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Helping researchers wade through the information flood

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Olivier Dumon looks at the role of social media in helping match research content to researchers 

Water frequently plays a major role in world news cycle. Many parts of the world have seen severe flooding over recent months while other regions have suffered severe droughts. Such situations are devastating to their local communities and far more widely but tackling these types of problems is very costly. People turn to science for answers. 

The issue of water and water management requires a global perspective and out of the box thinking. Water is a cross discipline topic, involving hydrologists, geologists, climatologists, environmental scientists, engineers, chemists and many others. Delivering trusted, foundational data that provides a comprehensive perspective on a broad range of water and water management research is vital if this most urgent of challenges is to be met.

Today’s researchers expect that the internet and its content providers will deliver what they want, when they want it. Type in the words “water research” and “water management” in Google and you get no fewer than 256,000,000 results. Such a proliferation of destination sites clearly demonstrates the need for filtering to determine what research is already being done and, more importantly, the outcomes. Effective science research begins with effective processes combined with productivity-enhancing applications.

This is where scholarly publishing plays a crucial role. In the internet world, our job doesn’t end with publishing articles in journals. It actually begins there, and a significant part of our role is to bring this content to the right audience.

In the communication process of 25 years ago, scholarly publishers filtered, curated and published in traditional print peer-reviewed journals which were shipped out to academic libraries worldwide. Researchers looking for foundational content typically spent hours in a library sifting through hundreds, if not thousands of pages of scientific data recommended by their peers. This would have required a further labour-intensive effort to pull out salient points to share with colleagues.

It was an almost linear way of conducting search and discovery. The publisher’s job was pretty cut and dry, and had very little influence on getting the right information to the right person.

Since the advent of the internet, that game has fundamentally changed. Over the past 15 years, search engines have enabled researchers to get their hands on a multitude of the articles they used to find through their offline search efforts, resulting in a tsunami of information. But spending days wading through 256,000,000 possible sources of data is not the best use of a researcher’s time. If we’re asking science to solve our global challenges like water, our job on the business end is to come up with the best tools and processes to make that job easier.

We are entering a new era in which our online interactions on social networking sites leads to information being pushed towards us, rather than having to actively search for it ourselves. As consumers, information is pushed our way in the form of recommendations by an online retailer such as Amazon. And, while the likes of Facebook will never replace Google, Bing or other search engines, our presence and activity on social networks brings new ideas and resources to our attention that might otherwise have escaped our notice.

Such tools enable those of us in scientific publishing to open up new avenues of opportunity by influencing the trajectory of published works. We now have the ability to proactively play “match-maker” by recommending and promoting relevant research and related information from a broad range of sources around the world. Such a process potentially opens many doors of opportunity. Technology that drives content based on behavioural patterns means that published articles by younger researchers can potentially share the spotlight with senior and more broadly published authors, a potentially career-changing opportunity.

All this social interaction has had enormous impact on the scholarly publishing business and how we bring content to the market and by which methods. Like any other business, scholarly publishing is not just about giving our customers what they want. It’s also about anticipating their needs and facilitating a dialogue between authors and their audience once an article has been published. Social networking sites offer new ways for researchers to discover information, and allows publishers the opportunity to better manage the dissemination of content in a much more targeted manner.

As in any technological transition, there are still some challenges to overcome. For example, in just about a decade, Facebook has become a dominant search engine player and even the most casual of users will find that product messages and recommendations appear based on your interactions and how you use the network. But it raises the delicate question of how to balance customer service that anticipates and recommends product, while respecting the boundaries of privacy. The same goes for researchers receiving recommendations based on their online behaviour.

We cannot escape the power of the internet over our lives and nor should we. The almost limitless resources and capabilities to connect to the global society make the internet one of the greatest contributions to the advancement of scientific discovery since the invention of the printing press. Scholarly publishers can, and do, match content to researchers making use of the user, usage and social signals as part of our professional responsibility to advance science. Researchers have the responsibility of their profession to weigh its benefits against the liability of the privacy trade-off.

Olivier Dumon is managing director of Elsevier’s Academic and Government Research Markets group. A version of this article has also appeared on Elsevier Connect