Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

4 posts from September 2013

27 September 2013

Seek, but shall ye find?

Johanna Kieniewicz explores information access across the environment sector, and what the British Library is doing to improve its discoverability.

When I was doing my PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences, I had exceptionally good access to the information required for my research. I was doing my degree at a major US research university that had excellent print and online journal subscriptions - and on the occasion that I required something a little more unusual, such as a PhD thesis, our departmental librarians were only too happy to request it by inter-library loan. And indeed now, working at the British Library, I find myself once again with exceptionally good access to any piece of information I could possibly want.

Researching the information use of researchers and practitioners across the environment sector, I now realise how fortunate I have been. Extensive journal subscriptions are often prohibitively expensive for many charities, small businesses and local government departments. And, while resources such as government reports and PhD theses might be free and contain really useful information, they are often difficult to track down. A couple of years ago, I surveyed a wide range of researchers and practitioners from the flooding sector about their information access. This group included not just academics, but also people working for local government, environmental charities, consultants and small businesses. Were they happy with their current access to information? What barriers did they encounter in trying to get the information they needed for their work?


ES info use
We asked researchers across the flooding community to rank the factors creating barriers to information. The boxes highlighted as 1st and 2nd indicate their most significant barriers.

Not surprisingly, pretty much everyone reported either money or time as their greatest barrier to the information they needed for their work. However, digging a bit deeper, they also reported difficulty actually discovering the information itself - or filtering through to get at the stuff actually relevant to their work. For a flooding practitioner interested in the impact of Thames flooding on London, their first port of call might well be a Google search: Thames flooding London (or something similar). However, this search would bring back first news articles first, not the Environment Agency report, which is actually what they need.

Our survey also showed that environmental information access is also far from equal. We asked the flooding community what information they now find crucial to their research (red dots below), and what they might potentially use with improved access (yellow dots). While the behaviour of academic researchers might not change that much, that of people working for NGOs/charities, local government, the private sector would change tremendously. While being more financially pressured, they are also often more pressed for time, with tight deadlines, multiple priorities, and little time to spend searching for (letting alone reading) information. We found that government reports, datasets and legislation were real priorities across the board, but also a real interest in less conventional outputs such as PhD theses.

ES Info sectors
Red dots represent resources that researchers considered crucial to their work. Yellow dots indicate resources that they would use more with better access.

So we in the Science Team at the British Library wondered if we could improve things. As a library, we have a duty to facilitate access to information and help users discover the research they need for their work. But most environmental scientists aren’t interested in coming into libraries - they would like electronic access, pdfs they can download, whether they are in the office, lab or field. Would there be a way in which we could make more of what we already do as a library but make the information available to users electronically, wherever they are?

The search interface for Envia, the new environmental information discovery tool from the British Library.

Envia is a new tool developed by the Science Team, with support from the Living With Environmental Change partnership, to improve environmental information access and discovery. Bringing together often hard-to-find government reports, PhD theses, data resources, and journal articles (soon!), we aim to enable the easy search and discovery of resources relevant to flooding (we thought all of environmental science might be a bit much to tackle in one go, so have narrowed down to flooding for the Beta). Rather than viewing ourselves as a ‘one stop shop’ for flooding information, we view Envia as an important tool for connecting  users to information - whether it’s in the Envia repository or elsewhere on the web. Envia might be accessed through its website at - but we also intend it to be used via search boxes embedded in users’ browsers or our partners’ websites.

We have now launched Envia as a Beta service. This means we are still adding content and developing its functionality and looking for feedback from users. So please try it and let us know what you think. User involvement has been integral to the Envia project from the beginning as we are keen to develop a tool that meets the needs of our users - particularly those who don’t have the kind of access to information I was privileged to have during my PhD.

20 September 2013

Don't Quote Me on That

This week Lee-Ann Coleman explores the circuitous world of citations - but don't quote her on that.

Science is built on evidence - and since no one person has done all the experiments, researchers are taught early in their careers to support their arguments by referring to previous published work. First encounters with the discipline of citation can be pretty tedious. Those of us who started research before digital (hard as that is to believe) fondly remember assembling our hand-written card indexes and keeping photocopies and precious reprints (who remembers the reprint request card?) of papers filed in our own idiosyncratic system. Now there are a plethora of tools to help researchers organise and format their references. Although the technology may have improved, it doesn't mean that the underlying issues about what to cite have gone away.

As a young researcher starting a PhD, your first task is to get to grips with your chosen field. Getting to know the literature - which in science mostly means journal articles – requires you to become familiar with this particular form of writing.  The various sections of the paper - introduction, methods, results, discussion - have their particular purpose, but where another article has been cited, it is usually listed at the end of the paper. And that is the process of scientific publication which, on the surface, seems straightforward. However, when one thing refers to another thing, whole worlds of meaning become attached to that interaction.

Books 2
Books 2Books 2Books 2Books 2

Photo source: Shutterstock

At our first ever TalkScience back in 2008, Professor Tim Birkhead, an evolutionary biologist at Sheffield University, highlighted key issues around citation in science and these topics continue to be the focus of much discussion:

  • Does the use of a single citation search tool (e.g. PubMed, Google Scholar, Web of Science) bias the results? To be truly unbiased should you use multiple tools?
  • Do researchers indulge in selective citation to support a particular argument or hypothesis. Are people only citing portions of an article and thereby deliberately ignoring conflicting evidence elsewhere within the same article?
  • Even when the “original” paper is cited, it is often misquoted. Are researchers reading papers or just repeating others' mistakes?
  • Is there a citation bias against non-English language papers or papers from “non-English-speaking” countries?
  • Is there a preference for citing only well-known papers or those that are published in high impact journals?
  • Are citations and bibliometric measures in general an accurate reflection of research excellence?

Eugene Garfield - often referred to as the father of bibliometrics - has written extensively on citations and has posed many underlying reasons for citing behaviour. And it is not always about citing work that has gone before but can be to pay homage, have an argument, identify methodology etc. Different subjects also have their own cultures when it comes to citation practice and norms - some requiring only the latest research as it is understood that everyone is aware where the state of knowledge is. In others, the so-called 'foundation' papers are always quoted - even though people have probably never read them (Hargens, 2000).

Researchers not only love their work to be cited but they often need it to be - to get the next grant, secure a position, and gain the respect of other scientists. So any biases in the system need to be understood and counteracted to ensure that rewards are given where they are properly due.

For further reading on this topic there are some excellent blogs at:

13 September 2013

Measure for Measure

Those who fund UK research, including the public, should expect to know about the outputs of that work. However, as Allan Sudlow discovered, this is a complex and expensive activity that needs better co-ordination.

The UK does not currently have a national reporting infrastructure that brings together all the information on public and charity-funded research. At a high level, such a system would allow those who had access, to evaluate inputs (e.g. money, people, time) against outputs (e.g. publications, patents, data). No such unified system exists, which makes it impossible to look across different sources of funding in any detailed way to assess the impacts of the research at a national or international level. And this is ignoring the more difficult task of evaluating the longer term benefits of such research, for example identifying how investing research money, time and effort in biomedical research has led to improvements in human health.

That’s not to say people aren’t trying. In fact, a large number of people employed by organisations that receive public funding for research, e.g. universities, are working to bring together all the information on their institute’s research spend and outputs for reporting and evaluation. Similarly, the UK Government , UK Research Councils, research universities, institutes and a huge number of different charities, foundations and trusts, have invested in IT systems and people to do just the same. A big driver for much of this activity across UK universities is the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF), which in 2014 will evaluate the research outputs and impacts arising from all government-funded higher education institutes across the UK.

Until fairly recently however, this investment in IT systems and people has not been co-ordinated. Thus, research organisations across the UK are at different levels of maturity in managing research information. Some larger organisations have invested in commercial systems such as ResearchFish. Others have developed in-house systems to facilitate the gathering of information, particularly smaller organisations with limited resources, many of whom still rely on storing data in spread sheets and preparing information by hand. This has inevitably resulted in duplication and increased costs due to inefficiency across the sector as a whole.

Brains vs Cash

What's the measure? Copyright

So why isn’t it all coalescing into a single dedicated system for research evaluation? Well aside from the many different motivations for developing research information systems, layer on to this the complexities of all the different stakeholder views. For example, beyond a simple agreement of “we need to gather information on X”, there then needs to be agreement on what exactly can and should be measured, how often, for how long, in what format and structure, etc, etc.

Having said all that, there are a range of projects and developments that are attempting to bring some coherence to the world of research reporting. Some of this is happening by default, as organisations begin to use the same IT systems, and some of it is being led top-down by UK Government projects such as Gateway to Research which attempt to provide some level of visibility and access to research information to people outside of the academic research community.

In a bottom-up approach, I am involved in a JISC-funded feasibility study called UK Research Information Shared Service: UKRISS. This project has examined the motivations and needs of those involved in research reporting alongside an analysis of the current landscape of research information systems and standards. Our aim is to define an approach (based on a common research information format called CERIF) to allow better research information sharing and benchmarking across different organisations which are already using different systems. A small attempt to tackle what remains a big challenge.

Allan Sudlow

06 September 2013

Selecting, not perfecting?

In this week’s blog post we provide a preview of October’s TalkScience@BL which will focus on genetic testing in assisted reproduction and the many opportunities and challenges it raises

Since the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978, the demand for fertility treatment has exploded. Now, over 17,000 IVF babies are born every year in the UK and account for 2% of total births.

In the last twenty years, pre-implantation genetic testing has allowed patients to test the embryos produced through IVF to ensure that only those that are free of a specific disorder, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anaemia, are implanted into the mother’s womb. Such testing has been one of the most contentious developments in the field of IVF and medical ethics.

For prospective parents who are carriers of a faulty gene, developments in genetic testing have been hailed as miraculous as they allow them to avoid having children with life threatening conditions. It is now also possible to test for embryos that might be susceptible to diseases that occur later in life, such as Huntington’s or breast cancer. On the other side of the coin, some anticipate that genetic testing could lead to specific traits being screened out and this possibility has sparked heated debate on the rights of people with disabilities.

These new technologies may allow us to select a desired embryo - but how far should we be prepared to go in the pursuit of perfection?

These are some of the issues that we will be debating in our next TalkScience event: “Genetic testing in assisted reproduction: Selecting, not perfecting?”

Recently, the UK’s fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, launched a review into the genetic disorders that it licenses for testing. The review is timely given that medical treatments have improved significantly since these specific conditions were licensed. So, how should we decide what conditions should be licensed? When should a disorder be considered serious enough to warrant screening? 

Artificial Insemina#265CDFA
An egg being artificially fertilised in IVF. Copyright

To add to the mix, UK regulations surrounding genetic testing are some of the most stringent in the world. For example, parents are permitted to choose the sex of their baby only to avoid the inheritance of a serious gender-linked condition, such as muscular dystrophy. However, in some countries - Cyprus is one example - selection on the basis of gender is allowed for ‘family balancing’. Could red tape be stifling research into future developments? Will the UK’s tight controls simply lead to ‘reproductive tourism’, where patients are driven overseas for treatment in countries with more permissive regulations?

Critics of pre-implantation genetic testing have claimed that these new developments will open the floodgates to a generation of designer babies, engineered to have blonde hair or be musically gifted. But are these scenarios realistic scientific possibilities?

To discuss and debate these issues, we are pleased to have Dr Tom Shakespeare as our chair for the evening. Tom is Senior Lecturer in disability studies and medical sociology at UEA. Joining our expert panel we have Dr Joyce Harper (UCL Centre for Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis), Nick Meade (Genetic Alliance UK), Professor Rosamund Scott (Centre of Medical Law and Ethics, King’s College London), and Dr Alan Thornhill (Guy's Hospital Assisted Conception Unit), who will represent the range of views surrounding pre-implantation genetic testing and the future of assisted reproduction.

We hope that you’ll join us on the evening of 9th October at the British Library for what promises to be a lively debate. For more information and to book your place, click here.

Katie Howe