A joint venture between Microsoft Research and the British Library is looking to address the needs of researchers as ‘extreme information users'.
Going to extremes: The Research Information Centre
Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President of the External Research Division with Microsoft Research, knows what the problem is. “There is a change happening in science,” he says. “In the next five years, we undoubtedly will collect more scientific data than we've collected so far in the whole of human history.”
The result? “Scientists won't be able to look at every piece individually but instead will need to use computing tools to aid in the interpretation of vast amounts of information. There's a unique role right now for computer science and the IT industry to help scientists explore their data,” says Hey. Soon, he adds, it will be impossible to do any kind of science without computational tools – and the more advanced and powerful, the better for the scientist and the science.
Now, a collaboration between Microsoft Research and the British Library is seeking to become part of the solution.
“It is evident that the Internet's Web 2.0 work style has reached science. Acknowledging that, our aim was and is to address ‘pain points' of research project management with an adaptable framework for managing the information resources and flow in collaborative research projects,” says Roger Barga, Principal Architect in Microsoft's External Research group, describing the motivation for the Research Information Centre (RIC), the virtual research environment being jointly developed by Microsoft Research and the British Library.
“We view researchers as extreme information workers, who in order to carry out a project must search and navigate a range of web services, access remote data and compute resources, share and manage document collections, and collaborate in virtual teams,” Roger Barga continues. In designing the RIC, the collaborators have tried to match the needs of scientists with technological concepts available to create something new.
A series of new information models have emerged which promote a level of social interaction that can be consumed on a contextual basis where one opts in to contribute or consume content. The information models are primarily focused on blogs, wikis, social networks and alert functions. This content is typically exposed through a basic web application and distributed as a service, such as RSS. These models have worked well for rapid distribution and syndication of information on the Web and are now being harnessed within science projects.
The Situation Today
It should be abundantly clear [...] that the amount and complexity of scientific data are increasing exponentially. Scientists have difficulty in keeping up with this ‘data deluge'. It is increasingly clear that, as a consequence, the way scientists interact with the data and with one another is undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift. The traditional sequence of “experiment > analysis > publication” is changing to “experiment > data organisation > analysis > publication” as more and more scientific data are ingested directly into databases, even before the data are analysed.
The Web and associated technical advances will dramatically shape scientific publishing and communication over the next 14 years. Perhaps the greatest effect of the Web on science to date has been seen in scientific publishing or, more broadly defined, in scientific communication. Given that science is a global endeavour and that the web is arguably the most effective global communication medium yet devised, this should not come as a surprise.
Towards 2020 Science, Microsoft Research Cambridge, 2006
Focus on biomedicine
The first implementation of the RIC focuses on the biomedical researcher, as this builds on the British Library‘s existing strength in this domain. “We beta-tested the initial version with biomedical research teams in the UK and US and in other sites around the world. It moves beyond the existing ‘self-service' provision of information resources from the British Library, to a model which is much more embedded in the environment that scientists are now working in on a day-to-day basis,” says Richard Boulderstone, Director for e-Strategy and Information Systems at the British Library. However, the base architecture of RIC is designed so that it can be easily re-used for research in other domains as well.
The RIC is a workspace that presents the researcher with the most common tasks that are to be conducted in each research project. In doing so, it reflects a process model, providing structure to the research process, easy access to resources, guidance and tools to manage information assets, along with integrated collaboration services, enabling the researcher to be more efficient by helping focus on the primary activity – the research itself. “We modelled the research process as a series of phases or steps. A researcher is assumed to be working on a number of research projects simultaneously with other members of the team distributed around the world but connected to the Internet,” says Roger Barga.
To this end, the RIC was designed to encompass all aspects of this research lifecycle: a view of the various phases of the project is provided to allow the user to navigate through the project, carry out specific tasks, access tools, invoke help for particular areas and mark off progress against the plan. For example, an idea creation area is provided for researchers to evaluate a topic, identify possible collaborators and search for funding opportunities; and a content area is provided where users can access identified content sources applicable to their projects.
Likewise, a number of key resources have been identified as being relevant and incorporated into this British Library version. These were sourced from interviews, focus groups and general discussions with researchers undertaken as part of projects and studies in which the British Library has been involved.
The Research Information Centre: an online portal for researchers looking for literature and sharing publications.
In summary, says Richard Boulderstone, “The Research Information Centre is a networked service we're developing to support STM researchers at every stage of the research process. From integrated searching of relevant databases, to alerts from the funding bodies that make research viable; including collaborative project-based working, analysis and modelling – right the way through to publishing and disseminating research findings.”
Alex Wade, Director for Scholarly Communication in the Microsoft External Research team, envisages an active ecosystem of tools and services around this platform. “We are building an open and freely available researcher-focused platform on top of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, which will allow the community to build, share, and evolve the tools and features of the RIC, and also to leverage the rich feature set and developer community that already exists around the Office platform. “Since our driving goal is transforming scholarly communication, then closely partnering with the community – researchers, scholarly publishers, libraries and archives – will be the key to success,” says Wade, responsible for managing Microsoft's engagement on this project.
The Way to the Future ...
…Yet the potential for the web to completely reshape scientific communication – and in doing so to reshape scientific research itself – is underestimated.
The grand challenge for scientific communication is not merely to adjust the economics of publishing to reflect new realities, but rather to redefine the very concept of a scientific publication. Only in this way will scientific publishing remain relevant and fulfil its duty to help accelerate the pace of scientific discovery now that we are unconstrained by many restrictions imposed by print.
One of the most obvious ways in which online scientific publications can improve is to provide the reader with a degree of interactivity.
Online pages can be generated the moment they are requested. Scientific content is ripe for personalisation, different types of readers are looking for very different things, and the range of interests cannot be served with one document.
Within 5 years we should see much richer mutual linking between journals and databases, and in a 10 or 15 year timeframe we will see the rise of new kinds of publications that offer the best of both of these worlds.
Discussion and dialogue
The meme of the moment is the “two-way web” in which users are not merely passive consumers but active participants and tools based on these concepts will become an important way for scientists to organise, share and discover information, building and extending on-line collaborative social networks.
As the volumes of scientific text and data continue to balloon, finding timely, relevant information is an increasing challenge for researchers in every discipline. New functionality will be provided in the online versions of papers and their relationship with their print versions will be redefined. This means that scientific publishing and communications will need to continually adapt, and at a faster pace than in the past.