Monday, 07 September 2009
Publishers in the Science/Technology/Medical (STM) disciplines aren’t content to focus on optimizing text-based content and search engines in online databases. A growing number of these companies now offer visualization tools to enhance discovery.
Among the pioneers in this area are the various web sites which enable users to draw and search on chemical structures or to view existing structures in manipulable 3D models. These features are available in tools such as ChemSpider (acquired by the Royal Society of Chemistry this past spring); the Structure and Property Search feature available in the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics; SciFinder from CSA; PubChem; and Molecule of the Month; to name a few (Many of these sites used common visual engines, such as the Java-based JMOL, for 3D display of molecular images).
Another entrant is Illustrata, from Cambridge Scientific Abstracts (CSA). Introduced in 2007, Illustrata offers “deep indexing” databases of images – including tables, charts, figures, graphs – contained within the articles and other materials that CSA indexes. You can search on the types of images you’re interested in, then view thumbnails of the results displayed in the context of the article’s abstract and other citation details. According to CSA, beta-testers for Illustrata found the ability to search for and view images resulted in more precise search results, clearer understanding of the resources they were viewing, and opportunities for comparative analysis as well as inspiration for the design and presentation of their own graphics.
Earlier this year, Nature started offering 3D interactive images in the Acrobat PDF versions of some of its articles. These images can be rotated and zoomed in or out upon, and displayed with various layers of information and graphics toggled on or off (Versions 9 and above of Acrobat Reader are required to use these tools).
And everywhere we look, Google or Yahoo maps and other geospatial engines are being used offer insights into the geography of research. Springer’s Authormapper shows the geographic location of its authors (at least of the time of publication) in an interactive Google map (this seems like a handy tool for planning a research trip or sabbatical!). Researcher ID (previously described here) from ISI Web of Science has a similar interface for its authors within its “testing labs.”
Visualization tools are cropping up in all academic disciplines, from geology to medicine. In Tufts’ own backyard, VUE (Visual Understanding Environment) is a interdisciplinary tool for creating concept maps. The Boston Subsurface Project, developed by the Tufts Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, uses a GIS interface to highlight the relationship between the City of Boston’s soils and its history. Such projects are exemplify the statement that pictures tell a thousand stories and, as such, offer new opportunities for discovery and analysis.