Nautilus

Web visibility

In today’s Nature, Masao Ito and Thorsten Wiesel of the Human Frontier Science Program write in Correspondence about the lack of international visibility of many Japanese scientists, in that they are very difficult to find by search engines and indeed in publication databases. (The full text of the Correspondence is on the continuation sheet of this post.)

As a consequence, scientists in Japan and in other non-English speaking countries are less likely to be invited to participate in collaborative projects or to become reviewers, which deprives them of a full international experience.

The Correspondence authors advise scientists to construct internationally comprehensible web pages to make a scientist’s research interests, research group and publications immediately clear to anyone who visits the site. The homepage of such institutional websites must provide a clear option headed ‘research’, in the English language, that leads to a page summarizing the research in a style familiar to international visitors.

In many regions of the world, numerous scientists have similar or identical family names and initials, making literature searches in PubMed very difficult or impossible. Some concerted effort is necessary to resolve this problem — perhaps by the addition of laboratory codes, or a ‘zip code’ for the initials of individual scientists — to allow these scientists to compete fairly on the international level.

We welcome suggestions from readers, which can be made by writing a comment to this post.


Full text of Correspondence from Nature 444, 817 (2006).SIR — As scientists, we are keenly aware that the world is developing into a single ‘laboratory without walls’, in which information passes as easily to the other side of the world as to the person working in a neighbouring institute. Although some people may be uneasy with this, to the brightest minds it is an enormous opportunity for progress, particularly in fundamental research. Yet information-sharing is not necessarily symmetrical, and depends on the tools that each contributor has available.

Our experience in managing the international research projects sponsored by the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) illustrates the problem.

This organization — of which we are president (M. I.) and secretary general (T. W.) — was established more than 15 years ago by Japan as an international programme for research into fundamental life processes. The HFSP secretariat, which is based in Strasbourg, selects postdoctoral fellows and research projects via international review committees.

Publication databases and powerful search engines allow the secretariat to update information regularly and to find it readily. However, it has become obvious that not all institutes and countries are on an equal footing in this respect (see www.hfsp.org/pubs/HFSP_articles/websites-scol.php).

In the case of Japan, it has become apparent that many scientists suffer from a lack of international visibility, in that they are very difficult to find by search engines and indeed in publication databases.

As a consequence, Japanese scientists are less likely to be invited to participate in collaborative projects or to become reviewers, which deprives them of a full international experience.

Three main issues need to be addressed.

First, internationally comprehensible web pages must be constructed, to make a scientist’s research interests, research group and publications immediately clear to anyone who visits the site. Many traditional Japanese-language scientists’ websites start with a description of their philosophy and artistic interests, which in Japan are recognized as important in a potential mentor. Although this is culturally appropriate for Japanese students and postdocs, its relevance is, unfortunately, lost on the international visitor, who is accustomed to the succinct presentations typical of Western research institutes and universities. One simple remedy would be for Japanese researchers to have a Western-style page within their website, easily accessible and clearly signposted, in English, on the homepage.

Second, many academic institutions have websites based on their curricula, which are appropriate for Japanese students, but are of limited interest for international visitors. It is important that the homepage of such institutional websites provides a clear option headed ‘research’, in the English language, that leads to a page summarizing the research in a style that is familiar to international visitors.

Third, in many regions of the world, numerous scientists have similar or identical family names and initials, making literature searches in PubMed very difficult or impossible. This is certainly an issue in some Asian countries, including Japan. Some concerted effort is necessary to resolve this problem — perhaps by the addition of laboratory codes, or a ‘zip code’ for the initials of individual scientists — to allow these scientists to compete fairly on the international level.

All of these are pressing issues in global science communication. Frontier-level international research is becoming concentrated in those institutions and laboratories that have the maximum visibility on the World Wide Web.

Comments

  1. Report this comment

    Pierre Lindenbaum said:

    Let’s dream :-)… would be nice if the NCBI could store a unique identifier for each scientist (including those working in physics, humanities…) and for each laboratory in the world just like LinkedIn . The information would be available as a semantic FOAF. Anyone could modify is own information.file (who I am, who I know, my interests, my publications, where am I, my connotea/citeulike profile… etc…) and this unique identifier would be shown in articles.

    Ask the NCBI ! 🙂

    Pierre

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    Cheng-Cai Zhang said:

    Sir,

    The comments by Masao Ito and Thorsten Wiesel on the visibility of Japanese scientists raise a real and complex issue. As a scientist of Chinese origin working in Europe since 20 years, the search engines available today are poorly adapted to search publications by Asian scientists; one of the reasons is that often a few family names account for the majority. Taking my own name as an example. Zhang accounts for almost 10% of the Chinese population. Typically, I should have written my first name as Chengcai as many do, and in this case, I have only C as initial for my first name. With Pubmed, I pulled out 3592 papers under the name of Zhang C. If I use Zhang CC, that number drops to 129, already a relatively reasonable number, although, only about 30 papers are really of mine. Therefore, trying to make the initials as discriminating as possible is one of the solutions.

    Secondly, the search engines should develop ways to better handle such problems. One effective way is that the engines should support searches using not just family names but also full first names. Such a simple solution could even help some western colleagues with a very popular family name such Smith or Durand.

    Cheng-Cai Zhang, Professor

    Université d’Aix-Marseille II, France

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    Helen Hansma said:

    People whose names are difficult to spell are also at a disadvantage. One colleague with whom I co-authored a paper seemed to have no publications until I discovered a ‘silent Z’ in the spelling of his name.

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    José J. Lunazzi said:

    The title of the article mentioning “speaking” english concerns in fact to a smaller but not small problem, that of “writing” english. It is good to read that people whose native language is english need to be conscious and willing in some way to reduce the problem for the whole science. A good and simple way is to learn esperanto and start communicating with the world through it. Seeing the broad spectrum the “delta” strictly selective function of english can be understood. I had beeing at Korea, China and Japan using esperanto and english, same as in USA, and am sure that esperanto performs much better in every field of activity, coloquial, domestic or in physics.

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    Maxine said:

    The Esperanto solution is sensible “on paper” but realistically it is unlikely to occur, given the length of time since Esperanto was devised as a “universal language”.

    In the meantime, science journals can provide help in various ways for authors whose first language is not English. The Nature journals provide advice before the author submits — see http://www.nature.com/authors/author_services/how_write.html ;and after acceptance they employ subeditors and copyeditors to assist authors with the language of their contributions.

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    José J. Lunazzi said:

    If the length of time refers to 120 years of esperanto not being enough to conquer the users, I must remember, in brief, that english took many centuries to be adopted, replacing latin and even french and german. World War I and II did not helped to its diffussion, because esperanto is until now a language of peace, but helped to disseminate english in Europe.

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