In my last post, I described the conferences, or rather unconferences, I attended this fall as being a perfect opportunity to think outside my field’s box and make new connections. In that same vein, I’d like to highlight an editorial from 2011 written by Geoffrey M. Henebry, called “Beyond words: effective graphics and metadata are keys to concise scientific communication” (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10980-011-9672-5). The crux of Henebry’s opinion is that scientific communication, in particular those for graphs, need to be better described to help improve “clarity, utility, accessibility, and durability of the literature.” Henebry explains many researchers fail to provide rich descriptions for graphs relying on their research paper to explain the graph without any embedded metadata. Further, Henebry relates how many researchers just accept the system defaults which only offer a minimum amount of contextual information about the graph. These practices, or rather lack thereof, lead to erroneous information that can damage a researcher’s findings.
Henebry goes on to say that metadata is one of the keys to prevent such misinformation leading. In other words, metadata can be the venue to better and more effective communication. He defines metadata as that which “informs us about data”. It answers such questions as the who, what, why, when, or where of data. Metadata provide “important contextual information” and “enable data to retain coherence and relevance.” This is made possible through the implementation of standards, which in Henebry’s field is FGDC Geoinformation standard CSGDM and EML (Ecological Metadata Language). These are but encoding standards (for the most part). To ensure relevance and coherence, or to fulfill the functions of “data discovery”, “data acquisition”, and “data comprehension”, it is necessary to implement content standards or the “production of taxonomies, controlled vocabularies and ontologies.” All of this put together will ensure a rich contextual picture of graphs that enhance the research paper in the online environment. This in turn will ensure data discoverability, data re-use and sharing, and more.
What is fantastic about this short editorial is that Henebry champions the cause of metadata. When we speak of interoperability, consistency, standards, accuracy or flexibility, Henebry’s equivalents are durability, coherence, relevance, discoverability, acquisition and comprehension.
What’s the lesson here? To reach those outside of our field, we must learn how they approach their research and the vocabulary used to describe their research process. In this case, Henebry is talking about the research paper, which is essential for those on the tenure track or those who wish to be recognized for their contribution to science. But to be recognized as a notable researcher and especially to earn credit towards tenure, it is necessary to be able to find, comprehend and verify the research output. This requires metadata to provide contextual information that leads to such things as a citation for a research paper, an explanation of the graph including information on how to re-use the data or information on how to replicate the experiment. If the researcher doesn’t provide these metadata, then essentially their research is LOST! Without metadata, there is no data discoverability, acquisition, durability, coherence, relevance or comprehension. Simply put, Henebry has just outlined the value of metadata to research. This is a value we can then translate when advocating for metadata at our institutions. Metadata librarians are not only essential for the library’s catalog but also in helping your institution’s researchers and community more effectively contextualize their research. In short, metadata librarians have a role to play alongside subject librarians in the area of data management and the digital humanities. So I say again, thank you Geoffrey.