Chemical & Engineering News,
March 27, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by the American Chemical Society.

Information revolution calls for changes in behavior

Contained in the information revolution is the potential for benefits derived from the greater speed, higher efficiency, and deeper insight that chemists can bring to their work. The benefits could be considerable. But like most revolutions, the information revolution compels change, and that change can be painful for many as well.

Take, for example, a research scenario suggested by Raymond E. Dessy, emeritus professor of chemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, Blacksburg. For many years he has been charting the electronic progress of the chemical research community. "To me," Dessy tells C&EN, "technology is a small part of the problem - 75% is people and getting them to change work habits, interact with other individuals in new ways, accept new technologies."

Dessy's scenario considers the start of a new research project and manifests many of the attributes of the information revolution. The first activity is to find out what is in the published literature. On the horizon, he says, is an electronic library technology that would enable a researcher to rapidly browse the current literature - perhaps by focusing on thumbnail images of graphs and figures. After finding suitable articles, the researcher could ask for full copies.

For this electronic library of current literature to happen, Dessy notes, publishers will be required to alter their habits and change the distribution patterns and charge mechanisms for their journals. It will be a painful struggle, he admits. But, he believes that eventually the reviewed literature will get disseminated more efficiently and quickly.

"Like many scientists," Dessy says, "I have real concern over just opening up a bulletin board and letting anyone put anything they want on it. That's just going to increase the information pollution. But, with more journals sending out articles for review electronically and then publishing them electronically, we shorten the time between when a paper is written" and when it's available at a person's desk or lab.

Then the question for researchers is what to do with what they get. Here, Dessy says, other software technology on the horizon will create for a researcher a personal database for filing documents. Once begun, it would recognize the researcher's work habits and store or retrieve documents through an algorithm that searches for similar types of documents. This technology, Dessy explains, allows the researcher to work with the literature in a very efficient way. This dynamic database approach (Dynabase) has already been used by a large consulting firm.

A major change in researchers' work habits will be required by the next step as envisioned in the scenario: "What do I do for my first experiments, and how do I record the results?" These questions, Dessy points out, bring in the whole area of electronic laboratory notebooks. Indeed, there are a number of such notebooks on the market now.

Dessy envisions the equivalent of a palm-top or notebook computer that would reside on a bench top and be wirelessly connected to a central host. It could take keyboard data, and it could be plugged into instruments so that it could take data from them as well.

The idea would be to build an object-oriented database - a database approach that involves storing data, text, pictures, video, or dictation, say, as items that can be manipulated as objects. For example, they could be linked together or embedded into one another using existing object linking and embedding (OLE) techniques.

With this approach, a researcher can capture research results as objects in whatever form needed and link them together. As an example of what can be done, Dessy points out that most people work on more than one project at a time. The end result for the classical cellulose notebook, he explains, is that the record becomes very fragmented. So, too, in effect does the electronic notebook. But with the latter, the researcher can link and thread objects to form a virtual notebook for a given project.

"Now the beauty of this," Dessy says, "is that not only you can do that, but other people in the laboratory can share those notebooks if they have authorized access." And they might want to create their own virtual notebooks by taking results from more than one worker and linking them because they're related. Examining the results, they might perhaps see things that neither original worker did and share those insights with the original workers and other responsible individuals.

"Here," says Dessy, "we start to get into the problem that people are going to resist sharing notebooks like this because they view them as private diaries. But, like it or not, the chemist's private diary, that notebook, is really company property, and what's in it is the company's, too. The company has to make the most of that intellectual property if it's going to keep a competitive edge."

So, Dessy says that it will be necessary to wean people away from the private diary concept and change their work habit about what the notebook should be doing. And, he says, sharing means that researchers will have to keep cleaner notebooks. "None of this arcane phrasing, abbreviations that nobody understands, writing that only a pharmacist can read." And the notebooks will have to be complete.

Concerns about legal acceptability are still hindering wider acceptance of electronic laboratory notebooks. But even here, Dessy says, technology is available that overcomes such concerns and seems to pose no problem for much of the legal establishment. "It's just that one of these days it's going to have to go before a judge," Dessy says, "and then I think we'll be all right."

Finally, he says, the research project is finished and the researcher wants to share it with other people. The paper isn't ready yet, it's only forming in the researcher's mind. There now are visualization techniques to better convey concepts to colleagues to get input from them. "We can do things in visualization," Dessy says, "that allow me to see relationships in things that I thought I knew 20 years ago but never did." Multidimensional plotting and quick-time movies can be part of an electronic manuscript.

"So you need to use the network and interact," Dessy says. "This is a whole new dimension. The community of minds concept of Leibniz [German philosopher and mathematician, 1646–1716] anticipated today's electronic networks."

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