Digi-data and all that jazz

October 21, 2005

The UK's largest digital archive will offer access to a staggering amount of information, from medical journals and census facts to the sounds of seals and sax-players. Olga Wojtas meets the programme's manager

What do 18th-century Anglo-American relations, the Whitechapel murders, British jazz greats, Sir Alexander Fleming's discovery of the use of penicillin, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the historical population statistics for Leicester have in common?

From next summer, material on all of them will start to become available to learners, teachers and researchers throughout further and higher education under the largest digitisation programme ever undertaken by the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc). It covers six pioneering projects spanning centuries, disciplines and media, drawing on major collections that were previously difficult or impossible to access.

Southampton University is leading the project to digitise all the existing records of the 18th-century British parliament. It is using a robotic book scanner for the first time in the UK. The size of a sport utility vehicle, it uses suction to turn more than 500 pages an hour. Meanwhile, the Arts and Humanities Data Service History at Essex University is digitising 600 volumes of census and Registrar General reports from 1801-1937. The British Library is digitising British newspapers from 1800 to 1900, while its sound archive will offer some 12,000 recordings of spoken word, popular and classical music and "soundscapes" from wildlife to foghorns.

The British Universities Film and Video Council is contributing the digitisation of 3,000 hours of newsreel from the archives of Reuters and ITN from 1896 to date. And in a pioneering partnership, Jisc is working with the Wellcome Trust and the National Library of Medicine in the US to give free access to key medical journals, past, present and future. Jisc and Wellcome are funding the conversion of the journals' backfiles, and in exchange, the publishers have agreed to deposit every new issue in the archive after an embargo of between 12 to 36 months.

Stuart Dempster, Jisc's digitisation programme manager, says: "It's not an archive per se but a living, breathing collection, which will increase over time." All the resources will be fully searchable, and allow users to download resources for re-purposing with their virtual learning and research environments. Jisc's investment in portal development, such as the Visual and Sound Materials Scoping Study, should allow users to cross-search a number of these collections. Internet search engines, such as Google, have already liaised with individual projects to ensure maximum exposure. And the £10 million programme, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is about to be boosted by another £6 million, with academics again being asked which resources will be most useful to them.

These colossal, groundbreaking programmes are evidence of a new approach to digitisation. Dempster says: "An estimated £130 million has been spent since the mid-1990s on the creation of new e-resources, but such resources tended to be piecemeal, selective and uncoordinated, not necessarily mapping user need to supply.

"Jisc is now attempting to co-ordinate activity in the public sector through greater collaboration with key players. We're looking for a better return on public investment in the creation of a UK e-Content Strategy, which will include the digitisation of new resources for the benefit of the e-citizen. The difference is that we are looking for comprehensiveness of new resources. To a large extent, the age of selectivity is over. People are now looking for breadth and depth and not the treasures of any particular collection," Dempster says.

The six projects were chosen after an online consultation of academics, the criterion being that they would have an impact on teaching and research.

Jisc aims to ensure that learners, teachers and researchers continue to have access to the new resources.

In the flurry of digitisation of archives in recent years, not enough thought was given to analysing the needs of the users, the selection of the resources to be digitised, or long-term preservation of the material.

"Before, some projects were not really creating viable resources. You need to factor in the total cost of content. This includes recurrent service costs, technical obsolescence, digital curation, assisted take-up and future development activity to meet user expectations. Digitisation is just the start," Dempster says.

All resources will be available to learners, teachers and researchers without subscription. But to sustain some of them in the medium to long term, institutions are likely to have to pay an access charge based on their Jisc subscription level.

In 2006, Jisc will hold a series of technical briefings for college and university IT departments on what desktop resources staff will need. Jisc will also distribute a technical briefing paper to all colleges and universities.

"They will have nine to twelve months to implement any changes to their desktop as and when required," Dempster explains. Some of the resources will require authentication to ensure that only further and higher education institutions have access to them. Jisc has no doubts about its ability to cope with academic interest. It ensures that the capacity of Janet (the Joint Academic Network), which is arguably the most reliable and secure in the world, keeps ahead of the ever-growing demand.

Jisc's current e-resource collections are already being accessed thousands of times a day, and it believes it has unparalleled expertise in its monitoring of network traffic and capacity to deal with it. It already copes with a doubling of demand every nine months, and in 2006 will begin rolling out SuperJanet5, the next generation network.

"We can't give cast-iron guarantees that material will be available for ever, but we are in partnership with serious players in the digital field, such as the Wellcome Trust and the British Library, to deliver over the long term," Dempster says.


It's a free-for-all in the search for citations

New Zealand is harnessing the internet to overcome geographical isolation and share its research through open-access journals, writes Richard Thomson

The tyranny of distance has always been a favourite phrase among New Zealanders. Now researchers hope that adopting an open-access model for publishing publicly funded science may help mitigate their sense of being stranded on a remote geographic outpost of academia.

The internet's global reach is tipping the balance towards disciplines rather than geography. The New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics now straddles the Pacific Rim, while local journals of agriculture and horticulture have reported an increase in submissions from Turkey, India and China.

For New Zealand, this increased visibility seems to outweigh the income that may be lost by making access free. Rob Lynch, who manages the Royal Society of New Zealand's publishing programme, is confident that open access will make it easier for people all over the world to find relevant science. "If it happens to be a New Zealand example, then they'll use it.

It is making our research more widely accessible and more widely known."

Lynch hopes that the society's journals will all make the transition to open access within two to three years. "We'll make the transition when the Government finally says, 'You're doing a very good thing for science and so we will increase your funding,'" he says.

That may be optimistic. The society's current strategy of partial access to the seven journals it produces - all articles older than two years are to be made freely available online - is in part a response to a funding crisis that has been created by shrinking institutional subscription budgets and a static government contribution.

To avert a financial crisis in 2003, subscription charges were put up by a third. Individual subscriptions have since declined by about 40 per cent - although, Lynch says, most people now have electronic access.

The first foray into a pure open-access model will come later this year when New Zealand's first national social sciences journal will launch online. David Thorns, professor of sociology at Canterbury University, views the format as appropriate. "The trend is towards web-based learning.

Journals that can be accessed online will be a first port of call."

But he is less enthusiastic about charging authors to have their work published, warning that to innovate on too many fronts may be a recipe for disaster.

"If you can first establish the journal's value, then you may be able to come to an agreement about charging," he says.

Page charges, however, were introduced to all the society's journals in 2003 and the feared decline in submissions has not happened. Submissions that come from unfunded research have their charges waived, although the society has asked the Government to make up the shortfall. Lynch is adamant that authors receiving full-cost funding should contribute to the cost of publishing their research.

In a recent Royal Society survey, university librarians rated the high cost of journals as their biggest problem. Keith Webster, librarian at Victoria University of Wellington, argues: "There is an ongoing role for the peer-review process, but whether that's conducted around open archives or traditional print journals is an area for debate."

Will placing research online increase its use enough to convince the Government to fund the system? In the vital area of citations, it is too early to tell. But, Webster says, any way the work produced by academics can be made more accessible ought to be welcomed.

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