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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Science on-line
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image Science on-line
RTD info special "Talking Science"
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  With its wealth of scientific resources, the Internet is an exceptional communication tool for professionals or mediators. New search tools are now also making it easier for the general public to navigate a path through this profusion of information. Two experts on this new mass medium, Jon Bing, of the Norwegian Research Centre for Computing and Law, and Robert Cailliau, a physicist at CERN in Geneva, share their thoughts.
   
     
   

'Although conferences, exhibitions and other events organised directly or indirectly by the scientific community have a role to play, it is from the media that members of the public obtain most of their scientific information.' This was the view expressed by Claude Birraux of the European People's Party on 25 January, addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Among the potential information resources, his Report on scientific communication gives pride of place to the Internet, which 'makes available to those interested a multitude of information on science subjects, explained at very different levels by researchers, individuals, laboratories, museums, universities, etc.' Is this simply a concession to the prevailing mood of the times or does the Internet really have a part to play in disseminating scientific information? If so, what are its distinguishing features? What sections of the population is it aimed at? Who runs the sites? And under what conditions could the web satisfy the hopes invested in it?

The benefit of immediacy
Jon Bing, of the Norwegian Research Centre for Computing and Law in Oslo, believes that the Internet is different to other media by virtue of its 'interactivity, which enables the ‘Internaut’ to obtain information on subjects of his or her own choosing, although the search engines still need to be improved.' Robert Cailliau, a physicist at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research, Geneva) and one of the co-inventors of the World Wide Web, believes that 'the Internet can also function as a meeting place as it is connected to electronic mail'.

The other distinctive feature of the web is the immediate availability of the information. You simply type on your computer keyboard and it appears on your screen. 'This is a key feature for most people who would not take the time to go to the local library to look for a book on science, even if they knew it was available,' stresses Jon Bing. He admits, however, that the absence of any survey on Internet use and the lack of a historical perspective prevents us from really knowing who uses the Internet, apart from the professional providers of scientific information whose working practices it has revolutionised (see The media's medium).

Dangers of excess
Paradoxically, the Internet's very accessibility, interactivity and abundance of information can be an obstacle to its use by the general public. How can the layman find his or her way around this huge resource and separate the good from the bad? 'The same questions were raised when printing was first invented,' points out the Norwegian researcher. 'The need now is to develop the navigating and guidance strategies – what we call meta-information – to enable us to take our bearings in a prolific environment, comparable to that of a large library. In Europe, these strategies have not been developed sufficiently to enable the correct use of the web, and in particular to determine what information is reliable. It will take time for solutions to emerge. Traditional librarians and documentalists will certainly have a pilot role to play in sorting out this chaos.' This is exactly what is happening, in fact, at the major US universities which provide remarkable scientific metasites, serving as directories and sending visitors to carefully selected sites on specific subjects, on-line libraries and learning tools (see box).

But of course you first have to know they exist. The surest way of finding your way around the web is therefore to consult other media which cover the subject. 'Ideally, the press could compile Internet orientation and navigation indexes. An announcement of scientific news would then be the occasion to go on the Internet to find out more,' believes Jon Bing.

Sites in their own right
Considerable investment is, however, required to launch a metasite or a general scientific information portal, if it is not to disappear rapidly. Robert Cailliau believes that 'a good popular science site should be seen as a museum. You need buildings, personnel, content, and new events all the time. It has to be inhabited and maintained on a daily basis. That takes a lot of effort and a number of full-time staff. Above all, I believe it must be approached as an end in itself. Too many sites, and especially science sites, are in fact a sideline of quite a different principal activity.' But a science site is not necessarily going to be profitable and, unless it has direct public funding, it must be supported by an institution - a university, research centre, museum, foundation or educational association, for example.

So is this lack of resources the reason for Europe's current shortage of general sites? As a public instrument for the dissemination of science, the Internet remains somewhat in the making in Europe. While accepting that better use could be made of it, Robert Cailliau is nevertheless confident, believing that it 'is certainly a vehicle of the future'. He would like to see the emergence of 'a European science site developed as an institution in its own right, independent, with a public education vision but also constituting a resource for teachers'.


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US-style metasites

The main problem facing the Internet user trying to find scientific information is that of sorting through it all. By its very nature, the Internet provides access to pages proposed by the widest range of people and organisations - from the most respectable institutions to the craziest of individuals and including commercial companies guided by their own interests. So how can you find what you want? That is essentially the job librarians and documentalists do every day in the libraries of universities and other scientific institutions. Making the results of their efforts available on the web is therefore a natural solution - which is why major US universities have set up metasites, acting as genuine sorting houses with directories and science sites selected for their reliable content and classified per subject. They also often provide access to documents held by the library, downloadable courses and even educational tools.

Launched in 1990 and run since 1993 by the University of Berkeley (California), the Librarians Index to the Internet offers 'information you can trust'. The metasite operators have selected, and continue to monitor, more than 10 000 sites covering every field of science. At the University of Wisconsin, the team from the on-line publication Internet Scout Project, financed by the National Science Foundation, have 'scouted' hundreds of sites every day since 1994 and archived the best. Also worthy of mention is the Directory of Internet Science Resources operated by Georgia University Library.

The Internet Public Library of Michigan University seeks, evaluates and creates document bases for the general public, although its main activity is to study the problems the Internet poses for documentalists. Documentalists need tools too, of course, which is the reason behind the portal of the University of Lund in Sweden. This rather austere site is extremely rich, complex (complete?) and provides links to hundreds of other sites, metasites or specialised resources. It is a valuable tool for the professional.

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Sites

Librarians index to the Internet
http://www.lii.org/search/file/science/

Internet scout project
http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/

Directory of Internet service resources
http://www.libs.uga.edu/

Internet Public Library
http://www.ipl.org/

For documentalists:
http://www.lub.lu.se/netlab/documents/lisres.html

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