Key science Web sites buried in information avalanche

Mar 22, 2007

As more and more people are turning to the Internet to find information, important science websites are in danger of becoming buried in the sheer avalanche of facts now available online. Key science sites are failing to register in the top 30 Google search results.

New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) clearly shows that anyone using the Web to make their information available must now pay attention not only to the quality of their sites but also how easy they are to find.

Dr Ralph Schroeder, Dr Alexandre Caldas, Professor William Dutton, and Dr. Jenny Fry of the Oxford Internet Institute have investigated how the Internet is changing the way in which people seek out sources of scientific expertise.

Traditionally publishers have held a central position because of the importance of academic articles, but this is changing with increasing uses of the Internet and Web.

The study focuses on how academic researchers in particular interact with the Web on topics including HIV/AIDS, climate change, terrorism, the Internet and society. These subjects are highly topical in today's society, but the findings of this study will apply much more widely to the uses of the Internet and Web for searching for information on a variety of topics.

A fundamental observation was that, despite popular perception, the Web is far from being a neutral source of information. It has a particular structure that steers the search in directions that may not be intended by the user and so makes some sites more accessible than others. Search engines such as Google play an increasingly important gate-keeping role that will influence the information that is found. They can shape "winners and losers" by means that are not always apparent and moreover do so in a manner which can vary according to subject matter.

-- The "visibility" of information on the Web is of increasing importance. Do people looking for research results on climate change or terrorism find themselves directed to a few top sites rather than a wide array of diverse sources? Do they encounter the most highly regarded researchers rather than marginal ones?

-- Interviews revealed that researchers' ideas of key networks, structures and organisations may not be mirrored by search engines. For example the HIV/AIDS researchers reported using national journals, charity organisations, statistics and public sector organisations but none of these appear in the top 30 search results for generic domain keywords. In addition, a number of institutions, people and other key organisations and resources failed to appear in the top 30 search results.

-- The role search engines play can vary according to topic. In the HIV/AIDS and the Internet and society domains, for instance, search engines such as Google was mainly used as an aide memoire for locating known sources. For researchers on terrorism, the search engine played a more central role in exploring the object of research and identifying relevant sites of information.

"This will be an issue not just for policymakers," Dr. Schroeder says, "but for educators, organisations involved in science and research communication, regulators responsible for access to the Web, and citizens who are concerned with the diversity and richness of the information world around them."

Source: Economic & Social Research Council

Explore further: Best of Last Week: Acoustic phonons have magnetic properties, universe to collapse and bioclock disruption problem

Related Stories

Special ops troops using flawed intel software

3 hours ago

Special operations troops heading to war zones are asking for commercial intelligence analysis software they say will help their missions. But their requests are languishing, and they are being ordered to use a flawed, in-house ...

Cutting edge tools to better assess marine biodiversity

Mar 25, 2015

An EU-funded project has developed cutting edge monitoring and management tools to help marine scientists better assess the state of biodiversity in the seas around Europe. These tools will also help governments ...

Recommended for you

Researchers study concept of design fixation

3 minutes ago

New research into the phenomenon of design fixation – allowing prior experience to blind us to new possibilities – may help in the development of new tools and strategies that help to stimulate the creative ...

What makes a child feel unsafe in their neighbourhood?

30 minutes ago

Differences in the way children and adults perceive the world extend to their sense of safety in their social and physical environments and this in turn can impact their health, say researchers at the University ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.