Opening Session Address
SIR LINDOR BROWN
The invitation to give an opening address at this International Conference on Scientific Information reached me at a time when I happened to be reading a description of the greatest bore in English literature, a description that appears appropriately in a book written jointly by a Scotsman and an American, Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne. It is said of Uncle Joseph Finsbury that “A taste for general information, not promptly checked, had soon begun to sap his manhood. There is no passion more debilitating to the mind, unless perhaps it be that itch of public speaking which it not infrequently accompanies or begets. The two were conjoined in the case of Joseph; the acute stage of this double malady, that in which the patient delivers gratuitous lectures, soon declared itself with severity, and not many years had passed over his head before he would have travelled 30 miles to address an infant school.” Tonight I have travelled more than 30 miles, and visual observation suggests that I am not addressing an infant school. If you will but change “general information” into “scientific information” you will see what a shocking coincidence this was and how I had to search my mind to find justification for my presence before you tonight. The simplest explanation is that I am at the moment the Senior Secretary of the Royal Society of London, and the Royal Society held almost exactly 10 years ago the first Conference of international status devoted solely to the subject of Scientific Information. The Conference was not in the strict sense international since it arose directly from the deliberations two years previously of a meeting of Scientists of the British Commonwealth, what we then had the temerity to call the British Empire Scientific Conference. The Royal Society Scientific Information Conference therefore was attended by representatives from all the Dominions, and, through a very fortunate chance, or perhaps as a result of a bland disregard of the Declaration of Independence or, and this is the more likely course, through the wisdom and foresight of my predecessors, one of whom, Sir Alfred Egerton, is in this room tonight, it included a representative from the Library of Congress, it included Dr. Murray Luck and it included no less a person than one Dr. Detlev W.Bronk, then
SIR LINDOR BROWN, C.B.E. Senior Secretary of the Royal Society of London.
described as “Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington.” This goes a long way towards explaining not only my presence before you, but the very existence of this Conference.
We are fortunate on this present occasion of knowing in detail what the Conference is about before it meets, and I should like to take this opportunity of congratulating the Conference Committee on the boldness of conception and the enterprise that they have shown in planning their proceedings in this way. This seems to me to be a daring experiment, and they are putting much faith in the skill and efficiency of the Panel Chairmen. But they have been well chosen and I am sure that they have already taken tremendous pains in organizing their discussions.
Now let us compare the advance literature of the present Conference with the report of its predecessor of ten years ago. One difference is obvious and inescapable, the final, full report of the 1948 Conference weighs 1 Kg. The weight of the advance information only for the present one is 2.72 Kg. If these documents represented the publications of the applicants for a post, there is no doubt at all but that the second, the younger applicant would be successful. Now, as we have tacitly assumed the functions of a selection committee, let us take the unusual step of looking inside these two anthologies; not taking the extreme, and perhaps invidious step of assessing the relative values of individual contributions, but rather comparing the subject matter of their contents. The Royal Society’s Conference had 17 “Working Parties”—it was the era of the “Working Party”—but I will not weary you with a catalogue of their terms of reference. One group of five working parties dealt with the problem of the raw material of Scientific Information—Scientific publication format, editorial policy, subject grouping, general organization and delays in publication. Then there was a group dealing with Abstracting and another with Reviews and Annual Reports. Very considerable activity was shown by the groups of working parties dealing with classification and indexing and the training of information officers.
Our conference in 1948 covered then the whole subject of scientific information from begetting to burial, or as we say in the Welfare State, from the cradle to the grave. It has been the intention of the organizers of this present Conference to limit its interests to the later phases of the life cycle of information—to storage and retrieval. I dare not say to burial and disinterring. It is a measure of the growth of interest in this subject over the last 10 years that this relatively small fraction of the whole scientific information problem should have produced a conference eagerly attended by nearly 1000 delegates with, if my information is correct, an equal number clamouring unavailingly for admission. The importance of the subject to Government and to industry is clearly
indicated by the formidable list of sponsors that heads the volume of pre-circulated papers.
I, as you well know, am no expert in this subject, I am here to that extent under false pretences. To me the entirely staggering feature of this Conference is that quietly, surreptitiously there has grown up a new science with its own language, its own techniques and its own leaders. Those leaders, from all parts of the world are gathered here tonight, and I still feel that it is something of an impertinence for me to speak to you. Part of the reason for this feeling is that your development has been so great and has proceeded at such a pace that the ordinary scientist, shut away in his laboratory, may not understand your language and so may fail to appreciate your aims and the benefits to himself that your work may bring. This indeed is a failure of communication by those whose primary function is to communicate. I work at the begetting end of the life cycle of scientific information, you work at a distant point in that cycle where you preserve the encysted spores of knowledge and revitalize them on demand. But I maintain that it is a cycle and unless there is complete and effective collaboration at all stages of the cycle, the usefulness of your work, no less than mine, will be diminished.
It is no part of my duty tonight to attempt to teach you your business. Indeed, my very ignorance precludes such an attempt but I want to try to look at the problem of scientific information as a whole. I feel, as everyone connected with science must feel, a little sad that specialization has proceeded so far that we can no longer appreciate the beauty and significance of the work of others in fields only a little removed from our own. I use the word beauty advisedly, because there is an aesthetic quality about good scientific work that contributes greatly to our understanding of it and to the inspiration that it gives us. May I make a small plea to those who supply and to those who use scientific information not to refine their means of supply and their system of use to the extent that they lose this aesthetic quality. If it is lost science will suffer, and we must not lose sight of our objective, our ultimate goal, the improvement of our knowledge of nature and natural laws. Our striving to this goal has now led to the necessity of the development of another speciality, the science of information, and I am a little uneasy lest this specialization may lead the makers of information too far apart from you, the suppliers. There seem to my simple mind to be at the most only three parties in the cycle of information—the maker, the storer and supplier, and the user who is often the maker also; unless these parties work together we shall have failed in our objective, the advancement of knowledge.
I cannot, I am afraid, look at these problems from your point of view because I am ignorant of your specialty, but I confess to a certain uneasiness from the
point of view of the user, or of the maker of information. The rate of increase in production of scientific papers is so high that one must face the prospect of a swamping and ultimate failure of information storage and retrieval; for one reason if for no other, a good information service provides positive feed-back and automatically increases the production of papers. Is there anything that we can do about this? Yes, I think there is, but it can be successful only if it is a joint effort by the makers of information and those who store and retrieve.
There can be no doubt in the mind of anyone dealing with scientific literature that much need never be produced and of that which justifies its appearance, 80 per cent could be improved by drastic reduction in length and by clear writing. We all know the economic pressures that give rise to this overproduction of sloppy work. We all know that appointments and promotions depend on quantity rather than quality of work and that much the same criteria are used in assessing the success or otherwise of a research institute or organization. Everyone who has made a discovery has succumbed to the temptation of making a preliminary announcement in Science or Nature or Naturwissenschaften, or in the Proceedings of a specialist society. And now many research organizations are making a practice of distributing widely, advance abstracts and progress reports which anticipate and extensively duplicate the final, comprehensive publication. This regrettable practice is perhaps forgivable in a subject of burning and immediate importance and takes the place of the polite correspondence between savants which was such an attractive feature of the centuries preceding this; but is it forgivable when it spreads more widely, when it is used for priority claims and becomes an encumbrance upon the information services? I feel quite seriously that the time has come for the makers of information to use restraint. Now what do I mean by restraint? I mean a little simple self denial by scientists; let them publish the results of their work once and once only, let us see a well written account in one Journal instead of exempli gratia a cyclostyled laboratory preview, a letter to Nature, a paper, a lecture given to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Little Puddlebury and printed in its “Proceedings”; the verbatim account of a Symposium at Sulphur Creek, Colorado, and perhaps also a review article ostensibly of the subject but in fact of the author’s own work. The Rake’s Progress is not yet over because as the author is recovering from his travels by doing a little work in his laboratory and is happily on the track of something new and exciting, he is bedevilled by a request for an article to appear in the Festschrift to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the birth of Professor Weissnichtwer, and to save time and trouble produces a rehash of his original paper, clothing the bare discovery in a modest figleaf and twining a vine or two in its hair. All this is very fine for the “Ego” of the author, it may not be bad for his bank balance, but it clogs the information machine and bewilders the expert with
the changing facets of a simple discovery presented in a multiplicity of guises.
All I ask is for a little self restraint by authors, but I have little hope of it being fulfilled without strong pressure from outside. Would it not help a little if societies organizing meetings decided to abandon the publication of Proceedings, if those organizing lectures allowed the speaker the privilege of not publishing his works and if the organizers of symposia (not, of course, of conferences) refrained from churning out the turgid lucubrations of their participants.
I have suggested that the makers of information might contribute to the easing of your task by a voluntary discipline over publication. But that is a question of quantity of information. What about quality? Here I know that I am on dangerous ground. As I understand it, the expert on information must, by the very nature of his task, treat all scientific papers as of equal value. The user, as a result of experience, prejudice, or ignorance, treats as significant only a small amount of the information to which he has access, and he still believes that there are good papers and bad papers. You, on the other hand, may well say that a bad paper may contain uncut gems of information or the purest gold of knowledge alloyed and hidden in its depths, but have you really the time, the energy, the money to spend acting as cutters, as polishers, and as refiners of the uncouth products of the incompetent writer? I think not. However we improve the raw material of information there will still remain poor papers, unnecessary papers, trivial papers, and repetitious papers. What are we to do with them? What is to be stored? Is it the fruit of the tree of knowledge or is it the fallen leaves? For my part I should be happy if the fruit only were preserved; as I cannot conceive of any collecting and storage system adequate to cope with the world’s output of scientific information as it grows at present, and I view with only a little compunction the prospect of the loss of minor contributions to knowledge provided that the ripe fruit can be preserved. The few fallen leaves of my own work are already losing their individuality as they dissolve into the rich compost of the background knowledge of the rising generation. Their individuality is lost, but they have contributed a little to the vigour of the pushing young shoots at the top of the tree—and of course I have a fruit or two up my sleeve still! But here we have the difficulty, who is to decide what is the fruit and what is the fallen leaf. Can any information service work on an eclectic principle? I think that it can, but only with the full cooperation of the user and the maker of information. If we can persuade the maker to make fewer, but better bricks and if we can persuade him to collaborate with you in casting out the flawed and crumbling stock, we shall build a pyramid of knowledge which will stand and will not fall about our ears with the curse of Babel.
So much for my hobby horse—the unity of scientific endeavour. You are
going to have the opportunity of riding yours to your hearts’ content in the course of the following week, so you must allow me a passade or two on my own. But my hobby horse is tired, so is its rider and so are you and I must stop, but before I do so I must say a word or two on behalf of us all to the organizers of this Conference. First and foremost to Dr. Atwood and the Conference Committee who seized on a bold idea and developed it swiftly and logically, secondly to the Programme Committee whose labours have produced the remarkable volume that I have already referred to. Finally, may I on behalf of all your guests from overseas say how delighted we are to be here and how great is our determination to give this Conference the success that it deserves.