Physical sciences need 'collective conversation'

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From astrophysics to nanoscience, a series of case studies casts an investigative lens over changing information practices in the physical sciences. Ellen Collins and Joe McEntee examine the key findings of the studies for publishers, librarians, funding agencies and scientists

Funding agencies, publishers, librarians and learned societies need to think radically and work creatively together in order to realise more compelling information products and services for researchers in the physical sciences.

Publishers and libraries, for example, can better serve practising scientists and students, not just by talking to one another about subscription models and dissemination tools, but by engaging with funders and professional bodies to deliver the training needed to improve information practices. Scientists, for their part, need to work with all of these constituencies to ensure that next-generation information tools – as well as the training to use them – are aligned with the needs, behaviours and cultures of different scientific disciplines.

That call for a ‘collective conversation’ is perhaps the principal take-away from a new study commissioned by the UK’s Research Information Network (RIN) and co-sponsored by the Institute of Physics (IOP), IOP Publishing and the Royal Astronomical Society. Entitled Collaborative Yet Independent: Information Practices in the Physical Sciences, the report comprises a series of qualitative case studies that examine how researchers in various disciplines across the physical sciences find and use information – and specifically how information practices are changing as a result of new digital technologies (see ‘Changing practice: the headline findings’).

It’s not just about money

Of course, the funding pressures afflicting many areas of scientific research can be taken as given. In reality, cash-strapped researchers today would rather spend their hard-earned grant money on new gear for front-line experimentation rather than more information resources.

However, while acknowledging the financially-constrained context, the RIN case studies highlight two areas of potential investment for funding agencies looking to enhance information practices and outcomes in the physical sciences.

First up, there’s a clear desire for linking and sharing of research data – in particular, new tools to access and analyse data that is generated in shared research facilities. The case studies also suggest that funders should target postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers for training in how to manage their information more effectively. While physical-science students are well versed in how to use the specialist tools of their research, there is little evidence that students are being systematically taught best practices for finding, managing and disseminating research information.

Up close and personal

The second issue highlighted by the case studies is that publishers and librarians have lessons to learn too. For publishers, what’s clear is the need to get closer to the practising scientist. They need to understand the customer not just at a disciplinary level (physics or chemistry), but also at a subdisciplinary level. Think granular, in other words, and publishers can position themselves to roll out products and services to meet the specific needs of scientists working in a range of subdisciplines.

That granular approach may be as simple as developing portals that allow access to back-end content via the channels used within a given field of work. At the other end of the scale, there’s the ‘future as mash-up’ scenario, in which users are given complete flexibility in finding, accessing and linking to information and data via tools and platforms developed by publishers, users and various third parties. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, it seems that librarians have become victims of their own success in making digital information resources available seamlessly to on-campus users, such that few scientists even realise that the library is responsible for their access. The challenge for library professionals then is to reinvent their role as partners in the scientific and research process. This might be, for example, by acting as scientific consultants able to advise on information practices and policies in scientific collaborations.

Whatever reinvention ultimately looks like, flexibility is going to be essential, with librarians responding to the needs of specific disciplines rather than asking researchers to conform to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ library service.

As always, the challenge (and opportunity) for those tasked with rolling out new information products and services – funding bodies, publishers, librarians or end-users – is to identify bottlenecks and gaps in current practice and to build tools that widen those bottlenecks and bridge those gaps rather than requiring completely new ways of working.

Ellen Collins is a consultant at the Research Information Network ( and Joe McEntee is group editor at IOP Publishing

Changing practice: the headline findings

Collaborative Yet Independent is a series of qualitative case studies that examines how researchers across the physical sciences find and use information – and specifically how information practices are changing as a result of new digital technologies.

The report is based on interviews with 51 researchers, focus-group sessions with 35 participants and a survey of 76 researchers in seven discrete disciplines: particle physics, gamma-ray astrophysics, nuclear physics, chemistry (focused on the University of Oxford), earth sciences, nanoscience and ‘citizen science’ (the Zooniverse platform).

Headline findings include the following:

Physical scientists use and access information in very different ways depending on the discipline they work in. Google Scholar, for example, is used by 73 per cent of earth scientists and by 70 per cent of nanoscientists to discover new research findings, but by just 13 per cent of particle physicists and 7 per cent of astrophysicists. Whereas all chemists and earth scientists surveyed say they read online journals, only 38 per cent of particle physicists do so, largely preferring preprint servers such as arXiv.

Formal publication in traditional journals remains ‘the gold standard’ for disseminating research findings. Few physical scientists use blogs, Twitter, Open Notebook Science, social networks, public wikis or other ‘public-facing’ technologies to share research information, although some particle physicists and astrophysicists use internal, private wikis.

There’s an unwillingness among physical scientists to reference scientific databases, despite such scientific data increasing in volume and becoming ever easier to access. In particular, there is little agreement on how to cite databases, or otherwise assign credit to the scientists and technicians responsible for the creation and maintenance of databases. Finding ways to assign credit is important, because otherwise those responsible for creating data have fewer career incentives to engage in such efforts.

It’s clear that talking to peers and experts remains one of the most important ways to learn about new, fast-moving areas of research. Just as peer-reviewed, high-quality journals help to inspire trust in the information they present, people grow to trust their colleagues and extended peer network.

Some of the case studies identify information overload as a problem, with the volume and flow of information almost certain to increase. Services and tools to filter information more effectively may already exist but have not been widely adopted; others will need to be refined to fit into scientists’ existing workflows.

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