Making the long tail of scientific resources mainstream

In the last decade, Europe has conducted a tremendous effort to make cultural, educational and scientific resources publicly available. Examples of relevant contents include national aggregators such as the UK’s Collections Trust’s Culture Grid, regional efforts such as the Swiss KIM Portal in the Basel region, and initiatives such as Europeana, a digital library, museum and archive which provides a plethora of cultural resources.

From a technical perspective, the semantic web, particularly Linked Open Data, has been growing exponentially. It provides semantically-enhanced access to and interchange of interesting scientific and cultural resources. Traditional libraries took up this opportunity and now provide new and innovative services around their content. For example the German National Library of Economics, ZBW, offers their economic standard thesaurus, the STW Thesaurus for Economics, in a machine-readable reusable form.

From a social perspective, Web 2.0 radically changed the way on how resources are published and shared. Following this development, start-ups like Mendeley—recently acquired by Elsevier—re-shape scholarly communication by aggregating scientific resources from around the world. It thus helps researchers to organise, share and discover new research.

Matching content provider and consumers

Massive amounts of culturally and scientifically-rich content is now available. However, its potential use for educational and scientific purposes remains largely untapped. One reason can be seen in current web content dissemination mechanisms, which are dominated by a small number of large central hubs. These include major search engines such as Google, social networks such as Facebook and online encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia.

In order to maintain their valuable services, those large hubs have to focus on commercially viable mainstream content. While cultural and scientific resources provide valuable and educational content they cannot be considered mainstream. Quite the contrary. Most of this can be considered as high-quality niche content for a rather small community and forms part of the so-called Long Tail.

The Long Tail theory, first introduced by Chris Anderson, argues that in internet-based markets niche content adds up to a huge body of knowledge, but is hidden from most users. In the Long Tail, content is maintained and curated by a large number of small to medium-sized institutions such as memory organisations, including archives and museums, national and digital libraries and open educational repositories.

However, the few large web hubs hardly support the dissemination of this Long Tail content leaving a gap for bringing cultural and scientific wealth into educational and scientific processes.

Towards Long Tail content for the masses

The challenge is therefore to reshape content dissemination mechanisms for highly specialised Long Tail content. This is precisely, what the recently started EU funded project EEXCESS is planning to do. Its strategy relies on augmenting existing web channels with high-quality content through personalised, contextualised and privacy preserving recommendations. The main concept is to bring the content to the user. This means injecting content into channels used by users, instead of bringing the user to the content. The latter would not be effective as it would involve creating additional portals that compete for user attention in the Long Tail.

In a first step we will investigate how cultural and scientific content can be injected automatically into services of our testbed partners. These are the Brockhaus Knowledge Services and the bitmedia learning platform. However, the overall aim is to provide generic injection technologies usable with very different content management systems, social networks, web portals etc.

Clearly, identifying the perfect match between content provider and potentially interested users remains the key challenge. While the Long Tail of memory organisation do not own a huge amount of computing resources for doing such a match, they possess a deep understanding of their target communities. An understanding, that needs to be integrated into the technical content dissemination process. Ultimately, this approach will allow to leverage the distribution of valuable digitised cultural and scientific content. Specifically content that increases Europe’s most valuable asset: education.

The project constitutes a first step towards such new content dissemination strategies in the web, but hopefully not the last one.

Michael Granitzer

Scientific Coordinator EEXCESS, University of Passau, Germany

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Dileepan Ramanan

Go back to the Special Issue: The future of science education

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