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The value of information

Two weeks ago I participated in a strategy workshop organized by Arthur D. Little and the German Ministry for Education and Science (BMBF). As part of our talks we discussed the value of scientific information as well as the existing scientific information distribution and access structures. As two major problems we identified that scientists are not really aware of a variety of information resources they could access, and that publication and valuation processes will intensively change within the next years.

To provide you with the corresponding background: the BMBF commissioned the management consultant Arthur D. Little and the ‘Gesellschaft für Innovationsforschung und Beratung’ to analyse the German WTI system (“wissenschaftlich-technische Information”) and to develop a strategy concept for the future of scientific and technical information. This study will be the basis of the future German federal government policy regarding specialist information. In a first step the consultants did a survey targeting 10.000 scientists working at universities or non-academic research institutions as well as 10.000 industry and service companies with an extensive use of information. In a second step the results and early recommendations are discussed by industry insiders and checked for their practicability. I myself was invited for one of this second level workshops that also included the directors of the three German special information centres, several representatives of university libraries, scientists, and others, overall a group of about 15 information specialists with a focus on scientific information.

Giving you a very personal impression, to my opinion the information providers do not really know their client: the scientist working at the bench. During my time as ‘lab rat’ we did not really miss anything as regards information. We had a nice library, we had the internet, and the first internet databases for literature, sequences, ect. started these days. Additionally there has always been the possibility to ‘clone by phone’ or to get information via direct contacts in labs working at the same questions. Nobody told us about STN and other special information providers. And I think we would not have used it for two reasons: the costs (in the lab you have a regular budget for enzymes and pipette tips . but usually you have no true budget for information) and the missing knowledge regarding the retrieval languages (what student is educated in command languages like messenger, e.g.?).

I am sure that this situation will change. I cannot tell you if this will happen within the next 5 years or within the next 15 years, but societies will learn that information itself has a value. Someone once even said that information is the gold of the 21st century. We already have a development within the western societies that people that have a privileged access to – for example – business information and are able to process it do have an advantage over their competitors. This is also valid for scientific information. But . the overall amount of scientific information is increasing logarithmically and the scientist needs more and more pre-selected information regarding his topics and questions. You cannot read all articles in all journals of your discipline AND do successful bench work. You only have 24 hours a day. And you do not really have the place for the growing stacks of publication copies on your desk (wouldn’t it fit your needs to have access to digitalized copies?!). So far there is public structure that supports the bench scientist with these problems. So, we really have to think about improved information infrastructures for the scientific community.

And we have to find a solution of the bivalent situation that on the one hand the public pays for science (and by this for the resulting scientific information), and on the other hand scientists have to pay for scientific information – respectively they or their libraries already do by their journal subscriptions. Perhaps we have to understand that not only the information but also information processing is worth to be paid, for example if you think about information pre-selection, journalistic ‘digestion’, services that help to be more focussed, and publication providers.

Revised version of the article “The value of information”, originally published in October 2001 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255.

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