|Expanding Access to Science and Technology (UNU, 1994, 462 pages)|
|Session 1: Access to science and technology and the information revolution|
|Keynote presentation: the impact of information technology on the access to science|
Access to technical information is crucial to all phases of the scientific process. However, a scientist's information needs can vary from simple items like laboratory instrument manuals and catalogues to megabytes of data telemetered from a space probe millions of miles away. In discussing the effect of modern information technology on data access, it is helpful to break the subject down into several categories of information requirements; for example:
- access by research scientists to raw data obtained elsewhere
- access to the archival scientific literature
- access to reliable factual data
- access by government officials and the public at large to scientific findings that affect the general welfare
These aspects will be discussed in turn and important differences noted.
In certain fields of science, the common pattern is for many scientists, often in different countries, to collaborate on analysing the data obtained in a single large facility. One example is high-energy physics, where a few extremely expensive particle accelerators provide data for a worldwide community of theoretical physicists. Another is space science, where the data gathered by satellites and space probes are distributed to many investigators for interpretation. In such areas, networks are already in place that allow access to massive amounts of data by dozens (sometimes hundreds) of researchers who are collaborating on a project. Electronic bulletin boards and computer conferences allow the participants to try out new ideas and obtain their colleagues' reactions virtually in real time. This has introduced a new dimension to scientific collaboration, especially at the international level. While those involved in "big science" led the way, many others who are working on more modest research problems have adopted the same approach. We can expect a rapid growth of this type of research collaboration as low-cost, high-capacity networks are introduced throughout the world. The possibilities for bringing third-world scientists into collaborations of this kind are particularly intriguing.
The second type of access is to the archival scientific literature. As this literature has grown over the last generation, it has become increasingly difficult for scientists to follow their fields of interest. The introduction of on-line searching of abstract files 25 years ago has been a major factor in alleviating this problem. This facility is now available in every major field of science, making it possible to search millions of papers in a very short time and retrieve citations to pertinent documents. The next step in this evolution will be to make the full text of scientific papers accessible electronically. Experiments of this type have already started. The American Chemical Society provides on-line access to its journals, but without the graphical items. European publishers in the biomedical area have established the ADONIS program, which provides current journals to libraries in CD-ROM form. A purely electronic journal, Current Clinical Trials, has been started by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to publish papers on testing of new drugs. A new "paper" is accessible via an on-line network within 24 hours of its acceptance by the editor. Thus, the momentum is building for a transition from the traditional printed journal, which has served as the archival record of science for the last 300 years, to a new pattern of electronic dissemination.
Access to numerical data and other forms of factual information presents a different set of considerations. This type of information has traditionally been published in handbooks and compilations; it represents a distillation (ideally, including a measure of critical analysis) of the data reported in the archival literature. Such data are needed at every level, from basic research to engineering. Great strides have been made in the use of computer technology for accessing this kind of data; a more detailed discussion appears later in the paper.
The final topic deals with the needs of public officials and private citizens. In the early days of computers, certain visionaries predicted that every government official would soon be able to access the full information base of science, leading to a better understanding and wiser decisions. Expensive demonstration systems have even been built for this purpose. However, the reality has not quite met the promise. There are too many opportunities for a non-technical person to misinterpret or misuse the results that he can instantly access via an electronic system. Quick access is not so important as a balanced, intelligent analysis of the information. In this arena, the human mind is still far ahead of the computer.
It should not be inferred that these dramatic advances in the techniques for accessing scientific information have occurred without problems. In fact, the introduction of electronic technology has put a great deal of stress on our traditional information mechanisms. There is a widespread perception in the scientific community that electronic access is too expensive. On the other hand, many organizations in the information business have found that the revenue from new electronic services does not make up for the ensuing loss of income from their traditional printed products. The scientific societies that publish scholarly journals in their fields are deeply concerned about the economics of the new media. Many questions of copyright and protection of intellectual property in the electronic age remain unsolved. The institution of peer review, which has been so important in maintaining the integrity of scientific publications, is threatened by the computer bulletin boards offering rapid but unscreened access to new research. New mechanisms will be needed to assure that scientists receive proper credit for their intellectual contributions, since the origin of individual pieces of data is sometimes lost when they are incorporated in large databases. Like all upheavals, the information revolution is causing its share of disruptions in the behaviour patterns and culture of the scientific community.