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close this bookExpanding Access to Science and Technology (UNU, 1994, 462 pages)
close this folderSession 1: Access to science and technology and the information revolution
close this folderKeynote presentation: the impact of information technology on the access to science
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentAbstract
View the document1. Introduction
View the document2. Diversity of information requirements
View the document3. Numeric and factual databases
View the document4. Evaluation and quality control
View the document5. Traditional access mechanisms
View the document6. Electronic access to scientific data
View the document7. Data as an international commodity
View the document8. The future
View the documentReferences
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5. Traditional access mechanisms

Until the present generation, most scientific data were stored as ink on paper, in the form of tables of numbers or graphs. These data can be accessed in the archival research literature that is preserved in major libraries. Some journals maintain depositories, often as microfilm, where authors can put additional data too voluminous to print in a journal article. However, retrieving data from the primary literature is not an easy task, even with the help of abstracting services. Most abstracting and indexing services are oriented more to concepts, ideas, and theories than to the data content of a paper.

In the physical sciences, the need to aggregate and organize the data in the primary literature became apparent more than a century ago. The great German handbooks, such as Beilstein, Gmelin, and Landoldt-Bornstein, were started at that time in order to give scientists easier access to data. This represented a great advance, and the handbooks still function today. Another important step occurred in the 1920s, when the International Critical Tables were published [13]. This project introduced the idea of critical evaluation and selection of the best data, rather than simply recording all data found in the literature. More recently, other publication outlets for evaluated data in physics and chemistry have appeared. The Journal of Physical and Chemical Reference Data was started in 1972 as a joint project of the American Chemical Society, American Institute of Physics, and the National Bureau of Standards. This journal publishes papers with recommended data based upon an evaluation of all pertinent values found in the literature; the method of evaluation and criteria for selecting the data are fully documented. Somewhat similar publication series have been started in Germany and in the former Soviet Union. International organizations such as CODATA, IUPAC (the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry), and IUCr (the International Union of Crystallography) have also published many high-quality data books. Such efforts not only make data easier to locate but also assure that the user gets the most reliable values.

Much data in the geo- and biosciences is also preserved in the primary literature and in handbooks and compilations. In addition, certain types of data have traditionally been kept at the site of the measurements or in special depositories. Museums and culture collections are important repositories for biological data. Astronomical observatories have collections of photographic plates of stellar observations going back many years. The system of World Data Centers was set up by the ICSU at the time of the 1957 International Geophysical Year to preserve data from various geophysical observations, including earthquakes, solar flares, and tidal waves. An important feature of the World Data Centers is that records are duplicated at several sites throughout the world, in order to protect against loss of data through a disaster at one of the centres.

Patterns for storing and making accessible scientific data, even before the computer age, were therefore quite diverse. Many directories have been prepared to help scientists locate data, especially data in fields outside their own specialties. Two recent efforts of this type can be mentioned. CODATA has produced a CODATA Referral Database in computerized form that contains descriptions of data centres and depositories throughout the world [3]. It does not supply factual data but is intended to guide a user to organizations that can possibly provide the data needed; many of these data sources are particularly oriented to developing countries. The International Council of Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI) has recently published a directory of numerical databases [11] that is also a useful guide.