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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter May 24, 2017

Leveraging the Web

Production, Management, and Dissemination of Chemical Information

William Fyson, Simon Coles and Jeremy Frey
From the journal Chemistry International


As an open, inexpensive, collaborative platform, the Web is ideal for facilitating communication among scholars and enabling nearly free access to knowledge. The Web’s potential allows researchers to utilize the digital, networked medium to publish more of their research data in comparison to paper-based journal articles and to publish them in context-sensitive formats, enabling wider access and visibility along with increased discoverability and the potential for further use, including through the deployment of e-science techniques. [1] However, this potential is often not fully achieved. Academic publishing has created a market, formed over hundreds of years, that fulfills a number of processes, such as peer review, impact assessment, and allocation of funding. Numerous stakeholders, ranging from publishers to academics to research funders, all have their own agendas and conflicting interests, which can inhibit the adoption of innovative approaches to leveraging the Web. Thus, in order to better enable the potential of e-science, an approach that merely leverages the Web to develop new tools and platforms for dissemination is insufficient; the socio-economic forces that influence stakeholders’ behaviour must also be considered. [2]

To better understand how these interactions affect scholarly discourse and to encourage a more open approach to publishing that enables data reuse for a range of stakeholders, a prototype Web service was developed to facilitate a process which we have termed disaggregation—the breaking down of conventional publications, such as journal articles or theses, so that their constituent elements may be disseminated and reused more freely. The Web enables a vast range of research outputs to be communicated and presents new mediums through which a researcher’s contribution to their academic community may be measured. Yet the Web is primarily used to distribute journal articles, [3] a format that has remained largely unchanged over hundreds of years. By presenting new approaches to conventional publications, disaggregation disrupts many of the interactions between stakeholders, offering new opportunities for sharing content and facilitating peer review, and also new metrics for measuring impact.

This paper presents a thorough evaluation of the effect disaggregation would have on the entire process, from research planning through data generation to disseminating and reusing the outputs. This is achieved through the medium of interviews with expert stakeholders, including perspectives and insight from academics, publishers, and librarians. During the interviews, participants were first asked to describe their role in academia before considering a hypothetical world of scholarly discourse where researchers distribute research outputs freely on the Web without the aid of academic publishers, with the aim of encouraging participants to adopt an open mind when exploring the topic of academic publishing. The interviewees were then asked to evaluate how disaggregation may coexist alongside the conventional approaches to scholarly discourse and how it may impact upon their role. All interviews were conducted in a semi-structured fashion to allow the expert interviewees to elaborate on their specialist expertise where appropriate. Through such an evaluation, a number of themes begin to emerge concerning the nature of researchers’ attitudes towards the dissemination of research, how current practices may be adapted, and what needs to be developed and standardized, with the themes having implications for both an understanding of the scholarly process and how disaggregation may be implemented.

The first two themes are interlinked, concerning the nature of cultural norms and behaviours within academia and the roles of stakeholders. The participants’ comments highlight a conflict in the relationship between a long-term shift in cultural norms and a short-term shift in behaviours and decision making. Peer review provides an example of this conflict. There are rarely explicit incentives for reviewing, yet researchers continue to review to fulfil their professional duty. When discussing stakeholder roles, participants focused on the notion of value adding services. For example, researchers emphasised their passion for doing research, with this being the activity that they most want to focus on and the writing of articles being an inconvenience. Thus, publishers add value to scholarly discourse, providing a venue for researchers to disseminate in and prescribing what the final output that the research is aiming towards should look like—the presence of publishers thus ensures the smooth running of all the other functions that stem from it.

These two themes together lead on to the third, the role of reputation in academia and the need for work to be recognized by the rest of the research community, an established driving mechanism in academia. [4] Researchers offer their contributions to the rest of the community, not for direct financial profit, but to enhance their reputation amongst their peers through recognition for contributing novel and useful research. Researchers, institutions, and funders need to be able to quickly identify what work is reputable, a task that journal publications achieve through the power of their brands and impact factors, even if such metrics may be flawed. This need for the means of dissemination to be recognized and understood can prevent new approaches from being successful, with dissemination platforms requiring a significant mass of users. Publications provide a convenient shorthand for busy academics who need to make quick value judgements concerning the quality of work and hiring decisions, rendering them too convenient for the system to be deprived of. Any substitute approach to research dissemination offered to researchers can only be regarded as a trade off in comparison.

From the above themes, it becomes apparent that the act of disaggregation as carried out by researchers on their publications is flawed. Initially, the notion of disaggregation is sound—publications can be broken down into constituent parts and these can be used to help different stakeholders achieve their goals. It was also suggested that the process may be reversed to allow for the re-aggregation of content to create new outputs. However, the implementation of disaggregation proposed is ultimately flawed. It is both time consuming for the researcher and, as an unrecognised form of dissemination, lacks reputational impact.

The final themes therefore focus on how disaggregation may be implemented instead, with a large focus placed on the importance of the researcher’s day-to-day workflows. It is here that the researcher’s cultural norms may be challenged and innovative new approaches to scholarly communication and knowledge management have the potential to add value. Rather than extract content from existing publications, the processes of disaggregation need to be built into the researcher’s workflow, embedded through the whole research lifecycle. By doing so, it provides researchers with the resources they need to help structure their work and produce the conventional outputs that drive their careers, as well as satisfy many other purposes, from data sharing within the lab, through engaging the general public. The key to motivating researchers to engage with new approaches that may be leveraged to encourage open and structured sharing of knowledge begins with demonstrating how adopting such techniques may help achieve the goals they are already focused on. New approaches need to complement existing methods rather than act as poor substitutes.

Therefore, if disaggregation is to be successful, it needs to be a flexible and robust process that can be applied within any lab context, but also go on to help produce research outputs recognised by the whole academic community. This in turn requires standards for structuring and querying the extracted data. These standards must be flexibly defined and adaptable, allowing the stakeholders across academic publishing and research contexts to each define their own disaggregation requirements, which should ultimately be interoperable with standards defined by other individuals who stand to benefit from the disaggregation process. Such a means for organizing, structuring, and querying data presents new challenges for organizations such as IUPAC, concerning both technological issues as well as governance complexities. If such challenges can be overcome, then chemistry researchers can become better at what they are already doing by adopting techniques that inherently promote the open and organised use of the Web for the production, management, and dissemination of chemical information.


1. Hey, A. J. G., & Trefethen, A. E. (2003). The Data Deluge: An e-Science Perspective. In F. Berman, G. C. Fox, & A. J. G. Hey (Eds.), Grid Computing—Making the Global Infrastructure a Reality (pp. 809–824). Wiley and Sons.10.1002/0470867167.ch36Search in Google Scholar

2. Halford, S., Pope, C., & Carr, L. (2010). A Manifesto for Web Science. In WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line (pp. 1–6). Raleigh, US. in Google Scholar

3. Renear, A. H., & Palmer, C. L. (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science, 325(5942), 828–832. in Google Scholar PubMed

4. Merton, R. K. (1957). Priorities in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science. American Sociological Review 22(6):635–659.Search in Google Scholar

Online erschienen: 2017-5-24
Erschienen im Druck: 2017-7-26

©2017 by Walter de Gruyter Berlin/Boston