Scholarship in the Digital Age reviews in Science magazine

Eugene Garfield eugene.garfield at THOMSONREUTERS.COM
Fri May 30 11:47:41 EDT 2008


Sharing Data, Constructing Science

Karla L. Hahn* <>  


Scholarship in the Digital Age
Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet
by Christine L. Borgman
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007. 360 pp. $35, £22.95. ISBN 9780262026192. 


We have now traveled a short distance down the path into what is widely recognized as a paradigm shift in how new knowledge is created and exchanged. Twenty-first century research requires the ubiquity of digital information. We expect the networked environment to house the scientific literature and foster collaboration between researchers on disparate continents. Now primary data are moving into the electronic realm as well, with shared digital data stores from GenBank to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey feeding entire research specialties. 

While science prospers under the new order, there is much contention over the practices that will determine the ethos of the digital age. What will be the new norms for "sharing" and "access"? The movement of documents and data into a digital realm has placed great strains on the structures supporting the exchange of research knowledge--social structures as well as technologies. Major battles are being fought over such issues as the appropriate intellectual property regime for a digital age. Publishing systems that formerly maximized the exchange of scientific research are becoming, instead, barriers to research distribution. Both issues underlie the recently implemented National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy that requires that articles resulting from NIH funding be deposited in PubMed Central and become available to readers within a year of publication. Such questions extend beyond research reports and publications to touch research data as well. 

Christine Borgman's Scholarship in the Digital Age: Information, Infrastructure, and the Internet looks across the emerging landscape, identifying key choices and exploring the perspectives of different disciplines. Borgman (a professor in information studies at the University of California, Los Angeles) has been both a keen observer and an active participant in recent shifts to new digital modes of information exchange, keeping an eye as well on the shifting cultures of the scholarly tribes that engage in the research enterprise. She has received several major grants from the National Science Foundation for digital library infrastructure and data management projects and also been active in information policy development. Her previous book, From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure (1 <> ), also looked at digital library development, information infrastructure, and information policy issues, but comparing the two books merely reveals how much has changed since the first was published in 2000--both in the external environment, including policy issues, and in understanding the social environment of networked science. 

A striking feature of Scholarship in the Digital Age is its synthetic approach, integrating policy documents and published scholarship. Borgman lays out the trajectory of change in information exchange with the advent of the digital age, but her main concern is developing "a model of cyberinfrastructure in which scientific databases and digital libraries form an 'information and content layer' above the middleware layer that provides the services and underlying core network technologies." A dichotomy of research data and authored works structures her analysis of this content layer. 

Drawing on the findings of decades of academic study as well as policy analysis, Borgman characterizes researchers' changing practices for creating and using scholarly works. For scientists with a general interest in this area, the book provides a readable, up-to-date, and well-integrated overview. 

In contrast to the body of knowledge on the culture and practices of scholarly communication, no such foundational research exists for researchers' use of data. Consequently, Borgman's analysis of the challenges posed by the burgeoning possibilities for building collections of digital research data is her most original and insightful contribution. She demonstrates that, although behaviors regarding publications and data are tightly interconnected, they tend not to be analogous. Even the incentives and disincentives for sharing documents are notably different from those for sharing data. 

Yet data and documents cannot be treated separately. The problems of connecting the two predate the digital era, but in the dichotomous content layer, the need to create and manage connections between data and documents assumes new prominence despite the inherent challenges. In theory, data can be embedded or co-published with documents, but this is minimally useful. Documents and data rarely exist in a one-to-one relationship. Rather, some documents draw on multiple data sources, and many data sources support multiple documents. These relations negate simplistic solutions such as storing data with individual documents on disparate publisher repositories; they require investment in broadly interactive, network-based solutions. 

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Borgman also devotes substantial attention to researchers' social and cultural practices. Using generalized representations of the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, she compares and contrasts communication, research, and data traditions. The sciences serve as a touchstone contextualizing scarcer commentary on the social sciences and the humanities. Inevitably, this approach suffers from overgeneralization at various points, but her analysis of the incentives and disincentives for the scholarly sharing needed to build the content layer is illuminating. 

Borgman persuasively argues that creating incentives to increase the shared body of content should be an integral part of the investment in developing infrastructure for e-research. This content layer does not simply archive the products of research--it is a key resource for research. Claims for access rights and calls for sharing, she believes, need to pay greater attention to the perspectives of the researchers who create both documents and data. 

"Open science" has always been essential to the success of the research enterprise, with U.S. policy notable, as Borgman observes, for its enactment of this principle. But openness in the digital age has a more expansive meaning, and the changes needed to honor traditions of open science will be difficult--making some researcher resistance to new norms of openness predictable. Borgman's analysis successfully highlights key barriers to the development of new norms for access and sharing. However, some of the pessimism she expresses for policy strategies has already proven premature, as new policies from the National Institutes of Health and Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences create mandates for public access to research that truly change expectations and incentives. 


1.                 C. L. Borgman, From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access to Information in the Networked World (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000).




The reviewer is at the Association of Research Libraries, 21 Dupont Circle, Washington, DC 20036, USA. E-mail: karla at <mailto:karla at>  




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Eugene Garfield, PhD. email:  garfield at 
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