Organising the free for all system

February 10, 1995

As the Joint Academic Network's information services burgeon, Derek Law argues that the information must remain free at the point of use.

The academic electronic highway JANET and its broadband successor SuperJANET is, to quote The THES, "one of the unsung successes of the British higher education system . . . "

Whatever else it decides, JISC must keep the system free to users and concentrate its attention on evolving the information base and widening the access to it.

For while the JANET network remains the best bargain for decades, a policy for content provision has been slower to emerge. If it is true that "the rewards are likely to be dramatically greater than the costs as people become familiar with new ways of gaining information", it would be a great mistake to assume that the great and growing volumes of information on the Internet have equal - or indeed any - value. As a Don's Diary contributor put it last year: "From time to time I venture into the howling wastes of the Internet. The technocrats promise us that this information overload will increase a thousand times, ten thousand times until every suburban home will have access to every piece of useless information in the universe".

Other recent contributors have warned of the dangers of data quality and reliability, of the need to catalogue information and of the already perceptible problems of speed when large volumes of data - notably images - are imported from overseas. Others have noted that Web servers, those pretty icons of the Internet, represent a seductive danger, encouraging the needless transfer of irrelevant information. And there is a danger here, for while JANET remains free at the point of use as an act of policy, the costs of providing increasing international bandwidth runs into millions of pounds and is growing at an unacceptably fast pace. Attention will inevitably begin to turn to ways of slowing the growth rate of international traffic, particularly when institutions begin to make a financial contribution to JANET's costs in the near future.

One of the ways of reducing international traffic flows is by increasing the range of high quality information either held or cached in the United Kingdom and, most important by supporting it well. If the JISC and its predecessors have an unsung but internationally envied reputation for the provision of JANET, the same is true of their role as a content provider. In recent years the JISC has invested in the creation of innovative and heavily used information services and infrastructure through its information services subcommittee. It is worth describing these services briefly to show how a coherent whole is being worked towards, starting with the infrastructural services.

*AGOCG, the advisory group on computer graphics, provides a single national focus for computer graphics, visualisation and multimedia. Based at Loughborough it carries out software and hardware evaluations, runs workshops and seminars and assists sites in the introduction of key technologies. http://www.ago

*BUBL offers an Internet awareness service, together with organised, user-friendly access to Internet resources and services with the combined gopher/WWW subject tree being a particular feature. It is organised from Strathclyde University. http://www.bubl.bath. bl/home.html *MAILBASE, based at the University of Newcastle, organises the Listserv activity in the UK. Its brief is wider however and it also sets out to organise the communities which will operate listservers. It has had notable success in this field, not least with university administrators.

*UKOLN, the Office for Library Networking, acts as a sort of strategic think tank and research and development centre. It also acts as the UK gopher national entry point. There is also a substantial and growing range of data services.

*BIDS, based at the University of Bath, is the only substantial commercial service. It provides access to a range of bibliographic datasets, including the ISI citation indexes, Embase and Compendex. The International Bibliography of the Social Sciences will be added at the end of this month. http://ww

*The ESRC data archive is jointly funded by the ESRC, the JISC and the University of Essex. The oldest national centre, founded in 1967, it acquires and preserves research data in the social sciences and humanities and makes it available for analysis and teaching. About 5,000 datasets are held.


*HENSA is the shareware archive. It is in two parts with Unix numerical and statistical software offered from the University of Kent and pc software from Lancaster University. At Kent, Internet searches may also be performed using the archive server.

http://ww w.hensa. unix.html

*NISS is based at the University of Bath and concentrates on current information ranging from Yellow Pages to newspapers. It aims to promote an electronic information culture through providing access to useful collections of information. It also acts as a gateway to other services and resources and provides information through the NISS Bulletin Board.

http:// niss/ac/uk/

*MIDAS at Manchester University is one of the very large datasets, most notably the UK 1981 and 1991 census, continuous government surveys such as the General Household Survey, macro-economic time series databanks and scientific datasets. There is a full range of support services for the data. http:// uk/

Other services are being developed, in some cases by, or jointly with the Follett Implementation Group for IT (FIGIT) chaired by Lynne Brindley. The ISSC and FIGIT are about to seek a home for an arts and humanities data service. The feasibility study for this has just been completed and approved.

Second, work has just begun on defining a national image centre. Higher education produces thousands of images each year ranging from medical and dental through to art and design. We are concerned that these should be retained within and made available to the wider academic community. It is hoped that the plan for such a service will emerge within about a year.

Third, negotiations are under way for the creation of a national higher education Online Public Service Catalogue linking the library catalogues of the collections of the major academic research libraries which form the CURL group. This will have some value for researchers, but the intention is to link it to new distributed document delivery services which will serve different parts of the country or different subject areas and ensure that maximum value is obtained from the investment that higher education makes in its library collections.

We have commissioned a review study of CNIDR, which advises the US community on networked information retrieval, and InterNIC, which publishes the Scout Report on Internet developments to consider how we might use these American ideas in a UK context to make generally available information on network developments and standards and to provide advice and leadership on local system design.

Finally, we are embarking on a digitisation programme which will make available resources on the network. Various models are proposed, some commercial ventures, some partnerships with small publishers and some for heavily used out of copyright material. The intention is to cover a wide range of disciplines.

It is also worth considering some of the policy issues which have been exposed by the work of the JISC. First, it is a cardinal principle that information must be free at the point of use. Where commercial information is provided it is either paid for from central funds or by the institution or by some combination of the two, but never by the end-user. We want to encourage and stimulate use as a strategic national goal. On the whole suppliers do not lose. There is already anecdotal evidence of increased downstream use. As students become employees they are beginning to seek the same electronic resources they used daily at university. We have had and do have major debate over the price to be charged to institutions for such services but always on the premise that services are free at the point of use. In practice most are wholly free and are paid for by "top-slicing" the higher education budget. Only for the commercial bibliographic products are sites required to make a payment.

Second, we are committed to subscription-based or licensing models and will not fund transaction-based models. There is always another alternative product and only the most arrogant of publishers believe that they have a true monopoly. In fact there is some evidence that the JISC policy is beginning to affect the use of products from those publishers who are not willing to accept this model.

Third is the commonality of interfaces. The concept of a common command language for material as varied as the Census, wordprocessing software and bibliographic data is an evident nonsense. However, by grouping material together in locations by type, whether bibliographic, full text or numeric, we have been able to go some way towards providing common interfaces to the various datasets. Perhaps the next major challenge for the policy is, however, to encourage better and more friendly interfaces.

Fourth is community involvement. It is a central tenet that resources are to be provided for all disciplines. A datasets steering group has been set up to conduct a planned programme of procurements for all subject areas and it is already planning up to two years ahead. That group conducts product evaluations which involve the relevant academic and library communities in identifying the best buys for the subject.

The last point to mention is our present policy of delivering information to everyone. This means delivering to the poorest sort of terminal, currently defined as a VT100. Inevitably this frustrates users with more powerful equipment. As a result we are about to conduct a census of terminals in UK higher education to decide whether it is now time to move the definition upwards without disenfranchising significant numbers of users with old equipment.

This leads us to the underlying goal of the distributed national electronic collection which will take several years to complete. Some services will succeed and others will fail; we shall have disappointments. But the objective is clear, to create a central core of material which is centrally defined but meets user needs in all disciplines. The user will then have a limited need to search for materials outside the core. We will spend our resources on developing that core rather than on cataloguing anything that might ever be used on the Internet.

In doing this we hope to provide a variant of Gresham's Law. While bad money may drive out good, we hope that quality assured data, available reliably and with excellent nationally prepared documentation will remove the need to use unknown data of unknown validity available intermittently and unreliably. As a useful byproduct, by spinning or cacheing within the UK the most heavily used material we should limit needless and expensive international traffic.

Derek Law is director of information services and systems at King's College London, a member of the JISC and chairs its information services subcommittee.

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