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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

Entering the New Market Place:
on the Role of Traditional Social Science Information Providers Within the Internet Community

Dr. Hans-Christoph Hobohm
German Social Science Infrastructure Services, Social Science Information Centre, Bonn - Berlin


On the basis of the experience made by implementing the German national Internet information server for the social sciences some general reflections are made on the status of the activity of providing information by means of this information and communication channel. At least for a certain time the dissemination of information via the Internet will mean an extra load for the majority of the trad itional participants in the information market. The other information and publishing media like books, journals or databases will remain the central part of the business. On the other hand it is obvious that Internet information activities will have an essential impact in the near future, while the market players' positions will undergo a fundamental redefinition. Therefore, it is argued in the p resent paper that before entering the new market the providers of information have to carefully analyse their own goals, strengths and possibilities. In fact the task of social science information specialists is to assure the scientific quality of the information they are offering.


This paper will not deal with last year's questions like: What is the Internet?, How is the Internet run? Who pays for it?, What are the tools? Its purpose is to present some reflections based on practical experience in establishing an Internet information service for the National German Social Science Infrastructure. It will rather have a non US perspective i.e. showing you how we struggle as mo re or less marginal members of the Internet community in terms of discipline nationality. When talking about "information providers" I am thinking of database producers because the main activity of the institution I am working for, the Social Science Information Centre as part of the German National Social Science Infrastructure Services (GESIS), is to build two major databases on German speakin g research projects and on publications in the area of a broad understanding of Social Sciences as defined by the UNESCO. To a certain extent our goals and objectives differ from one of a Social Science Library and hence of the concern of most of the participants of this section. When I am talking to you, it is not only a reflection of my position on what a social science library should be - name ly an information provider in its field - but the expression of a deeper concern on the changing roles of nearly all players in the information market: database producers as well as other publishers or disseminators of information. I can very well imagine a social science library doing fairly the same on the net as we have done. As a result of the new information technologies our interests and ai ms are becoming more and more closer.

Let me start with some more general reflections on the Internet - not in a technical but an epistemological sense. Everybody is talking about gophers, webs and spiders and my impression is that all our activities miss an analytical dimension. We are clearly technology driven without knowing where we go and what we do. The question of sense arises only seldom because in most cases the Internet act ivities are an add-on which up to now have mainly been voluntary. They have not yet replaced traditional tasks. However, in a time of restricted resources I guess that more decisions will have to be taken on how much investment, at least in terms of man power, are required to be allocated to the new information media.

What are we doing?

At present we are witnessing the second main development push in the computer era: after a long time of crunching numbers and words (which finally led to DTP) we are now facing a revolution of interpersonal communication. In the centre of this development are the new means of communication called electronic mail. Many of the very new features of the Internet, if not all, are based on "computer me diated communication". Just try to realise to which extent all your activities on the nets are "communication". Not only talking with people from other countries via e-mail, electronic conferencing systems or bulletin boards but every handling of a gopher both as provider and user is an act of communication. And this takes place on a far more personal level than within the existing communication channels of publishing in form of books or articles. When providing an FTP server with your text or software you are potentially communicating this piece of information to a far greater audience than you imagine. The reference librarian now asks special listserv-discussion lists to solve "stumpers"-questions for his customers. And while searching for a special item you will often find WAIS-databa ses leading you to the archives of academic debates on the net. Therefore, considering the Internet as a new information tool one might be inclined to talk about a new paradigm of information seeking behaviour: the search process is no longer uni-directional but bi-directional, indeed an act of communication.

Although there has already been a large number of studies on the topic of computer mediated communication, Willard McCarty, one of the pioneers of the academic use of electronic mail, states that "its use has run ahead of our understanding" (1992, p. 213). We can hardly imagine to which extent the new facilities allowing the user to navigate in the Internet easily and finally to communicate with the international scientific community may have an impact on information and communication activities in general. The famous communication scientist, Walter Ong, stressed the anthropological importance of the current development comparing it to the invention of printing by analogising it to the ontological development. 12 years ago he could not have anticipated the new communication tools which e specially came up the last three years; but he certainly imagined to which extent we would be affected by the new way of communicating globally. His well known argument was that somehow we would be coming back to purer and better ways of scientific debate because we would no longer need the time-consuming and complicated processes of scientific publication in print.

The tools we use are never innocent or without an effect on what we do. Some formal reflections on what we are about to use might be necessary to determine when we can profit most of it. For the time being the new media, or to be more modest, the new technologies now being developed in the context of the Internet can only be characterised by metaphors or analogies because of their immaturity. Jus t now we are facing the birth of new information and communication means and sometimes cannot even describe their usefulness properly, let alone their psycho-social effects in general.

We all experience the effects of information entropy and we encounter scepticism expressed by new users of the Internet. Of course, when questioning the efficiency of a new medium one should not be too narrow-minded. Telling the history of his famous electronic seminar called HUMANIST Willard McCarty, well aware of the problematic "signal-to-noise" ratio, stated: "Would we rightly regard such inv entions as worthy of serious attention only if it were shown that users were more productive thereby?" (1992, p. 213) On the contrary, it is often stated, that for serious information workers the services of the Internet are far too time-consuming and that only academics can spend so much time searching "by serendipity". Looking at the new communication and information means in the net one might say as McCarty did: "irrelevant material is not only expected, it is a necessary feature" (213). Hence the metaphor of the "information flea market" comes to your mind quickly. You will also often hear the metaphor of "gold mining" when talking about information seeking on the Internet thereby paraphrasing both the possibility of finding really valuable items and the great amount of noise you hav e to put up with while searching for it intentionally. "The metaphor of gold mining suggests [...] that irrelevance is simply to be accepted as a feature of the activity" (McCarty 1992, 215) and in fact in Gopherspace you find entries called "Gopher jewels" and so forth. On the other hand who determines what is relevant or even interesting for someone else? At this point the analogy to e-mail conferencing ceases to be operational: there is at least one other important notion which interferes and that is "quality". Unlike the conversational mode of information exchange or dissemination the more "object-oriented" way of participating in the global Internet informat ion exchange which Gopher- or WWW-services stand for has three dimensions:

the relevance inherent to every information activity having to deal with the question of information overload

several aspects of quality

and the important dimension of time which describes that one quality of an information item is to be up-to-date.

A new role for information providers

The history of HUMANIST shows that in order to be able to profit from the "serious play" involved with these new technologies there has to be some sort of non-intentional support. Some institutions supported the project of an electronic seminar for humanities computing just because they were also fascinated by the idea. It could become what it is now without formal argumentation on the usefulness of the instrument. We are now in the position to draw the attention of our supporting institutions to the fact that the use of the Internet has reached a critical mass in itself. So our argument for establishing Internet services may be mainly quantitative - but this even can become counterproductive having to deal with arguments like the "information overload" or the "network congestion": Why a dding a new service to the existing information jungle?

For the father of HUMANIST one important point is to "make clear the crucial role of philosophical leisure to cultural vitality, hence ultimately to our survival, in a world accustomed to measure an academic's value by essentially the same standards as the automobile worker's." (McCarty 1992, p. 217) A reasoning which certainly has its attraction for institutions working in the field of the socia l sciences. But in my opinion and according to my experience this is not sufficient. It is not only some cultural or philosophical point of view which forces traditional social science information providers to join the flea market called Internet. The experience of the British ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council) Data Archive shows that it can be a productive task for a data centred social science infrastructure service to make use of the new facilities of computer network ing (Tannenbaum 1994). Since ESRC established new consulting services based on the electronic mail feature, they noted that the figures of usage of their classic services and products grew further. There are natural side effects on your established tasks. You can use e-mail distribution for your public relation activities and most of your pursuits with Gopher or WWW may influence the image of you r institution on the information market. The Internet has still a good reputation. Participating in it means that you are at the very top of technological development.

At some point you might say that you have to participate because the scientific community is about to change its communication behaviour in this direction (cf. Hobohm 1994). On the other hand, one could argue that it is not necessary to join these flea-market activities for the simple reason that every researcher now has the possibility to do likewise: "So let us continue our job which no one els e would do otherwise". But here we join the argument from above. We are not only in the position to filter relevant material but also to guarantee the quality of the information we would offer ourselves. Traditional information services should assume gate keeper functions in this overwhelming and nearly unstructured communication flow between experts.

If you have a look at some of the existing Gopher systems you will quickly discover that they are nearly all structured in a most unintelligent way: information resources are offered by "document type", by geographical location, by type of connection and so on. If you find some content-oriented structuring you can be sure that it does not follow any known standard or even any systematic approach. It is not uncommon to find listings of entries where simplest alphabetical rules are violated: classifying under a person's Christian name instead of the surname or omitting the article in a book title etc.. In my opinion this is the main reason why new users are sometimes frustrated when they enter the Internet. A common objection "How can I use the information if I don't know what's out there or can't locate it?" (cf. McClure 1993, p.23f) demonstrate the importance of the new role of the traditional information providers in the academic networks: making tracks through the information jungle. The user needs a confident starting point for the exploration of the new information resources. Similar to the role of the libraries who always had to act as a sign post to wisdom. In the long run the orientation function can only be carried out by a well known and established partner in the scientific communication process.

Structuring forces on which the researcher can rely on will become more and more necessary in the new information environment. At the same time it is essential to let the medium keep its peripheral status which allows for the "serious play" that is so favourable to scientific creativity (McCarty). At this point the new role for information providers takes on a rather delicate dimension. As you ha ve certainly experienced, the value of formal information work like classifying, abstracting or indexing is not as recognised in the present scientific information process as it should be: you all know the professor saying: "I know all my information resources by heart - I don't need any bibliographies". Joining the information medium which even reinforces this informal information behaviour (bec ause it is based on communication) has a paradoxical aspect for the more formally minded documentary and library services which strikes at the core of their existence. Doing formal information work in an informal environment means the confrontation of two "mentalities" or perhaps - and that is what I hope - a subject-oriented synergetic approach.

Because of the great amount of resources in the Internet it is obvious that future starting points in the net will no longer be by type of information but by discipline or subject. The changing role of all information producers and disseminators like database producers, libraries, publishers lies here: shifting their activities to the new media and the new communication behaviour of the scientifi c community. The changing foundation of the scientific process forces us to adapt our own behaviour. Before we had to deal with rather slow evolving paper based items and now we face the fluid and vivid raw material of scientific communication itself. Like the future scientific process our proper activities can only be described by metaphorical speech: we have to create a virtual presence in the Internet to attract like magnetism other applications and services relevant to our own topic, i.e. social sciences.

By evaluating, structuring and crystallising existing information and communication resources with Gopher menus or in WWW-hypertext links we must offer a forum for our specific scientific discourse. We cannot remain in the "receptive" and "objective" position of documentary and bibliographical stock taking. We have to be active participants in forming the new media otherwise we will be forced to fit in a structure which our scientific understanding cannot cope with. As discipline oriented information specialists we are in the best position to judge the new media in terms of its scientific potentials. As experts in the information business we should intervene in order to allow the information on the net to reach the necessary quality standards.

With respect to the last argument we shall work out new documentary standards for the presentation of information material in the net. We cannot expect computer experts to develop content-oriented tools because in a growing net the mere technical problems like the localisation or the integrity of the data will not cease. We are expected to play our role in the overall division of labour between c ontent and form. New forms are established, it is now up to us to model the substance.

Impacts and consequences

Entering the Internet as information provider has consequences which may alter deeply the normal library and information business. In several aspects it can be compared to the new domain of electronic publishing in general. In the same way as establishing a Gopher-server is taking part in the scientific communication process, the bits and pieces offered by that server become part of the scientifi c publishing industry. As conceived by Don Schauder (1994, p. 95) the new roles for libraries being a "literary agent" and a "document supply agent" could materialise in forms of Gopher-servers or WWW pages. It has often been said that university libraries are best prepared to take over substantial functions in academic electronic publishing together with the university presses and the computing centres and it is evident that this finally affects the entire value system of the scholarly publishing industry. Decisions have to be taken on the fundamental question of commercialising library and information services. Some libraries (like the British Library) or library consortia (like OCLC) have already entered a more commercialised market and took over services from other players of the mar ket. In so doing libraries have to a certain extent already passed a borderline which has separated so far the document supply oriented libraries from information centres and database producers.

But not only on this frontier one has to be aware of the increasing competition between all the actors in the information and publishing market: database producers, information brokers, learned societies, journals and reviews, libraries, editors: Now they all have the "brave new" facilities of micro-publishing on academic networks at their finger tips. As Schauder summarises the development: "The scholarly communication industry is entering a phase of intense new competition wherein at-source-subsidised electronic publishing of professional articles competes with fee-for-service publishing and republishing." (1994, p.95). Other studies on the impact of electronic publishing (Riehm et al. 1992, Lankenau et al. 1993) indicated the importance of formal evaluation of quality as it is guarant eed by the referee system of an academic journal. This is the opportunity for the subject-oriented information specialist in the light of the restructuring of the information market. His specific information handling expertise has to be clearly pointed out in order to be a winner in this competition.The Internet becoming more and more commercial (see Cronin 1994) I think this will be one of the m ost decisive aspects to concentrate on in the next few years.

When planning the entry in the new market the described economic impact and the situation "from scratch" make it necessary to clearly analyse one's own potentials and goals. There are so many possible "concurrents" for the same sort of a service you want to establish and the possible audience is so big that you really have to know what you want and what you can do. You have to be conscious about the fact that you might be "broadcasting" globally and that you will surely encounter the person in the global village who could have done the same thing much better than you. However, it is fascinating to join the Internet community and just to try. The best solution would be if one could establish a long-term cost benefit analysis of the planned activities. But the reality is changing so fast t hat you simply do not have the time to do it.

Since it is such an undefined area yet it will be an add-on service for your institution and an extra load for your collaborators, at least for a beginning. But most studies on the implementation of network services report on the fact that there is only very little substitution (cf. Osswald 1993). It can often be observed that there is a tendency towards more diversity instead of an overall shift to a new sort of service so that additional resources will certainly be required. For the implementation there are some organisational requirements to be considered. McClure et al. (1993) report on the need of key people as a major factor in the success of establishing net-oriented services. The fact that Internet is mainly an English speaking domain should not be neglected either. You need pers ons who can easily express themselves in this language. Even if most of the Internet facilities for technology-minded persons are easy to handle there will be a great amount of training and education for those responsible to manage it on a daily basis.

Similar to the implementation of other publishing media one has to think about quality control procedures especially because, as argued above, quality and relevance control should be one of the main reasons to start such an activity. Finally, just as every product, it needs marketing, public relations and even advertising. By this means the return on investment should not only be the secondary ef fect of polishing up your new technological image having a positive impact on the usage of your traditional information services.

The GESIS information server in the Internet

Most of the reflections I have talked about for the last twenty minutes originate from the experience made during the implementation of the Internet information services for the German speaking social sciences community which I am pleased to be able to present to you in more detail and "live" in the "Internet room" of this conference. The German Social Sciences Infrastructure Services (GESIS) con sist of three partner institutes serving the needs of Social Science research by answering all professional information demands, by supplying empirical data or by consulting on methodological questions. GESIS publishes books, journals and newsletters, produces several databases, documentations and archives, conducts social surveys and does its own research in social science methodology and in sci entometrics.

Nearly all of our services and products were supposed to be offered or at least to be announced via a Gopher server split into the three main activity areas of the member institutes of GESIS. A lot of work has already gone into transcribing all our activities for this new public relation channel and reformatting our newsletters and special current awareness service for the new publishing medium. The first use we made of Internet was in form of an electronic newsletter - in fact an electronic version of a printed one - which is devoted to the Social Sciences in the changing Eastern Europe. We made the experience that sometimes electronic mail is more reliable than "snail mail" or other means of communication. In the meantime many of our products can be reached on FTP-servers or ordered vi a the Gopher system. There are full-text versions of our newsletters and documentations if necessary, searchable as WAIS-databases, furthermore there are up-to-date announcements of future activities or products, conferences or workshops to be held. And, of course, there are Listserv-activities and TELNET-connections to our databases. We try to use as often as advisable (but only when really nece ssary) the graphical and visual capacities of the network facilities for example for the presentation of sample charts of survey analyses.

We try to give access to all our resources via the net. Our main job consisted in structuring and organising them for presentation on the Internet. Actually it was not as easy a job as it may sound but as a matter of fact it had positive effects on the information flow within our complex organisation. Not really unintentionally we had created a greater overall awareness of what the different depa rtments were doing. Just on the commercial borderline described above we are facing some problems which have not yet been solved. Offering access to our large bibliographical database SOLIS or its counterpart on research projects FORIS we had to point to commercial hosts which means for most of the users the dead end of not having the user-id and the well furnished account for paying the informat ion. We are confronted with similar problems as far as our printed books are concerned: in the middle of the new activities emerges the debate of whether we shall do "at-source-subsidised" or "fee-for-service" electronic publishing.

Last but not least we try to do our job as "sign post in the information jungle" of the Internet as described above. Starting with the resources of our co-operating and partner institutes all over the world we try to refer to all the relevant items we consider being valuable for our scientific community. At several occasions we therefore act as a clearinghouse for networked information of our dis cipline. This last activity - by the way the most time-consuming of all - is, of course, well accepted and well used by our colleagues and customers. Judgement on quality and success of our the role as information provider, I was talking about earlier on, I would not dare to comment. This should be left to our users.


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