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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006 Supplement
DOI:10.5062/F43R0QSM

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Information Resources for Forest Researchers and Managers: Strengths, Weaknesses, Threats and Opportunities

Alan G. Brown
CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products
PO Box E4008
Kingston, ACT 2604, Australia
Current address:
3 Carmichael St.
Deakin, ACT 2600, Australia
alan.and.erika@mintbow.com

John W. Turnbull
PO Box 5034
Garran, ACT 2605, Australia
jturnbul@bigpond.net.au

Abstract

Pathways for the sharing and dissemination of information have been augmented significantly in the last decade by electronic tools for the reproduction, storage, transmission and retrieval of information. The Internet, through e-mail and chat rooms, assists personal informal communication. The greatest beneficiaries are workers in developed countries, where reliable high-speed networks, funding and other institutional factors encourage use of these tools. In developing countries, impediments to use of electronic communication include erratic power supplies, poor quality and limited availability of lines, environments destructive of electronic equipment, fees for access and downloading, and language barriers.

Positive developments are the power of search engines now available, and the practices of some journals and publishers of making material (including abstracts) available at little or no cost, at least to users in developing countries. The ready global access to catalogues of major libraries, and effective and accessible abstracting services (e.g., Agricola, CAB Abstracts) have key roles. Unfortunately, some well-known services relevant to forestry have a heavy emphasis on northern hemisphere literature, are weak in coverage of social sciences and developing country and regional information, and expensive. Initiatives to bypass increasingly expensive journal publishers by open-access publishing on the web have had limited success, but open-access archiving is expanding quickly.

Information dissemination and communication have been significantly improved by cheaper international travel, which has made face-to-face workshops and conferences far more accessible than in the past. The value of these occasions is maximised if the proceedings are reviewed, published promptly and cheaply, and fully analysed by abstracting services. Failure to publish proceedings, or to lodge published proceedings with major libraries or other accessible archives and abstracting services, is an opportunity lost. We challenge information professionals to improve the current position in this respect and, more broadly, to actively foster open-access archiving.

The collation of research and operational experience, with a specific audience in mind, remains a key process for end users. In some situations, the primary difficulty end users face is to assess information relevance and develop solutions appropriate to their circumstances. Personal interaction between key field personnel and subject experts may be by far the most effective solution in such cases, being the means whereby field experience can be integrated with information readily available through the facilities in developed countries. Both cheaper travel and the Internet greatly assist this communication process.

Introduction

We live in a world rapidly moving towards a knowledge-based society. Total human knowledge is doubling every seven years. However, our ability to share knowledge is not growing as quickly, and more knowledge is in the hands of an ever smaller proportion of people (Cribb and Hartomo 2002; Cribb 2004). Access to information will determine increasingly the success of many activities, including the management and conservation of forests. Scientists and their scientific institutions need to continually acquire new skills and knowledge; failure to do so will quickly render their work irrelevant. The realisation that many forestry problems need to be tackled holistically means a wider range of skills and greater breadth of knowledge have to be assembled and put to use. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 recognised the importance of access to relevant information for the sustainable development of world forests. Institutional arrangements for both "public good research," which benefits society at large, and "private research," where gains are captured by the private corporate sector, are changing throughout the world (Enters et al. 1998). These changes demand that attention be paid to how research information is captured, stored and accessed by all potential users, whether they be in the public or private sectors, or in countries designated developed, in transition or developing.

While in both Australia and the US funding for forest research is steadily declining (Turner and Lambert 2005), in most developing countries funding has always been meager and often very dependent on international contributions. Research capacity is usually low, with few well-trained scientists. The situation in these countries thus requires special attention. Although best progress would often be made by testing and adapting research results obtained elsewhere, the communication essential for this approach is not easy; these researchers are often isolated and their institutions lack the resources to enable them to attend international meetings where research-in-progress is reported or completed research results presented (e.g., Chiware 2004). Affordable access to current, relevant information is essential for the best research outcomes.

Most research information in the public arena is communicated as hard copy (e.g., in books and journals), in electronic form (e.g., on the Internet and compact disks) and through face-to-face contact (e.g., conferences, working groups, workshops, consultants and training). All these mechanisms have their strengths and weaknesses.

In this paper we review access to information as users rather than as providers. The Internet is a valuable pathway because of both the content and connectivity it affords, but there are other alternative or complementary media. We suggest opportunities to improve the content of the Internet.

Information Dissemination by Hard Copy

Until a few years ago most scientists and forest managers relied heavily on printed material in the form of books, journals, conference proceedings and newsletters to provide up-to-date information relevant to their work. The quality of this information varied greatly; some journals set high standards and used competent referees while others were less selective, and much material presented to and emanating from conferences was not subject to critical review. Unfortunately the cost of many international journals and commercially-produced textbooks is high and often beyond the budget of libraries, especially in developing countries. Some assistance has been forthcoming in the form of free or heavily subsidised literature from UN agencies, such as FAO's Forestry Department, and international donors. International agencies have also frequently organised and funded workshops and conferences in developing countries. Resulting workshop proceedings have provided an opportunity for junior scientists to gain publishing experience that will assist them to successfully submit their work to high quality international forestry journals. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) is one donor agency that has made extensive use of this approach in the past two decades. The ACIAR proceedings series includes the papers from about 120 agricultural and forestry workshops. These proceedings are usually available within six months of the workshop, and are made available free of charge to researchers in developing countries. Although workshop organisers now have the opportunity to minimise distribution costs by using the Internet or compact disks (CDs), other essential tasks such as refereeing, indexing and archiving remain.

CAB International's Forestry Abstracts have a key role in communication; they alert scientists and managers to a wide range of forestry publications in many languages, and occasionally produce valuable syntheses of information on relevant topics. Unfortunately some well-known abstracting services have a heavy emphasis on northern hemisphere literature, are weak in coverage of social sciences, developing countries and regional information, and expensive.

While hard copy has played an important role in information dissemination, it has often been costly to produce and distribute, is not easy to update (e.g., as cumulative indexes) and has not reached all potential users due largely to financial constraints. In fact "The demand for scientific literature in developing countries has gone unfulfilled for many years. Gaining access to scientific information has become a daily struggle for thousands of students, researchers and academics" (FAO 2003).

Information Dissemination by Electronic Means

The Internet is an electronic network linking people and information through computers and other digital devices, allowing person-to-person communication and information retrieval. Although most of the following discussion is about the content available through the Internet, perhaps it is the connectivity of this medium that is its key feature (Odlyzko 2001).

Development of the Internet and a range of electronic tools have resulted in a fundamental change to the practical and economic constraints of sharing scientific knowledge within society at large, and among forestry practitioners in particular. Potentially, these developments can provide worldwide access to a vast accumulation of knowledge. In fact, they are modifying scientific publishing practice (von Foerster 2001).

However, we should acknowledge that at the beginning of the twenty-first century electronic information is not available equally throughout the world; there are about 600 million people connected to the Internet, but 3 billion cannot even make a phone call (Cribb 2004). The greatest beneficiaries of developments in electronic networks are workers in developed countries. Although there is the promise of significant benefits in developing countries, there are real impediments to these benefits becoming a panacea (Chiware 2004; Lee and Mohd. Zaki 2006). Erratic power supplies, slow and limited availability of lines, humid or dusty environments destructive of electronic equipment, fees for access and downloading, and language barriers are only some of the hurdles. Unequal access to electronic communication facilities has been described as a global "electronic divide" (DiMaggio, et al. 2001).

Most commercial publishers of journals now produce both hard copy and online versions. In 2003, 75% of all journals; 83% of those in science, technology and medicine published both paper and digital copies (John Cox, pers. comm. 2005). Publishers generate substantial income from "selling" access, either through journal subscriptions, or by charging fees to those who wish to consult scientific papers online. For example, abstracts of the Kluwer's journal New Forests are available online and full-text articles can be purchased by non-subscribers; a 13-page article on subtropical pines in Volume 29 (2005) cost US$30. Unfortunately the high cost of such access inevitably limits accessibility, especially, but not only, in the developing world.

The low cost of electronic distribution has led to the development of "big deals" by major publishers; journal titles may be offered to a subscriber in a package deal. These bundled subscriptions consume large portions of library budgets, and the subscription packages are not easily modified. When funds become tight, it is the journals produced by small publishers or societies, and monograph purchases, which tend to be discontinued. In addition, major publishers are in an advantageous position regarding inclusion of their products in Current Contents and attracting the accompanying prestige for purposes of academic "brownie points," and in many instances they enforce tighter controls over Internet copyright, dissemination and pricing than in the traditional print world (Bachrach, et al. 1998).

The factors above have led to proposals for "open access" publishing based on the premise that those who produce journals in which scientific advances are reported should allow access to their contents at no cost by developing alternative economic strategies (Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in Sciences and Humanities 2003). The proponents of open access recognise the need to address the legal and financial issues resulting from this change. Clearly, successful open-access publishing could seriously damage the main source of income of established journal publishers.

These publishers are attractive to authors and funders of research papers because they usually (1) arrange for [but rarely pay for] peer review to establish quality, (2) maximise distribution and access within the boundaries of copyright and the publisher's business model, (3) defend the work against plagiarism and copyright infringement, (4) administer permissions and deal with licensing issues, and (5) undertake measures to facilitate discovery by search engines, and arrange coverage by abstracting and indexing services (UK Parliament 2003). An example of the consequences of absence of capable review may be seen in the entry for eucalyptus in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

One approach to providing open access is for authors to pay a journal to publish their material and make it freely available, but page charges are not popular. For example, Forest Science and the US regional journals of applied forestry discontinued these charges in 2002. However, it is worth noting that such charges would represent a trivial fraction of the cost of the research itself, approximately AUD 200 000 - 300 000 per paper in forestry and forest products in Australia (Turner and Lambert 2005). Should this model become more common, it would be important that scientists from developing countries not be precluded from publishing by the costs entailed.

Although publishers have strongly opposed open-access publishing, they have been less successful in stemming the robust growth of open-access archiving, whereby institutions for which scientists work place electronic versions of all scientific papers produced by their staff in a publicly-accessible repository (Dickson 2005), preferably soon after publication.

Archive numbers are expanding rapidly and the following have been reported:

USA 114
UK 51
Germany 28
India 6
China 4
(Dickson 2005)

An archive example within Australia is ePrints@UQ at the University of Queensland. The Australian Round Table of the National Scholarly Communications Forum, entitled "{Open Access, Open Archives and Open Source}," was held at the State Library of New South Wales on 27 September, 2005.

Open-access publishing also faces the problem that authors like to publish in the most prestigious journals they can find, no matter how circumscribed readership may be by cost, although as readers they strongly prefer free material from the Internet (Björk and Turk 2000) -- a paradox indeed!

Open-access archives are rapidly evolving as a solution to this dilemma. In addition to providing information to potential readers, they can provide authors and funders with statistics, such as the number of people who have viewed the abstract of each deposited paper, and how many have gone on to download the full-text. Authors and papers can be ranked by their popularity, an achievement that hitherto has largely been the domain of Current Contents.

Recent international initiatives have addressed the problem of access to scientific information by developing countries. For example, in October 2003 FAO established AGORA (Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture) by forming a coalition of bilateral donor agencies, UN agencies, private foundations and international scientific publishers. (Australian Forestry is available to AGORA via Cornell's TEEAL (The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library)). These access paths allowed academics and researchers in 69 of the world's poorest countries online access to scientific journals of participating publishers. The publishers include Blackwell (Agricultural and Forest Entomology), Elsevier (Forest Ecology and Management), Kluwer Academic (New Forests and Agroforestry Systems) and Oxford University Press (Forestry). However, the range of journals is limited and vigorous development of OA archives is inhibited. Unfortunately India, China and Brazil are not included in this arrangement, but there are plans to develop OA archives in those countries (Dickson 2005).

A less ambitious initiative has been the Programme for the Enhancement of Research Information (PERI) by the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP). Supported by several national donor agencies, the program focuses on encouraging capacity in the research sector in developing and transitional countries by strengthening the production, access and dissemination of information and knowledge (INASP 2005). Researchers identify critical resources, INASP negotiates affordable licences and publishers provide low-price access to over 11 000 full-text journals at no cost to the recipients. In forestry the International Forestry Review is available. National journals are also supported to publish "full text" online.

A complementary initiative of special interest to forest researchers is the Global Forest Information Service (GFIS), www.gfis.net, led by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO) and developed in close collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and CAB International (CABI). GFIS provides a basis that will enable Internet access to various types of information resources through partnerships with information providers. GFIS search facilities allow the user to locate forest-related information through a single entry point; content management must involve making works accessible (Bacrach et al. 1998). It will be available to all stakeholders including the general public (IUFRO 2005). When GFIS is fully implemented, it will enable easier access to forest information globally and improve the knowledge base for researchers and forest managers. Those providing the information will have higher visibility and potential impact.

One unintended consequence of the schemes that offer free content to readers in the poorest countries is that they may retard the development of open-access archives in those countries.

Nevertheless, these various initiatives are an admirable development that take advantage of the Internet and recognise the information needs of forest researchers and managers, especially in developing countries and despite many remaining problems such as poor infrastructure, limited bandwidth and language barriers.

We challenge information professionals to do more to improve the content available through the Internet. If we can foster the establishment of open-access archives and contributions to them, we will do much to complement national and international initiatives already in place. Digitising of the more valuable older material will ensure that it is not forgotten, while vigilance through prompt write-up, competent review, appropriate publication and accessible archiving will guarantee that the research has more impact than it could ever have had in the past.

Information Exchange and Dissemination by Personal Interactions

Personal communication has not been diminished in stature by the electronic age; in fact, the connectivity of the Internet (reflected in the enormous growth of e-mail and SMS) is of even greater importance than its content (Oldyzko 2001). Researchers who have the opportunity to have face-to-face contact with other researchers at national and international workshops and conferences can readily develop informal networks for subsequent continuing exchange of information. International meetings are a prime means through which scientists from information-poor countries can establish a working relationship with scientists from other countries where information is more readily accessible. Generally, opportunities to attend such meetings are more limited for junior than for senior scientists. However, some workshops and conferences do provide funding to permit the attendance of younger scientists, and sometimes to participate in associated training; the IUFRO Congresses and the Commonwealth Forestry Conferences are examples. In recent years, relatively inexpensive air travel has increased the possibilities for greater participation in international meetings, although the costs of attendance are still significant and beyond the reach of many scientists unless full or partial sponsorship is available. Unfortunately travel costs on regional air routes (e.g., in Oceania) are far higher than those on trunk routes.

Burley (1997) lists sharing information and, thereby, reducing duplication as one of the major benefits of collaboration in research. Collaborative research in forestry has been promoted increasingly through partnership arrangements. At the international level, CIFOR has adopted an interdisciplinary approach to its strategic research agenda, implemented primarily through collaborative partnerships. Partnerships are formed with the most appropriate institutions and individuals in countries that are developing, in transition or fully developed. CIFOR sees its role to work with these scientists and particularly to help developing country scientists to keep pace with the rapid changes required if they are to be part of the new knowledge-based society. The partnerships provide access to existing information, develop networks to share information and provide more global perspectives (Turnbull and Byron 1998). ACIAR provides an example at the regional level. The ACIAR model is one whereby groups of Australian scientists are partnered with research groups in developing countries to work on problems of mutual interest. These collaborations have resulted in "valuable enduring networks between Australian and regional scientists" (Blyth, et al. 1998), enabling information exchange to continue after formal research projects have concluded. Within Australia, a network of "{Cooperative Research Centres}," typically involving universities, government agencies, and industry, has been successful in enhancing communication within the science and technology community.

Analysis of failed and successful tree planting programs has shown that most of the constraints are not technical but political, economic and social (Evans and Turnbull 2004). Forest researchers have usually been unfamiliar with social science and economic literature and thus ill-suited to tackle many forestry problems that require an interdisciplinary approach. Innovative mechanisms are needed to foster effective collaboration between existing groups of forestry, social and economic researchers (Byron and Turnbull 1998).

Putting Research Results into Practice

Interdisciplinary scientific research is leading to advances in understanding of the role of forests in society and improved techniques for forest management. If these results are to be translated into practice, they must be communicated in an effective way to potential users. These users are not only resource managers and policy makers, but members of a wide spectrum from university teachers to forest dwellers and the public at large. The means of communication will vary between the different users; while modern information technology is an effective way to communicate with many users, there will be those who remain excluded from this opportunity. It is relatively straightforward to transfer information from narrowly-based commodity-focused research to managers of forest plantations and associated wood-processing industries. Other potential users of research information may be less easy to reach. The primary need for many is to find media that effectively provide information to target audiences, rather than providing an opportunity for academic publication. Policy-makers, for example, may be effectively informed through tailored presentations and personal lobbying (e.g., the annual conferences of the Crawford Fund).

Participatory research methods involving both researchers and clients in diagnosis of problems, and design and conduct of investigations, may enable researchers to communicate more broadly-based information to the local level. This will benefit those who, like Chinese farmers, may currently obtain technical information primarily through friends, relatives, visits to outside areas and television (Liu 2003).

Conclusion

The Internet complements traditional means of communication. Access to global forest information resources in developed countries through modern technology is improving rapidly, but the many constraints in developing countries (divergent social and cultural settings, limited infrastructure, issues of intellectual property) suggest it will be impossible to simply duplicate the pathway that has been followed elsewhere.

Communication is a two-way exchange in which trust is important. Personal contact (face-to-face, e-mail, Internet chat rooms) is valuable in generating trust.

Despite developments of the Internet, great inequalities remain. The future nature of the Internet hinges on factors such as equality of access and intellectual property issues.

Traditional publishers provide quality assurance through refereeing, a single distribution point and a central archive. Elements of these roles will continue to be needed.

To realise maximum value, results must be written up, reviewed and published promptly, abstracted in accessible data bases, and archived in accessible repositories. Reviews and syntheses provide added value.

We face a challenge to improve the content available through the Internet, and particularly through open access archiving. The library catalogues now available are a useful start, but more full-text material of assured quality is needed. Author/publisher agreements that permit open-access archiving are essential.

Acknowledgements

We are pleased to acknowledge comments on the draft by Suzette Searle, and contributions by Laurelle Tunks.

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