Vol. 43, No. 2, April 2014
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The Isis Research Platform:
Curating Scholarly Knowledge in a Linked World
by Stephen P. Weldon, Editor, Isis Bibliography
Very good news from the Isis Bibliography office: In March, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation announced their support for a project that will propel the Bibliography to the forefront of digital research in the twenty-first century. Over the past year and a half, I have been collaborating with many different scholars on plans to build an innovative tool for collaborative research that uses the Isis data. This tool, theIsis Research Platform, will provide new ways of accessing information about scholarship in the history of science and the scholars who produce it. The $350,000 grant from Sloan will support the first two years of development of this project to update and expand the research environment for historians of science.
The principal investigators on the project are me, Gavan McCarthy, the Director of the eScholarship Research Centre (eSRC) at the University of Melbourne, and Kerry Magruder, the Curator of the History of Science Collections at the University of Oklahoma (OU) Libraries. The project will be developed in collaboration between the eSRC and the OU Libraries. McCarthy has extensive expertise in building and developing scholarly resources of this kind, and the OU Libraries have just established a new open access repository where the Isis data will be housed. I will work with a small team who will help direct and manage the project over the course of the next couple of years. Eventually, I expect to move the entire production of the Bibliography to the Isis Platform.
The Isis Platform plans contain several pathbreaking elements. First of all, it will be entirely open access, meaning that for the first time, all of the Isis data will be available to researchers around the world. The History of Science Society will be making a singular contribution to worldwide scholarship in the discipline by opening up this deep archive of citations to all researchers. Although the data is already freely accessible in PDFs of annual bibliographies as well as within the massiveWorldCat.org database, the Isis Platform will provide something new: open access to over 300,000 Isis citations through a web portal dedicated to history of science and curated by historians, an Application Programming Interface (API) for direct access to the bibliographic data, and downloadable bibliographies.
Second, the tool will expand the dataset back to 1913, adding sixty years to the current dataset. By having the bibliography stretch over an entire century, we will gain a much better picture of the discipline’s development. Moreover, the Sartonian vision of a complete cumulative bibliography will be finally achieved in digital form.
These two changes alone—expanding the audience and extending the content—will add significant value to the existing Isis Bibliography, but the project goes beyond this. These changes provide the foundation for a more innovative and visionary research tool, one that does far more than give researchers bibliographic citations. TheIsis Research Platform will incorporate basic functionality expected of all twenty-first century research tools, including user accounts, social tagging, and linked data. In addition, it will take scholarly research into new areas with complex data analytics, and even full-text access where it is possible and feasible.
The Isis Platform will be designed to allow collaborative work of all kinds. Users will be able to create accounts so that they can save and share bibliographical resources, add public comments, and point out corrections. Users will also be able to add citations to their own personal account, make them accessible to others, and suggest they be incorporated into the curated dataset. The Platform will even give users the option to add their own tags to entries and create classification structures that organize the data better for their own research. All of these will be shareable on the system.
The collaborative nature of the bibliography will make it possible to bring together a team of editors to help curate and build special subjects within the field. These subject editors will be able to manage areas of the dataset, using all of the tools mentioned above. I believe that by giving specialists and working groups more control over the data curation, it will be possible to make the tool more useful for all scholars, helping them build and sustain their own research and work with each other to strengthen the subfields.
The Platform will have the technical capabilities to do advanced analytics on the dataset itself. With a carefully designed interface, researchers will not only be able to better locate citations of material for their research, but that they will be able to better see where their results lie within the larger “data space.” In other words, it will give scholars new tools to understand the historiography of particular areas of study. This should make it easier to find similar results, understand the limits of the dataset, compare works more easily with each other, and see patterns in subjects, publication, and authorship that are often hard to detect in existing bibliographical databases.
The expectations of digital research are moving quickly, and most researchers want to have access to full-text resources. The Platform will have document storage and sharing capabilities so that, to the extent that it is legally permissible, users will be able to get access to works old and new. Where those works are not directly accessible, users will be pointed to sources where they can be purchased or borrowed.
One of the most important aspects of this project will be its integration with datasets of many different kinds. Linked open data is a growing movement in digital information curation. We will be taking full advantage of existing work in this area to make the Isis dataset compliant with library and preservation standards so that linking of this sort will be possible. We expect to be able to work with geographical databases, subject and person authority files, and even major open access content providers like Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. We anticipate cross-linking among different sources.
One of the most important elements of the project is the standardization of the data into strict formats because those rigorous formats make it widely useable. We will make the dataset available to users via APIs. By doing this we give anyone with coding expertise the ability to interact directly with the dataset outside of the Platform itself. In other words, the data in the bibliography can be utilized by others for purposes that we have not anticipated.
The Sloan grant has provided funding to encourage this sort of use. During the two-year term of the grant, we will hold a programming day (better known to many as a “hackathon”) at one of the HSS Meetings, a day in which we will invite historians and programmers to build tools or analytical instruments that make use of the Isis data. The hackathon will promote new kinds of digital scholarship and encourage collaboration among people with different specialties to look for new ways to use the Isis dataset. We will be giving small grants to the winners of the day-long event so that they can develop the tool they have produced more fully and make it publically accessible.
Even as we develop the bibliography in this new direction, there are no plans to stop producing the annual print bibliographies. In fact, I am currently working on a way to make the annual print volumes more accessible to people who do not haveIsis subscriptions. I am partnering with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and OU to use their open access publication platform, Edition Open Sources, for this new endeavor. Non-subscribers will be able to download and order their own copies of the bibliography using a print-on-demand system.
Those interested in following the developments and in providing input along the way should visit the Isis CB website, which has a new web address: Isisbibliography.org. Every week or two, my staff and I, along with occasional guest writers, will be providing news and commentary about the Isis Bibliography and theIsis Research Platform. Please join us.