Even in the early stages of their research career, undergraduate lab assistants quickly appreciate the importance of catalogs for learning about products and placing orders. Catalogs are uniquely suited to answering two critical questions for scientists: “How is the product used?” and “How can it be purchased?” While answering these questions continue to be a major function of both print and online catalogs, this media has evolved to meet many more needs in today’s laboratory. The Science Advisory Board (www.scienceboard.net) therefore questioned over 2,300 life scientists about how and why catalogs are used. Scientists were also asked their opinions about the relative utility and importance of various features of print and online catalogs. The highlights of this study are presented below.
Given the fact that scientists treat catalogs like reference material, it is not surprising that nearly one-quarter of the scientists polled have more than 50 print catalogs on their labs’ shelves. Despite this tendency to act like pack rats when it comes to print catalogs, there is a definite shift towards preferring information in an electronic format. Relatively fewer scientists—61%—indicated that it is important to receive a printed catalog even if the same information is available on the Web, as compared to 70% in 2003.
“I usually bookmark certain pages that I frequently use. I also write notes in the catalogs’ margins. I consider my most valuable catalogs equivalent to textbooks.”
-Staff Scientist, North America
“We are constantly trying to get rid of the print catalogs, but they keep on piling up. The online versions are all that is necessary and the print changes too often to be relevant anyway.”
-Research Assistant, North America
Print catalogs and supplier Web sites are considered highly useful by more than 75% of scientists surveyed in this study. Specifically, scientists value technical information (e.g., applications, protocols, references, etc.) and pricing details. Overall, 82% of Science Advisory Board members are highly satisfied with the quality of product information available to them when searching for products used in their research. This high level of satisfaction translates into a high frequency of use: 79% of those scientists surveyed report referring to either an online or print catalog more than once per month, with 28% turning to a catalog several times a week.
The vast majority scientists most commonly refer to catalogs in the design and planning of an experiment. However, catalogs are also used during the actual performance of an experiment and for troubleshooting when problems arise. “Scientists use instructive, accurate and up-to-date catalogs as a reference tool from the inception of an experiment through the reagent’s or equipment’s actual use,” explains Tamara Zemlo, Ph.D., MPH, Executive Director of The Science Advisory Board. When asked to rate their most favorite catalogs, scientists indicated that:
* Sigma-Aldrich and New England Biolabs were cited as having the best print catalogs.
* Sigma-Aldrich and Invitrogen were cited as having the best online catalog.
Catalogs are most frequently used by scientists for comparing products and prices between suppliers prior to making a purchase decision. “Catalog content must therefore highlight the major advantages of one product over another in order to be the most helpful to scientists,” observes Zemlo.
“Online catalogs still do not compete with the ease of sitting with a few catalogs side-by-side, and since we cannot order online at my institution, print catalogs are still invaluable.”
When it comes to online catalogs, the ability to link to manuals and protocols and to check product availability are the two most useful features. Online manuals, instructions and protocols should not, in most cases, be a simple reproduction of the printed version. In general, scientists are more likely to refer to the online resource when searching for a specific piece of information, rather than with the intent to read the material in its entirety.