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Information overload will prompt behaviour change

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Annual Reviews has just published a white paper into the challenges of information overload and how it is and will be addressed, writes Charlie Rapple

Information overload has been the subject of renewed debate since Clay Shirky’s 2009 assertion that 'it’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.' The term became popular in the 1960s, but the problem it describes has been acknowledged by researchers for much longer – since at least the 1920s when Stanford professor J. Murray Luck set out to review current research in the emerging field of biochemistry and found himself 'dismayed … by the immensity of the task.'

Luck’s solution was to arrange for the leading professors in the field to write intelligent syntheses of the key literature, and so was born the first Annual Review. Now, Annual Reviews, the non-profit scientific publisher that he established, has conducted research into how today’s scholars cope with the seemingly unquenchable flow of scientific information.

The result is a white paper, published at the end of March, that addresses the issue of information overload from Luck’s Annual Review of Biochemistry (1932), through the continuing importance of helping researchers assimilate and apply new knowledge, to expectations for how skills, responsibilities, technologies, and content will help address the ongoing challenges.

The white paper draws on a survey of early-career researchers, examining their approach to academic literature, how much time they dedicate to it, what informs their reading choices, and how they assess quality. Interviews were also conducted with a range of prestigious scientists, including Eugene Garfield (Thomson Reuters Scientific), Richard Zare (Stanford University), and Sandra Faber (University of California, Santa Cruz), to interpret the results in the broader research environment. Finally, current and past members of Annual Reviews staff explain the lifecycle of a critical review article and how it helps scientists address the challenge of information overload. The “onerous responsibility” of writing such reviews is acknowledged; one author, Princeton professor Susan Fiske, vividly describes the ‘thrill, dread, pleasure, indecision, burden, intimidation and challenge – not unlike commencing one’s PhD or undertaking a skydive.’

The white paper contains old quotes that sound as if they could have been written yesterday, as well as stark statistics to remind us of the impact of burgeoning research output. For example, 81 per cent of readers say they should read more than they do. It also includes strong arguments as to why we must continue to tackle the problem of information overload to ensure that research investment is not wasted. In addition it gives insights into how literature is filtered currently -primarily by peer recommendation - and into the processes that underpin its creation.

It brings together the different perspectives of the survey respondents and interviewees and proposes ways in which authors, readers, editors, librarians, and publishers may filter the flow of scholarly content in the future. Among other things, it anticipates that authors will become more technologically savvy, providing more comprehensive metadata with their manuscripts to aid navigation, interpretation, and application of their work. Authors will also increase post-publication activities such as interviews, commentaries, and debates to help readers assess the relevant and key points of a paper.

In addition, the paper predicts that readers will make the time away from their desks more productive, as improvements in mobile content enable them to read from anywhere. Digital natives, experienced in reviewing, selecting, and digesting multiple sources of data, will benefit from enhanced reading and time-management skills.

Another prediction is that publishers will integrate content more effectively into workflows, with teaching aids, granular content (and metadata), and flexible licensing to support broad usage. New technologies, or increased adoption of existing technologies, will change the way in which content is evaluated and selected, with greater interactivity and willingness to engage.

The white paper concludes that publishers and libraries need to understand and nurture the core concepts and services that make them valuable, and be ready to structure these around changing research workflows, reading behaviour, and technological expectations.

Charlie Rapple is head of marketing development at TBI Communications