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Information Obesity: Too Big Too Know and ways to deal with Open Access to everything

November 28, 2011 - 14:47 -- Tom Olijhoek

 • Information is now a social asset and should be made public, for anyone to link, organize, and make more valuable.

• There’s no such thing as “too much” information. More information gives people the hooks to find what they need.

I wanted to start this blog on the topic of information overload with the two quotes above, that were taken from the book “Everything is Miscellaneous” by David Weinberger, a landmark book which has caused a shift in the way we look at information.

Who doesn’t know the feeling: there is so much information available nowadays that it resembles a whirling stream threatening to drown you completely. And because not all information is freely available, what would Open Access do to add to that feeling?

Publishers of scientific journals often legitimize their business with the argument that they provide vital filtering of information for the benefit of the customers. That filtering is needed is beyond doubt: no individual on its own can cope with the enormous amounts of information that is daily offered to him/her. But the important question is: who does the filtering?  Even the use of Google to select information does not give objective results, in fact individuals putting the same search terms get different results (try this!). And our use as scientists of information services like restricted access journals bears the risk of being shown only that information, that a select group of other people wants us to see. I am not saying that they actually do this. In fact I believe that most of the time the reviewers and editors’ main motives lie in protecting their readers from too much irrelevant information. But should we as scientists really rely on these services?  In a recent comment on the announcement of the all new open access journal eLife by MPG, Wellcome Trust and Howard Hughes Medical Institutes, it was emphasized that this new journal features a team of scientist-editors instead of professional non-scientist editors in order to guarantee an optimal selection of information and to improve on the quality of the information offered. Although the argument is not exactly true ( most scientific papers have scientist as editors) this kind of reasoning confirms the wideheld belief that reviewers are needed for filtering of information. Open Science and Open Access publishing however, offer possibilities for a far more complete coverage of topics which would be antagonized by the continued use of the existing review systems.

In his most recent book Reinventing Discovery Michael Nielsen works on the assumption that there is a mine of untapped knowledge online, but that scientific papers, many of which have been publicly funded, are locked away from view by their publishers. Open Access can unlock this source and more. It can even promote the publishing and sharing of more work that would remain unpublished without open access. At first sight it would seem that such developments call for more reviewing / filtering to avoid “information obesity”. Although I agree with this conclusion, I do not think that a continuation of the classical reviewing system is the way to go. In my view a system where papers are ranked by their reader audience would represent a self-organizing system where good publications will automatically get top ranks. The use of such a strategy would also obliviate the need for an ever increasing number of editorial teams which in itself would not be possible ‘ad infinitum’. The implementation of open science and the use of open access publishing would also greatly facilitate the sharing of information.

Like in the “old” system, in the “new” system we will never be able to read everything and know everything, not even in our own expert areas. This is what David Weinberger calls Too Big To Know (2B2K) in his forthcoming book with the same title. As one reviewer put it: "Led by the Internet, knowledge is now social, mobile, and open. Weinberger shows how to unlock the benefits."( Marc Benioff, bestselling author of Behind the Cloud).  In his new book Weinberger describes a networked society, that creates more and more useful information, exploits linking technologies, and encourages individual participation. The result is a well adapted network with all the sheer limitless possibilities that connected human beings can realize. In this networked society the participation of more scientists and the natural selection for scientific quality would mean that scientists can work more efficiently together and that individual capacities would be better used. Also in this system an increased use of social media would fit in quite naturally. Everyone can see that this latter trend is already all too obvious in society as a whole. Taken together, the scenario described above holds the promise of better (Open) Science, through better sharing of information, better collaboration and better social interactions.

 Social media like Google+, LinkedIn and scientific community sites like MalariaWorld, Frontiers and Mendeley, can and should take a leading role in the transformation towards an open science society. Malariaworld for instance, links >7000 malaria professionals and provides them with weekly updates on new literature, news, opportunities for jobs, blogging and opportunities for discussing topics online. Mendeley, originally set up as a free reference manager for organizing your research, has developed into a full-fledged system capable of much more than that. It now provides a network environment to connect with colleagues and securely share your papers, notes and annotations. And it allows to discover papers, people and groups with matching areas of interest through searching the world’s largest crowd-sourced research catalog. The combination of Mendeley resources with the social media platform of MalariaWorld would mean added value for both. MalariaWorld brings together the people and information, while Mendeley provides the possibilities of sharing, organizing and annotating sets of references from the collected malaria literature, and developing of collaborative research strategies. Groups within the MalariaWorld community could post ideas in real-time, because when a group member adds a note, highlight or summary to a group document, the edit is visible to all the members of the group. Everyone can comment or start a discussion and watch projects progress over time. This kind of working together would come close to a walk in the park and make optimal use of all the opportunities offered by Open access, social media and crowd-sourcing. Please try Mendeley for yourselves and let’s  make MalariaWorld an instrument on the road to an Open Science society.