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Discovering the scientific conversation

January 18, 2011

I often like to think of science as a conversation.  It is a conversation that other folks need to be able to hear, so it needs to be discoverable.

We’ve come a long way since da Vinci wrote his notes in code.  Research results are regularly published as journal articles, and references and citations attempt to credit previous work.  The conversation of science could (at one point) be seen as the steady progression of peer-reviewed journal articles and technical comments, with some conference proceedings thrown in for good measure.

Conveniently, this was fairly easy (if expensive and time consuming) to access and preserve.  Publishers originally worked with print index makers and eventually digital database folks.  Conference abstracts were often preserved, even if the actual presentation wasn’t.  And each discipline typically had one primary source to find this information: GeoRef for the geologists or Chemical Abstracts for the chemists.

Things are changing.  And the ScienceOnline2011 conference provided a lot of examples of this new conversation in action.

The peer-reviewed journal article is no longer the only place where this conversation is taking place.  Scientists are commenting on and rating papers on publisher websites.  Scholars are making comments via twitter and friendfeed.  Bloggers are providing detailed (and informed) commentary on published papers, making suggestions for further research and trying to re-create published experiments.  Scientists are citing and archiving data that is stored all over the place.

So, how can researchers and student follow this conversation?

Just a few of problems:

  • Comments, ratings and supplemental material are usually not indexed in the traditional research databases we point students to.
  • Google is great at uncovering conference presentations posted on SlideShare or Google Docs, but not so great at making the connection between the presentation and the conference abstract.
  • If researchers access a journal article via an aggregator (not through the publishers website) they probably won’t have access to the supplemental material
  • Will the non-article material be preserved?
  • Will a published journal article link back to the Open Notebook that was used during the course of the experiment?  Will that notebook be preserved?
  • Most research databases and publisher websites don’t provide links to blog posts commenting about the article.

Is this a problem for researchers, or just for librarians and science historians?

I spend a lot of time in classrooms teaching students how to track citations forward and backward in time using tools such as Scopus and Google Scholar.  But if Scopus is stripping out citations to archived data, and if there is no connection to the blog post that sparked a whole new research direction, they aren’t seeing the whole story.

Is there a need for a more complicated discovery system that searches everything and makes the appropriate connections?  Is the semantic web a solution to these problems?

While I don’t know the answer, I will continue to look for ways to expose undergraduates to this exciting conversation of science.

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