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Call to Action to Preserve Science Discourse on the Open Web

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Fifty years from now, what currently accessible web content will be invaluable for understanding science in our era? What kinds of uses do you imagine this science content serving? Where are the natural curatorial homes for this online content and how can we work together to collect, preserve, and provide access to science on the web? These were the three principal questions up for discussion at a recent NDIIPP digital content summitI am excited to announce the publication of a report, Science at Risk: Toward a National Strategy for Preserving Online Science (PDF)  as the output of that summit.

This report summarizes the discussions and findings from the meeting, suggests a number of calls to action for stewardship organizations, and includes two perspective papers and a brief case study from different participants to represent the view of creators and future users of online science. The first perspective essay comes from Fred Gibbs, Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University and Director of Digital Scholarship at the Center for History and New Media. Gibbs provides a perspective on the diversity of web content that historians of science are likely to be interested in and why. The second essay—from Bora Zivkovic, Blogs Editor at Scientific American, visiting Scholar at NYU School of Journalism, and organizer of the ScienceOnline conference—provides the perspective of a content creator on the development of science blogging. This is followed by a case study of the U.S. National Library of Medicine History of Medicine Division’s Health and Medicine Blogs collection pilot. This collection exemplifies how cultural heritage organizations’ existing collecting goals can translate into a targeted web archive collection development strategy. The report closes with an appendix briefly listing examples of similar ideas for web archive collections that cultural heritage organizations could create based on the priorities identified by meeting participants.

The full report is online as a free PDF. With that noted, I wanted to draw attention to two specific pieces of it in this post. First, the articulation of the value of ephemeral science content on the web and second the calls to action.

Why is Online Scientific Discourse Valuable?

Below are three kinds of value the participants identified in this content. These are not meant to be exhaustive, but instead as a starting point for explaining why this web content is important.

The Record of Scientific Knowledge, Discovery, and Innovation:

Much of the history of science, technology, medicine, and mathematics is built from primary records of scientific publication and unpublished materials of scientists. Traditionally, material has been preserved through a combination of collecting the personal papers of scientists and their published work in books and journal articles. With the emergence of practices like open notebook science, science blogging, and science discussion forums a considerable amount of this content is being produced and presented on the web. If we do not act to collect this contemporary material, we may end up with more complete records of scientists’ unpublished notes and personal communication from previous eras than we do from our own.

Related, the emergence of citizen science projects has resulted in some discoveries and advances in science happening on the open web. For example, the discovery of the green pea galaxies occurred entirely on the discussion forums that accompany the Galaxy Zoo website. The forums, where these kinds of discussions occur, document the process and contributions of individuals in scientific discoveries.

Changes in Scientific and Scholarly Communication:

Aside from documenting the record of science and discovery, the new media of blogs, websites, and forums are themselves documentation of significant changes occurring in scholarly communication. Much as work on the history of the book documents an array of changes in culture, the history of online communication media are themselves of considerable value in understanding science and scholarship in contemporary society. In this respect, these sites are going to be of interest as valuable primary sources in the history of technology, communications, and media.

Public Understanding and Perception of Science and Science Policy:

Conversations and reactions to science from members of the general public represent one of the most exciting prospects for historians of the future to understand science in our times. In particular, various controversies around topics like evolution, vaccines, and climate change have stirred up an enormous amount of online discussion. Records of these discussions will be invaluable for historians and policy analysts for understanding and exploring public reactions and perspectives on science. Furthermore, various pop-cultural developments that touch on science topics (for example, videogames like Spore) are similarly likely to generate substantive online discussion and offer potentially unique perspectives on science in our times.

Calls to action

As a result of the discussion at the summit, and the following essays, we suggest four calls to action for cultural heritage organizations.

Call for Engaging, Assisting, and Supporting Content Creators:

The scientists and science communicators who participated in the summit were eager to learn more about how they could help to manage and steward their content. Eventually, the personal documents of scientists often make up special collections at libraries and archives. There is considerable value in the cultural heritage community creating guidance materials for managing personal digital information. Specifically, reaching out to scientists and science communicators to help them better steward their own content can help creators self archive. The Library of Congress provides personal archiving guidance to the general public that can be customized and redistributed to a specific audience. 

Call for Developing Relationships with Online Science Communities:

The organizations or communities that host or contribute to online science projects or discourse must care for their assets in the near term. Cultural heritage institutions have the mission and expertise to serve as long-term stewards. Relationships at the institutional level can be built to give guidance on preservation practices during the life of a project and advise on future curatorial homes for data when organizational affiliations change.

Call for Targeted Web Archive Collections:

To meet the challenge of stewarding this content, we suggest cultural heritage organizations begin to develop focused web archive collections related to their particular institutional goals and needs. For example, a focused special collection on open notebook science, or a collection focused on controversies around vaccines, or the web presence of its scientists and science centers. Cultural heritage organizations are uniquely positioned to, based on their own particular focuses, identify and collect around particular themes and topics that can collectively serve as part of a distributed national and international online science collection. The case study of U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Health and Medicine Blogs collection provided in this report can serve as an exemplar.  Also included are examples of a series of different kinds of special collections we could see different cultural heritage organizations developing as an appendix.

Call for Outreach to Historians and Other Researchers:

Stewardship organizations must establish a user community which values the content they are preserving. There is not yet substantive interest from historians of science and other researchers in online scientific discourse. While researchers and scholars of literature and the arts have been engaged in helping develop practices around the collection and preservation of born digital artwork and literature, there has not been a similar reaction in the history of science community. Archivists, librarians, and curators ought to reach out to historians of science and make them aware of the born-digital primary resources that can be collected. Simply put, without intervention, much of this online discourse is likely to disappear before historians of science take an interest. Engaging professional organizations and associations for these researchers will be a critical component in developing sound collection approaches and policies.

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