A global information system needs a culture of sharing
Few would question the important role that science, technology and innovation have played in building today's knowledge society. However, "science" in the 21st century is very different from what it was 50 or even 10 years ago. Science is increasingly international and interdisciplinary; it often crosses traditional barriers of institutions, geography, language and culture. State-of-the-art research involves creating and using data sets of unprecedented size and complexity. With the world looking to science to find solutions to global problems, the need to safeguard, evaluate and exchange information and knowledge has never been more pressing.
Scientists have a long tradition of collaborating and sharing their research results through peer-reviewed journals. Over the last decade, the Internet has speeded up and greatly expanded the research communication system. This evolving system will ensure that the knowledge generated through science - our investment in the future - can be used effectively to tackle the most fundamental problems facing our society.
So, what is Canada's vision for a 21st-century global system for disseminating and communicating research data? Above all, our goal must be to maximize the impact of research for societies everywhere, not just the developed world. People in developing nations must be able to access and contribute to the vitality of the global research information and communications system. An open-access philosophy is critical to the system's success: if research findings and knowledge are to be built upon and used by other scientists, then this knowledge must be widely available on the web, not just stored in published journals that are often expensive and not universally available.
From a Canadian perspective, a 21st century research communications system would share certain attributes. It would:
- take full advantage of the enormous potential of new information and communication technologies;
- be capable of handling an unprecedented flow of information in a wide variety of formats;
- bring Canadian research knowledge to the world and bring the world's research knowledge to Canada;
- be accessible by all Canadians, in all sectors, ensuring that public investment in scientific research leads to wealth creation and improvements in social and cultural well-being.
With this type of system a researcher could access, from any corner of the globe, the full texts of relevant journal articles; a comprehensive set of monographs and theses; research data sets that underlie published outcomes; research reports and non-peer-reviewed research materials from both academia and government; and the electronic tools necessary to manage this volume of material.
Creating a system with these attributes is no longer just a question of developing appropriate technologies; for the most part these already exist. Rather, it's a matter of building, integrating and improving the technical infrastructure, operational standards, research support systems, regulations and institutional roles and responsibilities. It's also a matter of nurturing a culture of open access and sharing, beyond what researchers have ever embraced.
Canada is fortunate to have a number of key building blocks in place to facilitate the development of such a system. These include a network of institutional repositories at 26 university research libraries linked by regional initiatives, such as the Ontario Scholars Portal, and a national repository through the National Research Council's Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (CISTI). We have a high-capacity optical data pipeline connecting our universities in CANARIE's Ca*net4, and a leading online publisher in the Quebec-based non-profit service érudit.
We still face challenges in building our infrastructure. We need to break down institutional silos, update our regulatory frameworks, help stakeholders become more familiar with new communication channels, and provide adequate training and funding for all this to happen.
Building an effective global information system consists both of this infrastructure and perhaps more importantly a culture of open access and sharing. This is harder to build than the nuts and bolts of the system because it requires a new mindset among researchers, administrators, governments and in some cases companies - everyone involved in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
This past year has seen a major change in the way two important funders of health research do business. The National Institutes of Health in the United States and the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom both announced that all research that they fund must be archived in a free repository that's accessible by other scientists and the public.
However, filling archives, though necessary, will not be able to change the mindset of people in the research enterprise. We have to find ways to motivate researchers in all countries to preserve and exchange their research data, to publish their findings in open access journals and to deposit their published articles in institutional repositories. Granting agencies, governments and institutions must find ways to reward researchers for the real value of their collaborative work and state-of-the-art data management. Institutions, too, need to know that their investments in expanding and improving the quality of their data archives and open-access repositories are recognized as measurable scientific outputs.
Some of these issues will be broached at the World Information Summit taking place this month in Turin, Italy. Canada has to articulate a vision to meet the challenges outlined above. Unless we act, the unprecedented volume of research information will become too difficult to manage, and highly valuable research data will be lost, along with the public investment in our future.
Dr. Carty is national science adviser to the Prime Minister.