Facts are chiels that winna ding

May 23rd, 2008 by John

Perhaps one reason why Scotland has produced more than its proportionate share of scientists and lawyers [1] is because of the hard-headedness of a nation which gives great respect to factual knowledge. The lines ‘But facts are chiels that winna ding,/An downa be disputed’ appear in Burns’ poem A Dream from 1786. The English translation is ‘But facts are fellows that will not be overturned,/And cannot be disputed’. The world of research libraries is a world of respecters of facts, and I have bumped up against this in a few different contexts in the last few days.

Peter Murray-Rust, ebullient Reader in Molecular Informatics at the University of Cambridge, talks about the conservatism of the chemistry publishing industry in his blog, which he says is harming science because it is moving so slowly to Open Access. As a consequence, factual data is being held behind toll barriers, when it should belong to the commons. ‘… we cannot get the facts … The melting point of X is Y (temperature) at Z (pressure) is a fact. I hope at least we can agree on that, and that it isn’t a “creative work”.’ The use of copyright to deny access to these facts harms science, and is not defensible. That too, says Peter in his most recent post is a fact.

Scientists want facts, and research libraries must do everything in their power to help them to get them readily and persistently. In the realm of biodiversity, the facts of life have become clearer recently. Natural historians are classifiers, of course, and the classification system in use in the Library at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London (one of our Partners), is based on that used to classify the plants of its Herbarium – the Bentham-Hooker classification system. But that classification needs to change, because botanists now use DNA analysis to determine the degrees of relatedness of plant species, and this has the effect of forcing revisions to existing classifications based, inevitably, on the intuitions of taxonomists and classifiers from previous generations. The facts of plant taxonomy are now incontrovertible. Nonetheless, in the library at Kew, with its hundreds of thousands of items, the idea of revising the classification system to follow changes in the plant taxonomy is daunting, and as digitisation gathers pace, enhanced keyword access seems a more efficient direction to take – even if we can now produce a factually correct classification system.

And a very good reason for this is because web search as the fundamental and universal starting point for research is now also a known fact. That is why it makes sense to point our common bibliographic metadata heritage at the web, as OCLC is doing in working with Google on its Book Search programme, by providing WorldCat metadata to Google, as announced a couple of days ago. The OCLC Perceptions of libraries and information resources report of 2005 produced the evidence: 84% of searchers begin with an Internet search engine; 1% begin with a library website. Here is a new fact of life for custodians of research collections. At a meeting of the Europeana Contacts Working Group in The Hague on Tuesday of this week, as we considered how best to make Europe’s cultural heritage available in digital form, we pondered that fact, which is a large fellow who will not be overturned any time soon.

[1] This may be a fact, but I have not assembled the evidence for it.

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One Response to “Facts are chiels that winna ding”

  1. Chris Rusbridge Says:

    Good stuff, John. There should be more Burns in science!

    BTW, is a possible fact for which there is little or no evidence a factoid (-)?