Carr, Leslie Alan
Access Changes Everything: The Benefits of Open Access and Open Semantics for Researchers.
At ELPUB 2004: ICCC Electronic Publishing COnference 2004, Brasilia, Brazil,
23 - 26 Jun 2004.
Open Access, the movement to make scholarly and scientific information openly available, has become a prominent idea in recent years, spawning efforts to revise the publishing industry and to establish public archives of research material.
In 1937 the English scholar H G Wells (best known for his science fiction stories like The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine) declared that there was no practical obstacle to the formation of a collection of the whole world’s published knowledge in microfilm to render it universally accessible. Less than a decade later Vannevar Bush (Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, USA) proposed a similar system that would help researchers to capitalise on such universal access by adding mechanisms that would later come to inspire hypertext links.
Neither proposal was developed into a product, but they demonstrate the drive for Open Access on a global scope stretching back over sixty years, predating not just the World Wide Web and the Internet but the digital computer as well. They expose the maturity of the need for a system to augment the publishing process and its familiar artefacts to assist scientists and to make their work more effective.
The accepted role of scientific and scholarly publication is to record research activity in a timely fashion, keeping others in the research community up-to-date with current developments. Until very recently, it has been the case that printed journals were the most efficient method for the dissemination and archival of research results. Technical advances in the past two decades have allowed the process of scholarly communication to take other forms, particularly in the dissemination of articles via the World Wide Web.
The scientific process critically depends on dissemination – on the exposure of the work to other scientists who can validate, replicate and build on the work as it has been communicated in a research article. Access to these articles (representing the work of other scientists) is important to me because it informs the work that I wish to undertake. Conversely, my access to the other scientists’ work is important to them because it signifies the impact of their work (as eventually evidenced by a citation of their article). Hence improving access (the objective of the Open Access movement) inevitably improves impact – the observed influence of the work (the basis of a scientist’s promotion and career advancement) and ultimately the advancement of science.
The effect of facilitating access does not end with scientists reading more; providing open access to scientific information allows new kinds of interaction and engagement with the literature. At their most basic, services can collect and aggregate the literature providing global access. By examining the full texts they can provide search engines and undertake categorisation and classification. More sophisticated services extract citations from each article to enable ranking and co-citation community mapping.
All of these benefits depend on the existence of well-described articles; open access archives exchange precisely-defined metadata about each article with the services that build on them. This metadata, is collected from the authors as part of the deposit process and is part of a responsibility that Open Access imparts to the researcher of becoming a curator of their own intellectual output. This responsibility requires researchers not only to make each piece of scientific output accessible but also to explicitly and accurately annotate them.
Beyond the boundaries of the scientific and scholarly world another development in electronic communication has emphasised the need to make dissemination more explicit. The Semantic Web is an attempt by the Web Consortium to make the Web more meaningful to humans and computers alike. Current standards for Web pages address the display environment, describing how to make marks on a screen. Instead of expressing the meaning of documents in terms of fonts, headings and paragraphs, Semantic Web standards express the meaning (i.e. semantics) of a document or piece of data in terms of the significant concepts that it contains and to which it refers. These concepts and their inter-relationships are laid out in ontologies – agreed models of the relationships between the significant concepts that are relevant to the real world.
The purpose of the Semantic Web is to make the meaning of data objects explicit, so that programs can accurately understand the context and purpose of information without having to interpret the Web’s formatting markup. This will lead to more accurate search and cataloguing facilities, allow trading agents to correctly identify the terms and conditions of items and services offered for sale and check the provenance of a published statement. Because ontologies focus on the relationship between concepts, different kinds of information may be integrated so that isolated collections of legacy data may be combined and used together in new ways.
This puts information scientists in the role of building digital bridges between islands of meaning, that is enabling users to work with a wide variety of material irrespective of administrative, technical and application barriers, opening access to information that is currently locked in databases and only used for tightly-defined applications.
Both the Semantic Web initiative and the Open Access movement promote metadata to centre stage. Both require users (knowledge workers) to become digital curators, to put effort into declaring and defining their digital artefacts. This requires a change of attitude and working practice, but will reap future benefits. We can begin to engage with this semantically enriched future very simply, by starting open access institutional archives and sharing the metadata for our papers and articles with a new generation of information services.
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