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Next: Outline Up: Communication in physics Previous: The emergence of the

The project `Communication in Physics'

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In the physics community, different programmes have been initiated to deal with the issue of scientific communication in the context of the emerging technology. In 1989, the American Physical Society (APS) formed a `Task Force on Electronic Information Systems' to review the state of affairs and develop a plan for the physics information system, because:

[it] is clear that the world of physics is on the verge of a revolution, a revolution that is driven by technology, but whose true nature will be determined by the response of the world scientific community. The revolution will change what and how physicists read, how they become aware of what they read, and even what `read' means.[APS, 1991]
The task force has defined a long term goal: a world scientific information system. In this system, the world's formal and less formal literature would be available on-line in an interactive environment. Individual documents, rather than entire  journals, would be the fundamental entities. In 1993, the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) also formed a task force to ``investigate how the means presently available, and new means expected to become available soon, can be integrated into a first version of a system of communications, to provide fully electronic submission, publishing, large scale storage, fast retrieval and selection.'' [IUPAP, 1993].

 Here in The Netherlands, the research programme `Communication in Physics' was launched in 1994 by the Foundation Physica, an organisation promoting the advancement of physics in The Netherlands. The foundation was moved to initiate this programme as a result of a meeting at which both the increasing dissatisfaction with the flow of scientific information was voiced and the emergence of the new technologies of computer networks and electronic publishing were signalled [De Waard, 1993]. This thesis reports on research performed in the context of this programme.

The starting point of the programme is the following: rather than being dragged along by the technological developments, the physics community should determine how it prefers the scientific communication process to function. Subsequently, the specific technology can be developed to implement this vision. Therefore, the first goal of the research programme is to gain insight into the nature of scientific information itself and of the management of this information. The second goal is to develop new models for the representation of scientific information and for scientific communication that can be implemented using the particular features of the new technology.

In order to increase our understanding of scientific information and the communication system, different aspects have to be considered: technical, social and financial aspects, as well as more `conceptual' aspects. With respect to the technical aspects, for example, presentation, storage and automatic indexing techniques have to be developed. With respect to the social and financial aspects, issues like intellectual property and research policy and motives of scientists must be addressed. Many of these issues are the subject of current research and reported in journals like the Journal of Electronic Publishing, the Journal of Documentation and the Journal of the American Society for Information Science.

In the literature, however, the organisation of the scientific article itself is not considered systematically. Usually the authors aim to solve communication problems by developing sophisticated new techniques to deal with the article as it is. For instance, we agree with Liddy that there is a problem with the retrieval of information [Liddy, 1991, p.78]: 

Current retrieval systems allow users to require only that the concepts they are interested in occur somewhere within the free-text representation. It is not possible for the user to specify what roles the concepts of interest should play in the retrieved documents or to specify the relationships that should hold between the concepts.
However, we approach this problem from a different angle. Liddy proposes
[a] system that can detect the structure of abstracts and is capable of providing this type of detailed representation [that] could improve the retrieval process by allowing the user to specify in advance the particular role they require each searched concept to play.
Contrary to Liddy, who aims to improve information retrieval by improving the retrieval system, we propose a fundamental restructuring of the article itself, so that the same retrieval system can work more effectively and efficiently. Thus, we take a step back and focus on a fundamental question concerning the scientific article: what is the basic `streamlined' shape that allows for substantial improvement of scientific communication in the context of the new technology of electronic information transfer?  Our basic idea is that, in an electronic environment, scientific information may be communicated more effectively and efficiently if it is presented as a network of articles with a modular structure, rather than as a set of linear, essay-type articles. An article with a modular structure consist of a coherent collection of explicitly linked modules, representing a coherent network of related conceptual information units within the larger network of published information. This structure allows the user to take into account the role that concepts of interest should play within a document, as well as the relations between specified concepts.



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