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The opportunity and challenge of new communications technologies

Sir Roger Elliott

University of Oxford, chairman of ICSU Press

'A new pattern for the communication of scientific information will require changes in the pattern of behaviour of all those involved'

Progress in science has traditionally been based on the open exchange of research data and results among scientists. The scientific journals have formed an accepted paradigm that has been relatively stable, evolving over some three hundred years. By connecting authors and readers through intermediaries such as publishers and librarians, journals play an essential role in the certification and communication of scientific knowledge. They help to establish priority of ideas, to protect the intellectual property of researchers, to maintain the record of scientific progress, and to promote recognition and stature for the scientist.

But this scientific information chain is currently under great stress because of the ever-increasing volume of research, and is becoming too expensive to maintain. Electronic communication provides a potential solution which enhances speed and accessibility while adding value in a number of ways, although its economics remain unclear. What is certain is that a new pattern for the communication of scientific information will require changes in the pattern of behaviour of all those involved; the author and his or her funding agencies, the facilitators -- such as publishers and librarians -- and the end user.

It is important that governments and funding agencies understand these changes and take them into account when setting the infrastructure and legislative framework in which scientists operate. For example, the recent tendency to strengthen copyright laws in response to the perceived risk of piracy in the electronic environment could have significant effects on the research enterprise in unintended ways.

The new European Database Legislation is a prime example of these dangers. Scientists have traditionally used data obtained by others, with appropriate attribution, for comparison with their own results and for developing new syntheses. But the increasing importance of Intellectual Property Rights has begun to put some restraint on the open publication of data.

The balance between the established principle of full and open access to scientific data and the proprietary rights of those who obtain and fund the collection needs further consideration. This is particularly true in disciplines in which large amounts of data, expensively obtained (for example in meteorology and genomics), are required for scientific analysis, but which have the potential for commercial exploitation.

It is clear that the new technologies provide both an opportunity and a challenge for the dissemination of scientific information involving scientists in the developing countries. It should allow easier access to the scientific literature, bypassing the paucity of local collections, provided an infrastructure is in place and access costs are minimal. They also provide an opportunity for increasing the visibility of work published locally, provided that it is adequately indexed and linked to the main corpus of scientific literature.

It is an opportunity which must be grasped for the benefit of the global scientific enterprise, and it is also one where governments and international agencies have an important part to play.

The ICSU Press Website has reports on various meetings which have addressed these issues.

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