Thursday, 19 March 2009

Research Websites in the MSD

Yesterday I attended an interesting presentation in the Oxford Libraries Staff Conference 2009 titled: Research Websites in the MSD (or letting cats herd themselves) presented by Anne Bowtell, the Medical Sciences Divisional Web Manager. It focused on the complex and confusing structures of that division and the difficulties at designing numerous websites and trying to keep all their content accurate, updated and organised.

Anne is a member of the BRII team and the work she’s been carrying out at MedSci has a lot of overlap with BRII. Anne receives requests from all areas within MedSci to create websites for them to help them raise their research profiles. Publicly available information in websites increases their visibility within and outside Oxford. So here we have one area of overlap with BRII: information about research which MedSci want to make visible. Websites are like windows through which everyone can see the research done in MedSci, particularly the research subjects they are working on and the people involved with each subject. Having their information grouped by subject facilitates their work with funding agencies for example. Funding agencies usually have pockets of money destined to efforts in particular subject areas. Even if there is no actual research group or institute aimed at research in an area but only individual efforts or tangential interests, websites can be created to group those people and efforts even if they belong to different areas in the University. So we can create a website to give a face to something that is not a physical entity. An example of this is the Themes like the Cardiovascular Science theme:

Anne explained that one problem she had at creating these websites was data duplicity and accuracy. For example, one researcher within MedSci may appear in his/her departmental website, research group website, theme website and so on. This researcher’s information may appear different in each source; it may be outdated or wrong. So here we have this issue of keeping control of data which may be visible from different windows. Common sense would tells us that we should have only one reliable source for that data and that each website should access that unique source. In theory that sounds sensible, however in practice that can be very difficult to achieve. Hmmm, and actually this would not make sense in a research environment. Research environments are fast moving free environments. Everyday researchers come up with new ideas, and the ways of expressing those ideas change from person to person and subect area to subject area. It makes more sense if they had the freedom of updating their own information the way they believe is best. But that leaves us in a vicious circle, if we let researchers creating information independently we can end up with a huge mess. On the other hand if we try to control or centralise the control of what they produce, we could be hindering the researchers work. The truth is, you can't herd cats! So how then can we break this vicious circle? Anne thinks the answer lies on the Semantic Web. And of course BRII shares the same believe.
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