Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 1986, 39, 184-185.
THE INADEQUACY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL ABSTRACTS
Like most psychologists, I have always used Psychological Abstracts as my prime tool in doing bibliographical research. I always assumed that if I wanted to find out what had been written on a psychological topic in the academic journals I would find almost all of it listed somewhere there. One realizes that articles of psychological interest appear in the journals of allied disciplines (e.g. sociology) from time to time and that these might not be listed in Psychological Abstracts but who would expect such omissions of relevant literature to be even as much as 10 per cent of the whole?
I have recently discovered that far more than 10 per cent is omitted. In a moment of not too unusual authorial vanity, I checked one of the Author Index volumes of Psychological Abstracts to see if all my articles were there. To my surprise, very few of them appeared. I therefore did a systematic search covering the 10-year period from 1970 to 1979 and found that only 28 of the 68 articles I had published on psychological topics during that period were in fact included in Psychological Abstracts. What sort of a literature search would we regard it as being that turned up only 28 out of 68 available articles on a given topic? I submit that we would regard it as a very poor one indeed.
Somewhat shaken by this discovery of vast inadequacy in something I had always relied upon, I then did the same check using the rival bibliographical source of Social Science Citation Index. In the source index volumes of this publication I found that a considerably better total of 42 of my 68 articles had been listed. The incompleteness of even this publication is, however, cautionary.
I cannot see that my various publications are anything but mainstream psychology. Having even 28 of them listed in Psychological Abstracts is surely some evidence of that. So how are we to understand this incompleteness in the listings? I wrote to the editor of Psychological Abstracts in an attempt to find out. I was told, essentially, that it was a matter of workload. Staffing was insufficient to follow up all that might be worth including. Thus whole journals are missed out from coverage. More astounding yet, I was informed that since 1980 no books at all are abstracted!
How should one respond to this serious deficit in a trusted publication? One essential step would seem to be for authors of psychology papers that are not in mainstream journals to send copies of their papers to Psychological Abstracts. I gather that once the staff of Psychological Abstracts actually see a paper before them, it has a fair chance of being abstracted even if the. journal is not one that Psychological Abstracts normally covers.
The second response to the problems of Psychological Abstracts will surely be institutional. In an era of funding cutbacks for tertiary education, a harassed librarian may well conclude that the great expense of a subscription to such a selective publication is unnecessary. If Social Science Citation Abstracts does the job better, it alone could suffice.
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