Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Internet - and How Research is Much Easier. Or Not?

Firstly, a quick comment on gmail. I have all my mail on Gmail. My university mail gets forwarded to gmail (I have set it up to do so because the interface is very easy to use). All my data is on gmail. My tax returns, all my documents, everything. I am so dependent on gmail, that I am sure it is not healthy. Keeping all my eggs in the same basket is not a good idea. I am positive that some time down the line, there will come a day, where some malfuction (or sabotage) of some sort will erase all my data, leaving me high and dry. (Along with a significant proportion of internet users).

I am writing this little disclaimer because, when that day does come, I don't want to be blamed for not having enough foresight. I do want do go on the record as someone who has foreseen this coming. All the data I will have lost will be becuase of pure laziness. Serves me right, eh?

Back in 1905, when Albert Einstien was coming up with his theory of relativity, he did not have access to the vast amount of literature the average researcher has right now. Newton, when he came up with gravity, had to spend a lot of time to find giants to stand on the shoulder of. Pythagoras did not have the luxury of reading journals when he came up with his theorem.

Right now, if you go into any univeristy in the world, odds are you have a access to electronic copies of all scientific literature published in the last 50 years. And with VPNs and other modern miracles such as science driect, google scholar and engineering village, standing on the shoulders of giants has never been easier. You can do it from the luxury of your own bedroom. Or from a bus, what with wifi, laptops and all.

And to top all that, there's the search facility. Rather than laboriously look through various articles in journals at libraries, looking at keywords and then finding pertinent articles, (utlizing those cumbersome index cards) the modern researcher just goes to a search engine and types in what he or she is looking for.

Since technology is a collaborative work (i.e. people improve on the state-of-the-art ideas rather than reinvent the wheel), getting ideas across quickly has certainly speeded up research. (That's why the industrial revolution started only after gutenberg invented the printing press).

And now, with most journals scanning all their old copies and making available old papers as pdfs on the internet - the rate determining step of reseach (for any competent researcher) ceases to be the literature survey. It is now the actual work. We now can do in a day what Einstien and Newton could do in a month. And we can do it much better.

Of course, there's always the flipside. Research is getting tougher in most areas because of saturation. Even though it is getting easier to find out what has been worked on in the past, the amount of work which has been done in the past is also increasing. Consider a field like the one I am working on right now. (I won't talk about it in detail, since I'm trying to keep this blog anonymous). I come up with an idea, one fine day, and all excited, go an tell my adviser about it. He looks at it and says that it has already been done in 1982 by a couple of blokes. And then there's another publication we come up with - present it in a conference and all - even get it approved for a journal - and then we see another paper talking about something very similar.

Perhaps the ease of getting access of oceans of pertinent information - and then having to skim through all those oceans of information kind of run counter to each other.

It is indeed fortunate that all scientific literature has been organized so well that one can access it at the click of a button. Because keeping abreast of the nearly infinite scientific literature pertinent to one's field would be quite impossible if not for modern technology. But that said, I still am happier to be a researcher in the 2000s than a researcher in the 1900s.

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