Mining the astronomical literature

A clever data project shows the promise of open and freely accessible academic literature.

There is a huge debate right now about making academic literature freely accessible and moving toward open access. But what would be possible if people stopped talking about it and just dug in and got on with it?

NASA’s Astrophysics Data System (ADS), hosted by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), has quietly been working away since the mid-’90s. Without much, if any, fanfare amongst the other disciplines, it has moved astronomers into a world where access to the literature is just a given. It’s something they don’t have to think about all that much.

The ADS service provides access to abstracts for virtually all of the astronomical literature. But it also provides access to the full text of more than half a million papers, going right back to the start of peer-reviewed journals in the 1800s. The service has links to online data archives, along with reference and citation information for each of the papers, and it’s all searchable and downloadable.

Number of papers published in the three main astronomy journals each year
Number of papers published in the three main astronomy journals each year. CREDIT: Robert Simpson

The existence of the ADS, along with the arXiv pre-print server, has meant that most astronomers haven’t seen the inside of a brick-built library since the late 1990s.

It also makes astronomy almost uniquely well placed for interesting data mining experiments, experiments that hint at what the rest of academia could do if they followed astronomy’s lead. The fact that the discipline’s literature has been scanned, archived, indexed and catalogued, and placed behind a RESTful API makes it a treasure trove, both for hypothesis generation and sociological research.

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