Scientific information- where are the visions?

Well, honestly, things are on the move these days. Scientists and publishers are discussing new ways of publishing scientific results. EMBO starts an initiative to set up a platform that will provide services relating to access and retrieval of digital information in the life sciences, ranging from bibliographic or factual data to published full text – E-BioSci. Even database publishers draw nearer academic institutions to promote their content products.

Last week scientists and information providers met at the 8th annual meeting of the German Information and Communication Initiative of the Learned Societies entitled “Open Systems for the Communication in Science and Research”. The conference wanted to discuss the latest national developments as well as strategies on how to improve the scientific information workflow.

The talks and presentations concentrated on three major points: the future of scientific publication, current developments in information infrastructures, and multimedia in academic education and training. Not more!? To my opinion every single topic would have been enough for an own conference. But the organizers aimed at giving an overview and … bringing people from different disciplines together.

I am sure you know the problem. For some reason communication between the academic disciplines often does not really exist but on the paper. Focussing on improving the supply of the scientific community with specialist information, we observe a variety of ‘island-solutions’. Young scientists are used to free internet information sources but are still completely unexperienced with using ‘valuable’ databases. How could they … there is no awareness of information with costs. The problem is well known. And now we are coming back to the lack of communication. Many scientific groups are developing strategies in parallel, to provide scientific labs with database information e.g.. Many solutions never really had a chance because they are redundant. Many resources are used in parallel without looking for synergies and if there could be a common way.

Let’s think capitalistic … or evolutionary: The best(?) system will survive! OK. This works on the international information markets where one can observe concentration movements towards Thomson, Elsevier and some other players. But do our academic structures really have the resources – as regards time and money – to waste it in a try-and-error development? Would it not be better to coordinate international – at least national – efforts? Should we not move on with a common focus and thereby free money for other things?

The first step in developing a common strategy is a vision, something that can be set as one’s goal. No ‘destination’ – no strategy. When you build a road you already know where you start from, but you also need to know where to go. Unfortunately my conclusion after this conference is that there are no true visions. Again we are developing strategies without a direction and wasting scientific resources and money.

What we really need is more communication. Not only communication between information providers and academic users. Also, communication between the disciplines, communication between the scientists. And this conference was not the solution but a very first step. The results have to prove their worth in real life.

Revised version of the article “Scientific information- where are the visions?”, originally published in March 2002 by Inside-Lifescience, ISSN 1610-0255.

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.