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.
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."
The project has been discussed extensively with BBC Online, an organisation acutely concerned with the reach of its Internet presence and visibility.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
Dr. Ralph Schroeder on 01865 287224/287210, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Jenny Fry on 01865 287218, e-mail: email@example.com
ESRC Press Office:
Alexandra Saxon Tel: 01793 413032, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Annika Howard Tel: 01793 413119, e-mail: email@example.com
NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research project "The World Wide Web of Science: Emerging Global Sources of Expertise" was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and is part of the Science in Society phase II programme. Dr Schroeder is at the Oxford Internet Institute, 1 St. Giles, Oxford OX1 3JS.
2. Methodology: The research findings were arrived at by means of webmetric analysis (crawling the Web and identifying links), validation by experts and focus groups, and interviews with researchers.
3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2006-07 is £169 million. At any time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk
4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk
5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as 'Outstanding'.
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