Brian Hitson, Chair, International Council for Scientific and Technical Information’s Technical Activities Coordinating Committee, US
The need to consolidate issues pertinent to a range of stakeholders within the scientific, technical and medical sectors is vital in the pursuit of interoperability and progress. Brian Hitson, Chair of ICSTI’s Technical Activities Coordinating Committee, US, shares an insight into the organisation’s work
Firstly, could you give a brief history of ICSTI? How did you become involved with the organisation?
ICSTI sits at a very busy intersection of stakeholders with common interests in scientific, technical, and medical communication. Like many of its members, whose histories date back 50, 100, or even 200+ years, the success of ICSTI, founded in 1985, has been its ability to adapt to change and stay relevant; it has been quick to detect and address both technical and strategic policy issues important to a broad swath of science, technology, and medical communities. Specifically, ICSTI brings together national libraries and STI/data centres, scientific unions, software and technology companies, standards organisations, and publisher groups in collaborative projects, workshops, and analytical studies. In terms of my involvement, the US Department of Energy (DOE) is the largest funder of research in the physical sciences in the US Government, and clearly it is important to make the unclassified information emanating from this investment broadly and rapidly accessible. This role – providing access to DOE’s STI – is the mission of my organisation, the Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI).
OSTI has counterpart organisations in other federal science agencies – the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, the Defence Technical Information Centre at the Department of Defence, the National Agricultural Library at the Department of Agriculture, and so on. In 2002, we worked together to provide transparent, one-stop access to practically all federal agencies’ scientific databases and websites through the federated search engine Science.gov. Many of these challenges and opportunities we face as STI centres are addressed by ICSTI.
What is the primary role of ICSTI’s Technical Activities Coordinating Committee (TACC), of which you are Chair?
The Technical Activities Coordinating Committee (TACC) is ICSTI’s forum for identifying technical interests that members have in common; for hearing and seeing very technical demonstrations of relevant products and technologies; and for developing and completing joint technical projects among subsets of members.
To put this in context, ICSTI essentially brings global STI players together on two fronts: policy issues and technical issues. The diversity of ICSTI membership naturally means that members will have diverse views of national and international information policy, but ICSTI provides a forum for sharing perspectives and broadening an understanding of individual members’ interests. On the technical front, there are surprisingly fewer differences in members’ interests. In fact, there are very common interests among members because information technology and information science are taking us all in similar directions; moreover, the needs of our respective customer bases are very similar.
Can you give some examples of current or recent projects facilitated by the TACC?
Yes, the beauty of TACC projects is that we can point to very tangible outcomes that would either not have been feasible, or would have been much more expensive for individual members to pursue independently. For example, TIB-Hannover – the German National Library of Science and Technology – worked with ICSTI members in proving the concept of data citation. This TACC project played a key role in the ultimate establishment of DataCite, a consortium of organisations which issue digital object identifiers (DOIs) to make research data accessible on the Internet. In another project, Microsoft and OSTI partnered to adapt the Microsoft Audio Video Indexing System (MAVIS) to the complex scientific vocabularies used in DOE R&D videos. This project resulted in the multimedia search engine ScienceCinema, which searches on every spoken word in 2,500 DOE and CERN videos. We are currently exploring projects in information trust and authority, data equivalence, and alternatives to traditional usage and value metrics.
Who is ICSTI partnered with, and to what extent have such partnerships furthered your work?
ICSTI has a long list of partner relationships. Generally, these are memberdriven organisations similar in structure to ICSTI but which may focus on more specialised interests of a particular ICSTI sub-community.
ICSTI has a ‘scientific associate’ relationship with the International Council for Science (ICSU), which places us particularly close to information and data needs of specific scientific communities (eg. pure and applied chemistry and physics, biology, geology, mathematics). The ICSU relationship has included longstanding links with the Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), whose work has set the stage for many of today’s big data initiatives and ICSTI’s partnership with DataCite.
Finally, the partnership with CENDI, the US-based consortium of federal STI organisations, has resulted in an ICSTI agenda that is highly relevant to US science agencies. And, of course, ICSTI’s special support of WorldWideScience.org (WWS.org) and the role it plays in the World Wide Science Alliance certainly enabled that global search engine to get off the ground and to ramp up its comprehensiveness much more quickly.
Further to the above, your organisation at the US Department of Energy is the Operating Agent for WWS.org, for which ICSTI is the principal sponsor. How would you sum up the main purpose of WWS.org and the World Wide Science Alliance (WWSA)?
WWS.org provides a simultaneous search of 80+ national scientific databases containing some 400 million pages, most of which are not covered by the major commercial search engines. WWS.org allows users to find the precise information they need without having to know the scope of any particular national scientific database nor having to search the databases individually. It also offers multilingual translations of both queries and search results in 10 different languages. The WWSA provides the multilateral governance structure for WWS.org, and Alliance membership consists of WWS.org source ‘owners’ and sponsors, including ICSTI.
The Alliance provides strategic direction for WWS.org’s growth and development, establishes the criteria for adding databases to WWS.org searches, defines the funding model and annual budget, and actively markets WWS.org.
In 2011, WWS.org expanded its coverage to multimedia materials, and the next goal is to include coverage of scientific datasets. This milestone will be achieved in late 2012. DataCite, for example, will be added along with several other scientific data collections. Of course, WWS.org also continues to look for scientific and technical information from countries not currently covered, and for additional multimedia and data collections. These two areas, in particular, represent substantial opportunity for future expansion.
How significant will the worldwide science gateway be in improving universal access to scientific knowledge? What do you believe will be its long-term benefits?
WWS.org has been at the forefront of deep web search over the past five years and has already made a significant impact on access to STI from the government and government-sanctioned organisations it represents. As the methods and practices for sharing and communicating scientific information rapidly evolve, WWS.org is likewise adopting new technologies and strategies to accelerate scientific discovery. Along with the integration of multimedia and the planned integration of datasets, WWS.org also released a mobile version of the site in 2011, thus enabling access for a user base where mobile phone usage has leapfrogged traditional technologies.
The ‘digital divide’ has been widely noted by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and others. With the exception of simply providing Internet access, I would suggest that WWS.org is probably the most tangible step forward in closing the digital divide – at least in the realm of science.
Building on the Strategic Plan for 2011-13, where would you like to see ICSTI in the future?
In these straitened financial times, ICSTI must continue to demonstrate that it delivers actual economic value to its members and to the scientific, technical, and medical (STM) community as a whole. A key element of ICSTI’s niche is that it does not have a political or commercial agenda. On the policy front, it is a forum that allows for frank and open discussion of diverse perspectives and needs, while on the technical front, it has proven its value as a seed bed for demonstrating and ‘market’ testing particular technologies and for enabling project collaborations.
In the next three to five years, ICSTI will explore specific innovations in researcher workflow, semantic search, deep mining and integration of text, data, multimedia, and social media – and the impact and potential of all of these technologies on science.
How would you sum up your continued efforts to innovate?
Just as a closing thought, on behalf of ICSTI, I would like to thank International Innovation for your efforts to highlight and disseminate information on leading-edge scientific and technological research. As it turns out, the individual members of ICSTI share this same purpose. Sir Isaac Newton’s oft-quoted ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ point essentially sums up the raison d’être of ICSTI and its individual members. In my own organisation at OSTI, we frame the spread of knowledge as a corollary, something like this: science advances only if knowledge is shared; therefore, accelerating the sharing of knowledge will accelerate scientific progress itself.