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ASFA: Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Abstracts Database Guide


What exactly is ASFA, and what makes it so essential?

"ASFA" is an acronym for Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Abstracts, the premier abstracting & indexing database in aquatic science. ASFA is a component of the Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Information System (ASFIS), formed by four United Nations agency sponsors of ASFA and a network of international and national partners, all of whom supply information.

UN agencies include:

  • FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • IOC: Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO
  • UNEP: United Nations Environment Programme
  • UNDOALOS: United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea
  • The International Partners are:

  • ADRIAMED: Scientific Cooperation to Support Responsible Fisheries in the Adriatic Sea
  • ICCAT: International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas
  • ICES: International Council for the Exploration of the Sea
  • ICLARM: International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management
  • IUCN: The World Conservation Union
  • PIMRIS: Pacific Islands Marine Resources Information System
  • Thirty-five national research centers throughout the world also contribute to the database. Collectively, the UN, National and International Partners are known as ASFA Input Centers. Researchers can identify the contributions of each partner by the unique two-letter code appearing in the TR= field of each abstract record.

    ASFA's publishing partner is CSA, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.

    What comprises ASFA?

    ASFA is actually one big database that is a collection of five subfile databases:
    ASFA-1, Biological Sciences and Living Resources
    ASFA-2, Ocean Technology, Policy and Non-Living Resources
    ASFA-3, Aquatic Pollution and Environmental Quality
    ASFA Aquaculture Abstracts
    ASFA Marine Biotechnology Abstracts

    More than 5,000 Serial publications, books, reports, conference proceedings, translations and limited distribution literature are selected for abstracting and indexing in ASFA. Although primarily English language, publications represent over 40 other languages from around the world.

    Just a few of the cool-sounding interesting titles in ASFA include: Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins, CalmScience, Latin American Journal of Aquatic Mammals, Marine Drugs, Disasters, Fish inspector, Fishfacts, Fishing chimes, Harmful Algae, Hawaiian shell news, International journal of Fuzzy Systems, Journal of Aerosol Science, and the Journal of Turbulence.

    But there are some pretty serious titles too, like Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, International Journal of Ecohydrology & Hydrobiology, Fishery Bulletin, and Limnology and Oceanography, just to name a few.

    Also, ASFA contains lots of abstracts from international publications, like: Fortschritte der Fischereiwissenschaft, and Izvestiya Rossijskoj Akademii nauk. Seriya fizika atmosfery I okean (Don't worry if you don't know what any of those titles mean. ASFA always includes the English title in the title field, and in many cases, includes English and non-English summaries.)

    (Click here for a list of all 5,000+ ASFA publications.) Or: (Click here for the ASFA monitoring list--a text Document listing all 5,000+ publications, including (in many cases) coverage dates, publication location, and notes.)

    How Does CSA keep track of and Abstract & Index 5,000+ Publications, in 44 Different Languages? Remember the UN Agencies, international partners, ASFA input centers? They all help!

    Search Guide for Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Abstracts (ASFA)

    "How do I?" System Features & Help

    Search the entire ASFA database?

    Click Aquatic Sciences button; then click box "Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Abstracts (ASFA)"; then proceed to quick search or advanced search.

    Search Links in the Record Display
    While browsing search results, click an author name (AU=) or descriptor (DE=) in any record to search for all other records containing that author or index term.

    Limit Fields
    In both 'Quick Search' and 'Advanced Search', the following fields can be limited by checking one or more of the following four boxes under 'Limit to':

    1. Latest Update. (Corresponds to the UD=field code.) Checking this will retrieve only the most recently loaded records. ASFA is updated monthly with approximately 3,700 records added each month.
    2. Journal Articles Only. This is one of 21 publication types (PT=) that comprise this field in ASFA. For example, If you do not want to retrieve dissertations, book monographs, reports, etc., check this box. However, the PT field frequently has more than one entry. (See the explanation for PublicationType below.)
    3. English Only. Check this box will retrieve only records whose language (LA=) was English. But even if records were written in another language, the title (TI) field will be in English. The non-English language title will be in the Original Title (OT) field wherever possible . Over 40 languages are included.
    4. By date. Use the dual pull-down menus to narrow results by date.

    Publication Types (PT=) in ASFA by percentage: (There are 21 publications types in ASFA. A citation can have more than one PT; for example, many dissertations are also book monographs; many journal articles are also conferences, summaries and/or reviews.)

    • Journal Article: 73%
    • Book Monograph: 21%
    • Conference: 16%
    • Report: 4.7%
    • Summary: 3%
    • Numerical Data: 1.5%
    • Bibliography 1%
    • Dissertation: 1%
    • Others: less than: .5% (computer, computer file, dictionary, drawing, film, law or statue, map, patent, review, sound recording, standard, training manual, unknown)

    List of all journals indexed in ASFA:
    A global list of the Journal Name (JN=) field)

    Supplemental Databases
    An ASFA search may retrieve web sites related to your topic from CSA's Natural Sciences Web Resources Database or the Recent References Related to Your Search current awareness database. The Web Resources Database consists of 150,000+ websites hand-picked and indexed by CSA editors. The Recent References Database (approximately 51,000+ records) provides daily updates of citations from over 1,000 journals five to seven days from receipt of the printed publication.

    What is a thesaurus?
    The entire ASFA thesaurus in one big text document:

    How to use the ASFA Thesaurus, by Stirling (UK) University's Library (includes advice on using the Taxonomic Terms thesaurus) resource/dbases/asfathes.html

    What is an index?
    The short answer (from Valparaiso University's website). The long answer (from the American Society of Indexers website…of course!)

    What is a controlled vocabulary?
    Assigned standardized terms used in searching a specific database. (For a really in-depth answer, go to

    Gray Literature in ASFA (just because it's gray, doesn't mean it is vague or dull!)
    The California State University library (CSU) describes gray (or grey) literature as literature (often of a scientific or technical nature) that is not available through the usual bibliographic sources such as databases or indexes. It can be both in print and, increasingly, electronic formats. There are many types of "gray" literature. A few examples in the biological sciences include book chapters, taxonomic keys, papers from meetings and symposia, and reports. (In ASFA, search the publication types field (PT=)). Gray literature can be difficult to find, but as the statistics above show, at least 23% of ASFA consists of gray literature. For more information, see the CSU link above and a page from the University of Cape Town's library website. Also, see: "The Role of Gray Literature in the Sciences." There's even an annual conference on gray literature!

    Sort Options
    Search results can be sorted by relevancy ranking or publication date. Use the drop-down menu in Advanced Search or Professional Search before or after you run your search. In Quick Search, you can change the sort method after you've landed results.

    Displaying Records
    Via the pull-down menu in Advanced Search and Professional Search, choose whether to show citation, citation & abstract, full record, or custom fields before or after submitting your search. In Quick Search, you can change how you're viewing citations when looking at your results. You may want to customize your results view by selecting the Environmental Regime (ER=), Classification (CL=), and Descriptor (DE=).

    Printing, Saving, & e-mailing records can be done by selecting citation, citation & abstract, full record, or custom fields once the print/save/e-mail function has been selected. Records can also be saved to a bibliographic manager like RefWorks from this screen, or outputted to one of eight popular bibliographic output formats via QuikBib.

    Search ASFA subfiles?

    Click 'Aquatic Sciences' button; click hyperlink Search subfiles; choose one or more of five subfiles; proceed to quick search or advanced search.

    View 'Help' screens

    Click Help on the top of the interface and follow hyperlinks to help topics

    Combine / delete search sets

    From either Advanced Search or Quick Search click 'Search History/Alerts' button. Click appropriate search strategies already executed, combine with 'or' OR 'and' Boolean operators, and then run search again.

    Searching specific fields?

    • Quick Search: Enter word or phrase in find box. Use the drop down list to restrict search to Title (TI), Author (AU), Journal Name (SO), Anywhere (AY) or Keyword (KW). (Keyword searches the title, abstract (AB), descriptor (DE), and identifier (ID) fields.)
    • Advanced Search allows you to search any of the 34 fields indexed via pull-down menus. You can string together search terms with pre-set Boolean Operators in the pull-down menus beneath the pull-down menus for the index fields.
    • Professional search (often called command-line searching) allows you to search any of the 34 fields indexed by installing an index field code(s) and then the = sign. For example, you might search the Descriptor field like this: (DE=shark fisheries)

    An example of searching a specific field: ER=

    ER=Environmental Regime, and is a field code unique to ASFA! Indicates whether a source document deals with the marine, brackish or freshwater environments, or any combination of these, e.g.: (ER=brackish) and (KW=shark)

    A 2nd example of searching a specific field CL=

    CL=classification. It is not unique to ASFA, but still very special & useful! Contains classification codes and descriptions. These are broad subject headings comprised of alphanumeric terms and descriptive words. If you have a code from a previous search and wish to find similar records, place the code or descriptive word(s) in the query box. (e.g.: a search turns up in the CL field: Q1 01442 Population dynamics. Now, run a search with the query CL=01442; OR CL= Population dynamics.)

    What does Q1 (or Q2, Q3, Q5) mean? Each code is prefaced by another two-character code that indicates in which database or equivalent printed abstracts journal, the record originally appeared.

    Click here to see guidelines that ASFA editors use to classify articles.

    Using the Thesaurus (DE= field)

    • Click 'Thesaurus Search' tab.
    • Use the pull down menu to choose
      1. ASFA Thesaurus in English, Spanish or French, or:
      2. Taxonomic Terms.
    • Then choose one of three modes to search the thesaurus:
      1. If you do not know the exact term you're looking for, first go to the rotated Index (often called a permuted index) which displays an alphabetical list of all terms containing a selected word. This word can occur anywhere within a thesaurus term and it does not have to be the first word. You can only search for a single word, not a phrase, in the Rotated Index. From this list, you can select the term as it appears in the Thesaurus.
      2. Click Alphabetical List to display a list of main terms with no indication of relationships.
      3. Click Thesaurus to display all terms that have relationships with the found item (e.g., broader and narrower terms) plus any explanatory notes.

    Broaden, Narrow and explode Thesaurus terms

    • On the Thesaurus search screen, click one of three radio buttons to broaden, narrow or explode. 'Explode' searches for the main term and all its narrower terms. This enlarges your search.

    ASFA Sea Codes (or geographic descriptors)

    Another component of the DE=field. In the DE= field, you'll see a geographic descriptor(s) indicating which ocean zone the study is taking place. Following the ocean zone code will often be a coastal area, or a sea area: (DE= PNW, Canada, Hudson Bay)

    Identifiers (ID=)

    Identifiers tend to be company names, trademarks, new scientific terms, new laws, etc. Think of an identifier as a descriptor that has not quite grown up. Identifiers are not part of the controlled vocabulary—if they were, they'd be descriptors. (Who knows, maybe they will be someday!) For example, stony coral is an identifier, yet coral is a descriptor.

    Browsable Indexes

    Click 'Browse Indexes' tab. Via drop-down menu, choose:

    1) Author Name Index. Enter an author last name, or partial spelling of a last name, and click 'Go.' Or click the corresponding letter of the last name and navigate through list until correct term is found. Corresponds to the AU=field.

    2) Journal Name Index. Enter the entire journal name, or partial spelling of the first word of the journal name. Or click the corresponding letter of the first word in the journal name and navigate through list until correct term is found. Corresponds to the JN=field. The JN field is searchable but the results will always be displayed in the source (SO=) field.

    3) Publication Type Index. Click 'Display' to list. (There are 22 publication types in ASFA.) Check appropriate boxes and run search. This index corresponds to the PT=field.

    Broaden or narrow using Boolean Operators

    1) Use AND to narrow search and retrieve records containing all of the words it separates. E.g.: fish and electricity

    2) Use OR to broaden search and retrieve records containing any of the words it separates. E.g.: brackish or marine.

    3) Use NOT to narrow - search and retrieve records that do not contain the term following it. E.g.: shark NOT hammerhead

    4) Use parentheses ( ) to group words or phrases when combining Boolean phrases and to show the order in which relationships should be considered; e.g., (shark or dolphin) and (brackish or fresh)

    5) Note: Search queries containing several operators search in the following order: ( ), NEAR
    NOT, AND, OR

    Truncate using a wildcard

    Append * to a word:
    Swim* retrieves swim, swimmer, swimming
    Toxic* retrieves toxic, toxicity, toxicants

    Find an alternate spelling with a wildcard *

    Use to indicate an unlimited number of characters within a word: col*r yields color and colour.

    Single-character wildcard ? for finding alternative spellings

    The ? represents a single character; two ?? represent two characters; three ??? represent three characters, and so on: materi?l yields material and materiel; fib?? Yields fiber and fibre.

    Proximity Searching

    To limit the number of words between your search terms:

    1) no operator - finds words as a phrase. E.g.: fish feeding behavior

    2) within x - finds words within a specified radius. E.g.: (shark) within 5 (reproductive)

    3) Near - finds words within 10 of each other. E.g.: shrimp near farming

    4) Before - finds words in a relative order. E.g.: mangrove before swamp. Note: adjacency is not implied

    5) After - finds words that contain words in the relative order specified. E.g.: sediment after seaweed. Note: adjacency is not implied.

    The Electronic Research Process (Or, how to really get to know a database)

    I) How to Start:

    A) Determine your Goals

    1) State your research topic as a single question or statement:

    "What is the danger to a habitat by the snakehead?"

    2) Consider what limits to apply—Geographical, Time period, Animal Type

    "Is there more than one type (or species) of snakehead?"

    "Where does the snakehead typically reside?"

    "Is there any place the species cannot reside?"

    B) Identify general concepts

    1) What general terms relate to your search?

    "snakehead"; "habitat and/or environment;" other fish and/or animals and plants

    in the habitat

    2) Are there specific journals that publish articles related to your subject? (Don't forget about "gray" literature, or taking a look at Web Resources Related to Your Search. Nor forget to check CSA's Hot Topics web page!)

    C) Choose databases

    1) Examine the subject coverage of the database. Include an examination of the factsheet.

    Should you search the entire ASFA database? Or should you search one or more of the five subfiles?

    2) See if the database covers the appropriate journals for your search

    II) How to formulate your search (Two basic ways!)

    • Precisely, like a surgeon
      • Identify search terms; consult thesauri, or taxonomic terms.

    Enter "snakehead" in the taxonomic terms thesaurus

      • Combine terms with AND. Find synonyms and alternate spellings with OR. Limit searches to publications, authors, date ranges, or other criteria.

    After picking one or more species of snakehead, perhaps narrow down the search results to a particular geographic region (these will be in the DE=field)

    • The "Shotgun" approach (i.e. just search!)
      • Do a quick initial search to get the focus of what you need.

    Enter "snakehead" in the quick search box

      • With luck, you might find the key citation. Use the descriptors, or perhaps author(s) or specific publications, to find similar citations. (And do not be shy about e-mailing the author—in many cases, their e-mail address is in the Affiliation field—to ask him (or her) for recommendations. Most scholarly types are happy to share their knowledge!)

    III) After You've run a Search

    • Good Results? Then download them to a bibliographic manager like RefWorks; alternatively, save/print/e-mail your citations, or output them via CSA's QuikBib.
    • Results not on target?
      • Check spelling of search terms
      • Increase precision of terms--consult tools such as thesauri, taxonomic lists, browsable indexes; drop misleading terms
      • Examine databases searched. Check database factsheets and journal listings to determine whether the databases adequately cover your topic.
    • Too Many Results?
    • Too Few Results?
      • Check Your Spelling!
      • Make terms more general—consult thesauri, taxonomic lists, browsable indexes, or classification
      • Broaden strategy—user fewer ANDs; use more ORs for synonyms or alternate spellings
      • Search additional databases