22 March 2007

Is the best science buried on the internet?

With the word Google turned into a verb, the world of research has changed. And that includes how journalists do their research. Want to bone up on an obscure topic that has hit the news? Google it. Much easier than maintaining a tattered contacts book.

There are, though, pitfalls in using Google, or whatever search engine turns you on. It is by no means a guarantee that you will find the best information.

We have evidence for this in a research paper from a group at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University. The group took home a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) of £45,173.12 for the project The World Wide Web of Science: Emerging Global Sources of Expertise. "The aim of this research project is to assess whether and to what extent the Internet and the Web are transforming access to sources of scientific expertise."

The paper that wraps up the project The World Wide Web of Science: Reconfiguring Access to Information describes what they got up to in great detail. It tells us that they looked at a set of hot topics, including "climate change, HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation, governance, and trade reform". They also set out to "triangulate on patterns of access through the use of Webmetrics, interviews and case studies of issue areas".

While this use of language explains why they got the grant from the ESRC, it doesn't make the resulting paper all that user friendly. But read on and you can see how some of the researchers they talked to go about their "Googling"and such. In essence, without the Web, these folks would have a hard time.

The Oxford group then took the interesting step of checking what is out there on the Web, a "Webmetric Analysis," and compared it with the strategies of the people they talked to. They plugged in a set of keywords and stood back and watched what happened.

One such analysis looked into the keywords "Climate Change, Climate Changes, Ozone Depletion and Global Warming". Then they refined it and drew a "Web space graph" showing the connections between the hits. The graph looks like a web created by a spider on some very dodgy drug.

The outcome is that these days many researchers "rarely use libraries or seek out offline copies of journals; this is too costly in terms of time and effort (and perhaps money for photocopying)".

The Oxford researchers really wanted to look into the notion that the Web is "democratising" science. As they put it they wanted "to explore how the Internet and Web are reinforcing the role of existing sources of information, or tending to either ‘democratize’ or centralize patterns of access conforming to the expectations of a ‘winner-take-all’ process of selection".

Their conclusions are frustratingly inconclusive. They conclude that the results:

... could suggest a reinforcement of existing networks of communication and research. Alternatively, it might represent a winner-take-all process within more specifically defined research areas. Finally, proponents of the globalizing and democratizing impact of the Internet and the Web might find evidence in the sheer size and scale – and low density - of the global networks of information exchange identified by our Webmetric analyses.
Fortunately, the researchers have let their hair down a bit and allowed themselves to put out a press release over on the ESRC's web site. Even the title, Key science websites buried in information avalanche, goes beyond anything you can immediately detect in the paper.

The release also tells us that:
New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) clearly shows that anyone using the Web to make their information available must now pay attention not only to the quality of their sites but also how easy they are to find.
I like the "clearly shows" bit. It wasn't that clear to me, but I am not a researcher in the social sciences. Other bits on the press release that are also hard to find in the paper include some interesting points.
The "visibility" of information on the Web is of increasing importance. Do people looking for research results on climate change or terrorism find themselves directed to a few top sites rather than a wide array of diverse sources? Do they encounter the most highly regarded researchers rather than marginal ones?
There's more in there, and anyone interested in the topic should read the press release as well as the paper. Dr Ralph Schroeder, one of the researchers, sums up the key messages in one of those cooked up quotes:
"This will be an issue not just for policymakers, but for educators, organisations involved in science and research communication, regulators responsible for access to the Web, and citizens who are concerned with the diversity and richness of the information world around them."
Our take is that scientists need to be a bit more careful in how they manage their web sites. Not only do they have to make them user friendly, they should also ensure that they stay up to date.

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