Volume 8, Issue 3, 1994
The Social Science
- Nicky Ferguson and Debra Hiom
- University of Bristol
The Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG) is an ESRC funded project to provide
a centralised means of access to social science resources available over the Internet. A pilot
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, the status and intended developments of the
2. 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 benefiting 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 conferences and other events, reaching researchers, subject librarians
and support staff. Although the workshops were successful there was often a gap between
the experience of having fun for a few hours pottering around the Internet and incorporating
these newly acquired skills in one's work. Once the mystique of using the networks had
been dispelled, the path led from scepticism, through excitement to frustration.
Most academic researchers are unwilling or do not have the time to learn 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 sue way of finding your way around 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.
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 relavant
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 Center 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 such as MOSAIC 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. 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 joined Nicky Ferguson to work on the
project in January 1994.
3 Structure of SOSIG
There are over 400 links to social science resources on SOSIG at present. Before resources
are added to the gateway they go through several processes.
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 dissseminate
information about new resources available.
- Printed guides and catalogues - these are becoming increasingly available for
networked resources and 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.(1)
- Networked search tools - there are a number of services that aim to build
indexed catalogues of resources available over the Internet, such as Veronica
- Other networked services - followed links from other services on the Internet
to find interesting resources.
The project also has a number of volunteer "LISTeners". These are generally subject
specialists in the social sciences who advise and look out for useful resources to add to the
The resources are all catalogued using a standard template. This records meta-information
such as the name of the resource, the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), resource type (e.g.
electronic journal, mailing list, etc.), keywords and any pertinent login information. The
template also contains a description that generally covers details such as the size, currency
and scope of the resource. This description is provided on the gateway to help users make
an evaluative judgement about a resource without having to connect to it. The templates
are also provided as a searchable database on the gateway.
Each resource is assigned a classification number taken from the Universal Decimal
Classification (UDC) scheme. The adoption of the classification scheme was undertaken
in collaboration with BUBL and NISS, two national service providers who are also
developing subject based access to resources. The classification scheme provides a
controlled language for organising and indexing the resources on the gateway by subject
category. Although the UDC underlies the organisation of the resources, a strict
hierarchical scheme is not enforced; rather subject categories are treated pragmatically.
Individual resources can also be cross-classified to allow for different interpretations of the
subject base. The subject categories can be viewed alphabetically (the default) or according
to the UDC.
Whilst there are valuable resources to be found on the Internet, there is also a lot of low
value material available. An important role for the project is to manage a qualitative
selection policy by filtering out resources that are of little or no use to our users. There is
an obvious element of subjectivity in this procedure; what one person finds valuable may
be useless to another. However this does weed out material that is out of date, strictly local
in context or refers to resources that are no longer available.
4 Future Developments
Some areas for the project to develop are: (i) Encouraging the provision of new resources
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. (ii) Promote awareness and the use of SOSIG through training and
support. (iii) Encourage the establishment of a closer relationship with information
providers; for example by involving the information providers themselves in filling out
templates for their own resources.
Figure 1 The initial screen display when you use Mosaic to connect
Access to SOSIG
SOSIG can be accessed through the URL:
Users without WWW clients (such as Mosaic) 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 telnet
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
. Move down to Social Sciences, press and then down to
Social Science Information Gateway and again press .
We hope to provide a Lynx client on the SOSIG server in the future so that
users can have direct VT100 access.
If you have any suggestions for resources to be covered by SOSIG, or any
difficulties in gaining access to it, please contact us at the address
Endnote: (1) The Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Guides at the University of Michigan
can be reached by gopher://una.hh.lib.umich.edu:70/11/inetdirsstacks [Now at http://www.clearinghouse.net/-
Nicky Ferguson and Debra Hiom may be contacted at the following address: Centre for
Computing in Economics, Department of Economics, University of Bristol, 8 Woodland
Road, Bristol BS8 1TN. Tel 0272-288443; Fax 0272-288577. Internet
email@example.com or D.Hiom@bristol.ac.uk