The ins and outs of data

Germany's Max Planck Society is setting up a Centre for Information Management that aims to give its researchers greater power over the way their work is published.

By | January 8, 2001

LONDON Germany's leading organisation for basic research, the Max Planck Society, is setting up a Centre for Information Management (CIM) that aims to find ways of helping its 10,000 research staff access data more efficiently and disseminate their findings with greater speed and ease and at lower cost than is currently possible. Based at its Munich headquarters the six staff in this new research unit will initially look for ways of co-ordinating the 85 libraries spread throughout its vast organisation and establish a pre-print server that will unify the digital publishing efforts currently dissipated through the Society's 81 separate institutes.

"We are currently advertising for a Director of the Centre, and we hope that all of the staff will be in post by August," explains Ralf Schimmer, who is responsible for library information services within the Max Planck Society.

To give the project a head start, the Society has turned to Rick Luce, one of the most innovative people involved in academic publishing. Luce heads the 'Library without walls' project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, which aims to make researchers and publishers partners in the process of disseminating information. He is known as a challenger of conventional publishing, and hopes that the CIM project will give German researchers greater power over the way that their work is published. "The idea is that Luce will be our inspiration man, keeping us up-to-date with what is happening in the US," says Ian Baldwin, one of the three directors of the Max Planck Society who is highly enthusiastic about the CIM project. "The CIM will create new tools that will bring parts of the academic world that are not yet participating in the information revolution, namely humanities sections, into the new world. It will also bring the data mining tools that have been developed at Los Alamos into the European sphere."

One important feature of any new system that the CIM develops could be a method of publishing papers that does not involve conventional journals. "We are often critical and angry about actions by publishers and this may be one solution. If we could improve the situation for our scientists then we will take it, but it is too early to say that that will be a definite outcome," says Schimmer.

The Max Planck Society also believes that commercial publishers are charging unreasonable prices for their services. Part of the CIM's role will be to develop ways of lowering the costs of the process of scientific publishing and it is anticipated that one option would be to join in with initiatives like E-BioSci or PubMed Central.

One of the issues that the Society will have to face is how to co-ordinate a single nationwide project. Germany is divided into 16 federal states, which has led to a structure of organisation and funding that has encouraged different Max Planck institutes to develop their own working practices. For example, the Max Planck Society has no central library, and currently each library within the institutes runs its own catalogues. "Many individuals have developed their own digital libraries, some of which are very powerful, but it is impossible for individuals or small research groups to replicate the facilities that can be provided by a high standard library," says Schimmer. "If, however, they want to create a unified data resource the institutes are going to have to create a set of standards that all workers adhere to."

"All money is given to the individual institutes, but for a central project like this the separate institutes have to give the money to a central unit. Historically there has been a reluctance to do this," explains Baldwin, who believes that the CIM will have to work hard to prove its value, but is confident that within a year the benefits will be so clear that enthusiasm for the project will soar.

"A prime initial target will be to improve all aspects of information provision and information management to all scientists working within the Max Planck institutes," says Schimmer. But he hopes that the vision will expand beyond that. "Whenever it is feasible or advisable to open it up to other initiatives, such as academic societies or pan-European initiatives, of course we will consider it. However, we have to organise ourselves to be in a position to become a partner for others."

All commentators agree is that the old world of conventional publishing will come to an end, some say it has already. "We want CIM to lead Europe and in particular the Max Planck Society into the twenty-first century," says Baldwin.

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