The British Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has funded some very important research that confirms something that many of us have feared for quite a while: there is now so much information online that important science websites are in danger of becoming buried in a sheer avalanche of facts. Key science sites are failing to register in the top 30 Google search results.
Dr Ralph Schroeder, Dr Alexandre Caldas, Professor William Dutton, and Dr. Jenny Fry of the Oxford Internet Institute have investigated how the Internet is changing the way in which people seek out sources of scientific expertise.
Traditionally publishers have held a central position because of the importance of academic articles, but this is changing with increasing uses of the Internet and Web.
The study focused on how academic researchers in particular interact with the Web on topics including HIV/AIDS, climate change, terrorism, the Internet and society. These subjects are, of course, all highly topical, but the findings of this study will apply much more widely to the uses of the Internet and Web for searching for information on a variety of topics.
The research also confirmed something that clinicians have known for some time: the Web is far from being a neutral source of information. It has a particular structure that steers the search in directions that may not be intended by the user and so makes some sites more accessible than others. Search engines such as Google play an increasingly important gate-keeping role that will influence the information that is found. They can shape "winners and losers" by means that are not always apparent and moreover do so in a manner which can vary according to subject matter.
There is also a problem that some vested interests are able to "buy" high visibility. Many people with psychological difficulties have stumbled on Scientology websites without realizing it. And there are some people who have the time and the energy to attract a lot of "hits."
The researchers came to several conclusions:
* The "visibility" of information on the Web is of increasing importance. Do people looking for research results on climate change or terrorism find themselves directed to a few top sites rather than a wide array of diverse sources? Do they encounter the most highly regarded researchers rather than marginal ones?
* Interviews revealed that researchers' ideas of key networks, structures and organisations may not be mirrored by search engines. For example the HIV/AIDS researchers reported using national journals, charity organisations, statistics and public sector organisations but none of these appear in the top 30 search results for generic domain keywords. In addition, a number of institutions, people and other key organisations and resources failed to appear in the top 30 search results.
* The role search engines play can vary according to topic. In the HIV/AIDS and the Internet and society domains, for instance, search engines such as Google was mainly used as an aide memoire for locating known sources. For researchers on terrorism, the search engine played a more central role in exploring the object of research and identifying relevant sites of information.
"This will be an issue not just for policymakers," Dr. Schroeder says, "but for educators, organisations involved in science and research communication, regulators responsible for access to the Web, and citizens who are concerned with the diversity and richness of the information world around them."