A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Word of the Day: FUTON Bias

Ask anybody under 30 a question he can't answer, even something as simple as "what's so-and-so's phone number?" and he'll invariably google it. Even if the phone book, or the dictionary, or the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe is sitting right there, the internet will be the medium of choice. If Nicholas Negroponte has his way, soon everyone on the face of the earth will have a laptop, and a Maasai child will be accessing information the same way as a Southern California teen or a Norwegian businessman.

The implications, for research, of this flight to the net are enormous. In a way, of course, it's great. A staggering amount of information is online. But not everything. And what that means for research is that anything which is NOT online is being ignored. That's FUTON bias.

FUTON stands for "FUll Text On the Net." It's a term coined by Reinhard Wentz of the Imperial College Library and Information Service, Medical Library, Chelsea and Westminster Campus, London, in a 2002 letter to The Lancet, a UK medical journal. His concern is specifically for medical research not available online; he feels it will increasingly be ignored. He encourages publishers of medical journals to make the content of their journals available as full text "to avoid losing out to their competitors."

Wentz correctly observes that this bias is mainly prevalent among junior staff and students with limited experience in doing searches. However, the net is rapidly producing a new generation of scholars who, even as they age and gain experience, will not learn to do comprehensive (i.e., extending to traditional print-based studies) searches.

A related problem, which concerns me and which I've blogged about here in the past, is that information replicates wildly online--and so does misinformation. Once something is stated erroneously or misquoted, it takes on a life of its own. Copied and pasted, cited and re-cited, it's soon so proliferative that it appears authoritative.

Even if information is accurate, it's so easy to pull off the web that content providers routinely plagiarize whole articles, not even bothering to reword. Lift a whole phrase out of just about anything online, stick it into google with quotes around it, and up will pop all of its incestuous offspring. Or maybe it's the offspring. Only the savviest researchers can tell the difference.

Lucky for all of us that librarians, the keepers of the information, are paying attention.

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