Issue 3, 1996
SOSIG - an Open Gateway for Social Scientists
- Nicky Ferguson
- ESRC Visiting Fellow in Networked Information at the University of Bristol
- Debra Hiom
- SOSIG project researcher, University of Bristol
The Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) is an ESRC funded project to provide an easy way to find and use social science resources using the Internet.
A World Wide Web server: http://sosig.esrc.bris.ac.uk/
has been set up at the University of Bristol for this purpose. This paper looks at the background to the project
, its current structure
and possible future developments
In 1992 the Economic and Social Research Council appointed a Networked
Information Support Officer to examine the potential for the use of
networked information amongst the UK social science research community and
to encourage further development. There was a perception that the social
science community were not reaping the benefit from networked resources in
the same way as their colleagues in the natural and physical sciences.
The intention was that the person appointed should assess current network
use amongst social scientists, advise, raise awareness and generate
enthusiasm for the use and potential of networked information resources.
Nicky Ferguson, who was appointed to the post, helped many disparate
groups take the first step on to the networks. He set up mailing lists,
sometimes families of discussion lists, wrote guides and documentation and
held hands-on practical workshops at HEI's, conferences and other events,
reaching researchers, subject librarians and support staff. Here Nicky
Ferguson discusses how this experience led him to set up SOSIG.
Frustration and Navigation
Although my workshops were very successful, and immediate feedback was very enthusiastic, in the longer term researchers often found a gulfgap between the experience of having fun for a few hours pottering around the Internet and incorporating these newl
y acquired skills in their work. Once the mystique of using the networks had been dispelled, the path led from scepticism through excitement to frustration:
"Well this is great fun and very fancy but is there anything out there that's relevant to me?....that I can use in my work?"
"How do I avoid all the garbage?"
"You've pushed us out to sea in this brand new boat - now give us some navigation aids!"
Most academic researchers are unwilling or do not have the time to learn
network navigation from first principles with the equivalent of sextant
and star charts. So it was decided to try to provide the social science
research community with the equivalent of satellite navigation - an easy
to use way of finding the routeyour way around the complex archipelago of
the world's networked resources. This raised many issues, some technical
and some more universal, in particular the quality, currency, organisation
and classification of the information. These are dealt with below.
Why World Wide Web?
On the technical side, it was decided to set up a
"one-stop-shop" for UK social scientists, one computer which,
when called, would then connect the user seamlessly to relevant resources
regardless of their location. World Wide Web was chosen as the software
tool to deliver this solution, for various reasons. It gives the kind of
consistent, easy to use interface that was required. It is almost
certainly the fastest growing NIR (Networked Information Retrieval) tool;
it allows access to many other processes and protocols, such as gopher
servers, FTP sites, telnet sessions and many more. It is developing very
quickly and has a development base on both sides of the Atlantic, having
been invented at CERN, the high energy physics site in Geneva, and
enthusiastically embraced at NCSA, (the National Centre for Supercomputer
Applications in Illinois). It also has the kind of graphics capabilities
that excite social scientists - even if they haven't got round to using
them yet. Users without access to a World Wide Web client can use SOSIG
through a public Lynx client at the University of Bristol. This gives
VT100 terminal access to the WWW, though without the graphics
capabilities. SOSIG is available free to anyone with access to an
Internet connection - which should include any determined member of staff
at a UK higher education institution.
Thus the Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) was born. An application for funding a two year pilot scheme was approved by the ESRC and Debra Hiom started work on the project in January 1994.
There are over 90450 links to social science resources on SOSIG at present. Unlike many other gateways or meta-menus, we try to maintain quality control, and a resource doesn't appear on SOSIG until it has undergone the following process:
A variety of sources are scanned including:
- Mailing Lists and Newsgroups - various lists and newsgroups are scanned for interesting social science resources, some of these are subject related but others are general lists set up specifically to monitor and disseminate information about new netw
ork resources. Printed Guides and Catalogues - often provide a good starting point for identifying resources within a particular subject area. A Clearinghouse for Subject Oriented Guides has been set up at the University of Michigan which has over 130 of
these guides. (Note)
- Networked search tools - there are a number of tools, or robots, that aim to build indexed catalogues of resources available over the Internet, such as Veronica, and Archie and Lycos..
- Other networked services - following links from other services on the Internet. The project also has a number of volunteer "LIST'eners". These are generally subject specialists in the social sciences who advise on quality and look ou
t for useful resources to add to the gateway.
To answer users' complaints about the amount of "junk" on the
Internet, we manage a qualitative selection policy by filtering out
resources that are of little or no use to our users. This weeds out
material that is out of date, inappropriate, strictly local in context or
refers to resources that are no longer available.
The resources are all catalogued using a standard template. This
template, which includes a description of the resource, underlies the
search mechanism which is available on SOSIG. So if you're not sure where
to look for something, or you want to do a keyword search for a topic
which will be covered under several different headings you can search the
database of templates. You will then be presented with a list of hits
each of which will dynamically link you to the resource described,
wherever it is in the world.
Each resource is classified using the Universal Decimal Classification
(UDC) scheme. Use of this scheme was agreed with two other national
service providers, NISS and BUBL, to categoryallow for collaboration.
Although the UDC underlies the organisation of the resources, a strict
hierarchical scheme is not enforced, so if a subject has recently become
important enough it can find a place on the top menu. Individual
resources can also be cross-classified so that they can be found under
several different subject areas. The subject categories can be viewed
alphabetically (the default) or according to the UDC.
Some areas for the project to develop are:
- Encouraging the provision of new sources of social science data
and information over the networks. This would include the digitisation of
existing data, helping to promote the creation of new resources and
encouraging government and other copyright owners to make all or part of
their data or texts freely available.
- Promote awareness and use of SOSIG through training and support. If you want us to come and run a workshop for your researchers please phone 0117 9272-288443 or email firstname.lastname@example.org<
- Encourage the establishment of a closer relationship with information providers; for example by involving the information providers themselves in filling out and updating templates for their own resources.
Access to SOSIG
SOSIG can be accessed through the URL:
Users without WWW clients can access the server using the Lynx client at the University of Bristol. This will give you a text based interface to the server.
To connect using a PAD:
using a PAD:
This will connect you to the University of Bristol's home page, from there use your arrow keys or tab down to departments (highlighted) and press return. Move down to Social Sciences, press return and then down to Social Science Informat
ion Gateway and again press return.
The Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Guides at
the University of Michigan gopher://una.hh.lib.umich.edu:70/11/inetdirsstacks
[Now at http://www.clearinghouse.net/