The changing information needs of environmental scientists: the dawn of a new working method

Over the course of the last few years there has been an internet revolution; one which changes the way we interact with each other and the way in which we use data. Web 2.0 has emerged, providing a means for users of the internet to also be creators, providing a platform for data exchange hitherto unprecedented. As a consequence, there is a wealth of information now available to research scientists. Without a parallel development in working practices, this mine of information can be inaccessible to researchers, relevant data proving either too hard to find amongst the vast amounts of information out there, or worse proving unsubstantiated or erroneous due to a lack of validation. This article discusses the current changes in information type and quantity that are relevant to the environmental scientists, and looks at the changes in working practice that must accompany them. The information needs of environmental scientists have changed over time, as do all things. The transition from paper to digital media for data storage along with the rise of the internet and changes in the way we view data has massive consequences for how we all process and use information. How has the nature and quantity of information available to, and useful for, the environmental scientist changed over time? The changes have been both in the way any kind of information is now delivered, and how environmental research data is now delivered, including changes in the form it takes.
The WorldWide Web was released by CERN in 1992, and began to be adopted in the broader scheme of things in 1994, after the first international conference. Since then, there has been an information explosion, which has led to “information overload” in some cases, the point at which older working practices were no longer efficient in their application. The number of websites online grows by around 7 million per month, many of which are not of use to environmental scientists, but some of which will be. Not least in this respect have the information needs of environmental scientists changed; they now have to discover from amongst all of this information the relevant information for their research. This problem is exacerbated by the multi-disciplinary nature of the research of most environmental scientists. In such cases, they are foraging in the unfamiliar territory of a discipline in which they are not expert, and sometimes may not even be sure of the terminology required to answer their questions. The 2007 Richard Dimbleby lecture exemplified the mutidisciplinary nature of environmental research. The talk was by Dr. J Craig Venter, a geneticist who is now working on solving the global energy problem with the use of artificial life.
The volume of conventional, peer-reviewed articles published rocketed in many disciplines in the mid-90s. Since then, there has been a steady increase in the number of articles published each year, and this holds true for environmental sciences as much as any other discipline. Figure 1 shows the number of environmental science related articles published in the Chemistry discipline per year from 1989 to the present day (including prospective publications). 
Three articles were added in the 24hrs between my taking this screenshot and writing this text, all of which were based on air-quality and atmospheric pollution. A similar trend is observable when carrying out searches into global warming, ecosystems, pollution, biodiversity and other key areas for environmental science. 
Researchers now have to deal not only with the vastly increasing yearly volume of articles published, but also with the cumulative effect of this having been the case for many years. Adding to the publishing house journals, in 2002 came the first major Open Access journal statement, whereby peer-reviewed articles are made freely available online immediately on their publication. Since then the Open Access initiative has continued to grow and gain support from similarly minded academics, increasing the numbers of articles further. On top of these traditional sources of information, new media forms are changing the face of communication and information delivery.
The term “Web2.0” was first coined by Dale Dougherty in 2004. It has been seen as a new model for the web, and is in fact closer to Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of what the web could be at its conception in 1989. Essentially, Web2.0 is considered to be the second generation of the worldwide web, with an infrastructure based on improvements made in the 1990s that facilitate greater user input, data exchange and collaboration. Web server statistics show that the number of blogging websites online grows by 5% per month, and the MySpace community is responsible for massive growth per month, with 67 million visits. The emergence of Web2.0 means that there is a much larger input of content into the web than before (Figure 2); necessarily so, because there are more and more people adding content. Social networking also adds to information exchange by putting people in touch with each other and providing a closer perspective on their work. The ease with which various media types can now be uploaded means that there is now video, audio and software available to benefit researchers, in addition to the more conventional text versions of articles, databases, reports, legislation, blogs and forums.

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Figure 1. Scopus results for chemistry publications related to environmental scienceThe sciences have already adopted Web2.0, with a number of notable initiatives emerging in the last few years. Aside from Open Access journals and blogs, many eScience projects were early adopters of wikis. Examples of progressive use of Web2.0 are emerging, such as myExperiment, software that has been produced through collaboration between the Universities of Manchester and Southampton in the UK. The tool allows researchers to share scientific workflows and digital data. Work at the University of Cambridge and the National Institute of Environmental eScience (NIEeS) has generated SciSpace, which focusses on professional networking, data exchange, and support to collaborations from project conception to publication. The Nature publishing group has also developed a networking environment, Nature Network, presently active in the US and the UK.There are two problems with the increasing amount and different forms of available data. Not only is the difficulty the fact that the relevant data that is sought by environmental scientists is hidden in this quagmire of information, and accordingly that the search mechanisms for extracting it must develop to address this problem. In addition, the amount of data that each researcher can use has vastly increased, so that now researchers need to employ programs in order to process their data. This problem is somewhat analogous to the issue that the web encountered when the number of users escalated quickly. There was so much information traffic that the networks couldn’t cope. A more complex solution was needed, and researchers at UCL developed a way to employ mathematical algorithms to model the differences in data flow in order to manage the traffic more efficiently. Researchers are already changing the way they work, for example by employing RSS aggregators to keep up-to-date with journal alerts and relevant news items. New search tools (e.g. Scopus) have evolved that not only search through peer-reviewed literature but also search reports and websites that will contain information of interest. However, it is clear that environmental scientists are not always aware of how best to direct their research, and there are always things that might be missed. What is needed, perhaps, is a standardised, aggregated interface to multimedia information retrieval that is broader than current tools, searching non-textual, multimedia information as well through tagging and keywords

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Figure 2. Count of archived media from web resources (archive.org) featuring the keyword “environment” as a function of year.

The trend in research funding from the main UK Research Councils tells a unified story with respect to environmental science funding. The main drive is towards battling climate change, pollution by toxic substances, and research into sustainability. Additionally, the UK Research Councils have a new initiative for knowledge transfer from environmental science research to commercialisation. The focal points towards which research has been steered reflects the trend in public interest and in governmental and global legislation. Environmental awareness has now been raised by the government and non-profit organisations, such that the pressure on commercial enterprises has become so great that they too are showing an environmental awareness. The knowledge transfer aspect of funding initiatives adds another aspect to the already multi-disciplinary nature of environmental research. In the case of any applied research now, the researchers will benefit from entrepreneurial nous, or at least the possibility of networking and cultivating relationships with people who readily possess such. 
Finally, a problem that faces all researchers today, but especially those in environmental sciences, due to the high profile and highly important nature of the research, is the politicisation of the available data. For example, wikipedia has now had to lock down its pages on climate change due to the frequent addition of biased information placed by those with a vested interest or personal agenda. Here, then, is a very important issue with information provision today; that of validation and authenticity. The researcher must be able to trust the information they find through new media, an aspect of Web2.0 that is still being addressed.

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