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Technology brings challenges and opportunities for information

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The internet opens the door to new information sources but finding the right information can be a challenge, writes Jay Katzen of Elsevier

Webster’s dictionary defines “breakthrough” as ‘a sudden advance, especially in knowledge or technique.’ Any researcher, however, can tell you that there is nothing “sudden” about these advances. The amount of time and energy invested to bring the thinking forward in one’s field, much less create a significant discovery, is enormous. Dedication and patience have always been required, but now new tools and technologies are becoming increasingly critical to success.

The undercurrent to this change is the internet. Since its introduction into the mainstream nearly two decades ago, it has changed the make-up and norms of the global research community. Academia was one of the early adopters of the net. In fact, a key step in the birth of the ARPANET, the predecessor of the global internet, took place at UCLA, USA in 1969 when the first host computer was connected to the Interface Message Processor. A month later the second node was added at Stanford Research Institute and the first host-to-host message ever to be sent was launched from UCLA.

Scientists were quick to understand the potential role the internet could play in their work and were excited as research began its migration online in the form of electronic content and collaboration. This move has had major implications on not only the lives of researchers, but also their partners in knowledge discovery – librarians, research administrators and academic administrators.

There are a number of significant challenges and opportunities that arise as the internet era reshapes the research environment. All those involved in the discovery and delivery of information should take a step back, carefully consider these issues, and work together to develop solutions that support the research community in its quest to deliver scientific breakthroughs.

Managing information overload

The internet can be a double-edged sword that both helps and hinders scientists in their quest for knowledge and their desire to share expertise and bring their own thinking to the next level. The availability of knowledge in this virtual medium has made geographic lines a thing of the past. It allows more players to enter the market. When these new players add their own content to the network this raises the competitive stakes and increases the volume of information that can be accessed – thus feeding a seemingly unending cycle.

The availability of online content has been a key contributor to the growth in the amount of information that researchers are expected to digest on a regular basis. In 2005, university faculties reported reading nearly twice as many articles as they did 30 years ago, according to a 2008 study by Carol Tenopir of the University of Tennessee and Donald W. King of the University of North Carolina. The study further suggests that this corresponds with the growth in the number of journals and journal articles – more than 1,100 new periodicals were launched in 2008. Faculties need to read more in order to cover the same percentage of the literature in their subject discipline.

The web has also given new meaning to “staying up to date” in one’s field. In fact, the definition of “current” research information is quickly changing as electronic access is making both articles in press (prepublished content) and grey literature (content produced for internal use such as booklets and research reports) increasingly required materials. While these previously-untapped sources offer early insight into the direction of research and encourage ground-level collaborations between scientists, they also create a new stream of information that must be managed. Additionally, because the internet is still in its formative period with respect to research content, there is a “wild west” element that exists within the ever-expanding pool of information.

There is another challenge too: everyone with access to a computer and some sort of internet connection has the opportunity to contribute to the global dialogue. This has led to issues of quantity and quality control. Academia is not immune to this online phenomenon of information democratisation. A majority of researchers surveyed by the Parthenon Group on behalf of Elsevier last year agreed that peer review greatly helps the communication of research. Applying this quality control also significantly reduces the amount of information researchers are faced with. For example, of the more than 600,000 articles submitted to Elsevier journals each year 60 per cent are rejected in the course of the peer-review process, a practice that is critical to establishing a reliable body of research and knowledge upon which to draw.

Tailored information

To help further manage the sheer volume of information, scientists will require more sophisticated search and mining tools to drill down quickly and confidently to the relevant content needed to enhance their work. One of the keys to building next-generation tools will be to capture not only the content, but also the contextual relationships and meanings that people give to the data and information. This vision has been defined as an “information ecology” by US academic Thomas H. Davenport, as it puts individuals at the centre of how data is distributed, understood and used.

This ecology is already taking shape with information technologies and access modalities becoming increasingly tailored to serve a researcher’s specific information needs. This trend is expected to accelerate with the coming era of Web 3.0. It will be enabled by the convergence of several key emerging technology trends that emphasise machine-facilitated understanding of information to provide more productive and intuitive use. According to semantic web pioneer Nova Spivack, these platforms will be more connected, open and intelligent. They will have semantic web technologies, distributed databases, natural language processing, machine learning, machine reasoning and autonomous agents.

Often, however, it isn’t just the creation of completely new tools that can help meet researcher needs. Even small upgrades to existing technologies can have a significant impact on the daily lives of time-strapped researchers. Simple tasks such as downloading and renaming PDF files can be cumbersome if the correct technological “add-ons” are not in place. Data management and text-mining enhancements such as citation tracking and affiliation identification can facilitate a more efficient and effective research process. The more time publishers can give back to the busy scientific community through a continuous advancement of tools and technologies, the better the global research output.

Falling borders

The internet has not only facilitated the astonishing growth of accessible information. It has also opened the doors to researchers around the world who may not previously have had the opportunity to share their insights and breakthroughs easily with colleagues in the scientific community. International collaboration doubled between 1990 and 2005, according to a study by Caroline Wagner of George Washington University and Loet Leydesdorff of the University of Amsterdam in 2005, and it is no coincidence that the growth rate of world internet usage during the last five years of this period was 189 per cent.

The democratising effect of the web has encouraged other countries, which were not traditionally thought of as research centres, to make their presence known in the face of powerhouses such as the USA. While the USA remains the number-one country with respect to scientific articles published each year, an enormous jump in research productivity can be seen among burgeoning nations. China, for example, experienced a 505 per cent increase in total articles published between 1997 and 2007 according to Scopus, Elsevier’s abstract and citation database.

A recent article by Richard Klavans and Kevin Boyack further suggests that, while studies show the USA maintaining a dominant role in science and engineering, there are increasing concerns that the country’s position in these two areas is eroding. This is particularly true in the physical sciences. Furthermore, the article says it has been well established that the US share of worldwide publications has been declining over the past few decades.

Borders are also falling between the fields of science as multidisciplinary research becomes the norm. In fact, the European Union is currently awarding grants specifically for inter-disciplinary projects.

Connecting researchers

Expected to reach outside their fields and across the globe, researchers are seeking new ways to facilitate collaboration. US academic research managers said in a study conducted on behalf of Elsevier that their preeminent professional need for the internet was as a medium for collaboration and for the exchange of ideas.

As scientists seek new and faster ways to connect with potential partners around the world, new platforms are being built to facilitate the process. The research community is beginning to explore the possibility of using social networks, Web 2.0, and early Web 3.0 ideas to help the research process. A recent survey from 2collab, Elsevier’s research collaboration platform, revealed that over half of science, medical and technical information specialists working in academia and government institutions believe social networking will play a key role in shaping the future of research.

Strengthening links in the chain

One seemingly simple step to enhancing research output is opening channels for communication among the stakeholders – scientists, librarians, research administrators and academic administrators. Each of these groups plays a unique but important part in the larger goal of identifying breakthroughs. Communication between the groups is key to understanding the interdependent nature of their actions and roles.

As scientific knowledge becomes more and more about what’s available online instead of what’s available on the bookshelf, librarians in particular can play an even more important role – acting as the global knowledge manager for their institutions. They can lead the charge by striving to put systems in place that simplify the discovery process and facilitate collaboration. The result will be improved research productivity, added grant income and an overall enhanced perception of their university. These outcomes are near and dear to the hearts of research and academic administrators who ultimately are responsible for the library budgets. In fact, a 2006 study conducted by Judy Luther of the University of Illinois, USA, showed that for every dollar invested in the library, there was a return of $4.38 in grant income.

Holistic measurement

The development of performance management and evaluation technologies is an even greater imperative now; decisionmakers need better tools to evaluate research-driven returns-on-investment. Government agencies have an increased need for transparency and accountability for the tax dollars invested in research. Universities need further direction as they struggle to compete globally, maintain prestige and attract top talent while dealing with the resource strain created by today’s slowing economy.

Current measurement metrics do not offer a true picture of where the competition is headed, or where the research white spaces are located. Academic administrators responsible for their university’s reputation and funding need to be able to evaluate research output on an institutional, departmental and even country level to make the right strategic investment decisions, including hiring the best and brightest talent.

Without a holistic view of the research landscape, they are left trying to navigate rudderless in an ocean of competition. The fallout of this stretches beyond their own institutions as the collective decisions academic administrators make regarding research investments have a direct impact on the advancement of science.

New tools are emerging that offer both a big picture and a granular view of current performance. They can help administrators as well as researchers and department chairs get an accurate view of their weaknesses in order to fill the gaps as well as identify opportunities to create centres of excellence. These solutions also allow for a peek at the achievements of other institutions and research teams. Among other things, this valuable insight can be used for selecting collaboration partners, deciding which grants to pursue, hiring and determining where to invest funds.

Shedding light on the path ahead

With the continued deluge of information, the heightened competitive reality, the need for increased global and multidisciplinary collaboration and the difficulties of benchmarking performance, all parties invested in research productivity are demanding new solutions.

Ultimately, the universities and researchers who understand the need to rethink the status quo and leverage new technologies will create the information model for research in 2020 and beyond. While there may be growing pains experienced along the way, the final outcomes offer great promise in bringing new innovation to society.

Jay Katzen is managing director for academic and government products at Elsevier