Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 10 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: 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.

Background to the Project

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.

Structure of SOSIG

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:


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.

Future Developments

Some areas for the project to develop are:

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:

          login: www

using telnet:

          login: sosigwww

using a PAD:

          login: www

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.

Note: The Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Guides at the University of Michigan gopher:// [Now at Web Editor]

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