scientific Commons has taken a big step to cleaning up science's basement. The job isn't finished by a long shot, but the service hints at what might be possible.