In order to stay abreast of important developments in his field, University of Pittsburgh biologist Craig Peebles used to scan the table of contents of some half-dozen different journals each week. Every time he spotted something of interest, he would make a copy of the article and then add it to one of the stacks of papers he kept in his office for ready reference.

While online services with easy-to-use, menu-driven interfaces offer researchers one avenue of access into the world of databases, CD-ROMs present another. CD-ROMs (short for "compact disk--read-only memory") are capable of storing 680 megabytes of laser-readable data, roughly equivalent to the complete text of a 20-volume encyclopedia. Couple this tremendous storage capacity with some menu-driven search software, and you have a terrific tool for data retrieval.

Since the technology's debut in the mid-1980s, about 2,000 databases have been published in the CD-ROM format. To some extent,...

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