A Few Comments on Information Strategies and Techniques for Astronomy

André HECK
Strasbourg Astronomical Observatory
11, rue de l'Université
F-67000 Strasbourg, France


A few comments and remarks are presented on the impact of new information technologies.


It would be tempting to open this workshop with an encyclopaedic paper reviewing `the good, the bad and the question marks' in strategies and techniques of information for astronomy. As this is available elsewhere for issues related to electronic publishing and information handling (Heck 1996) and as the major aspects will also be substantially tackled in the following papers, the present contribution will be restricted to a few comments and remarks intended as material for the subsequent discussions.

A Few Basic Notions

The ultimate aim of astronomers and related space scientists is to contribute to a better understanding of the universe and consequently to a better comprehension of the place and rôle of man in it. To this end, together with theoretical studies, they carry out observations to obtain data that will undergo treatments and studies leading to the publication of results.

The whole procedure can include several internal iterations or interactions between the various steps as well as with external fields (such as instrumental technology), scientific disciplines and information handling methodologies. The trend is also clearly towards panchromatic astronomy, in the sense that astronomers do not specialize anymore exclusively in a specific range of wavelengths (optical, radio, etc.).

In the following, information will be considered as the knowledge communicated by others or obtained from investigation, study, or instruction. In astronomy, information covers the observational material, the more or less reduced data extracted from it, the scientific results, as well as the accessory material increasingly used by scientists in their work (bibliographical resources, yellow-page services, software libraries, and so on).

While publication will be considered as a `public announcement' (no implicit assumption being made as to the medium used), communication will be taken as the act or action of imparting or transmitting (while respecting constraints such as proprietary rights and so on).

These definitions correspond to widely accepted concepts in information sciences, but the meaning of the terms could be different in fields such as marketing or advertising.

It should always be kept in mind that information and its related activities are never an end per se. Science must remain the main objective

Information hubs

We have fortunately not been doing too badly in astronomy since our community and its data centres have evolved with a quite satisfactory flexibility through the various phases of information technology. Specific and successful conferences have been organized. They have been complemented by excellent books and compilations. Astronomers have also been among the first to realize the potentialities, many years ago, of electronic publishing and, more recently, of the World-Wide Web.

Considering the omnipresent connectivity and the decentralised expertise on which they are essentially relying, one could ask whether the data centres are still as indispensable as in the past; whether a coordinating body would not do; and whether the individuals-hubs-individuals cycle is not exhausted with current connectivity. Some agencies have actually envisaged disconnecting their data/information management via outsourcing or other means.

With the documents put on the web becoming extremely visible and the ever increasing popularity of the Internet, one could wonder whether the necessary bandwidth will always be available for professional purposes or whether a public interest in a `sexy' web site could not submerge the available resources. In other terms, should we consider setting up an astronomical intranet for an astronomical business class?

Of course, the interface with the taxpayer who is ultimately supporting scientific research has to be preserved too as the web is also the place for exploration, communication, education, and so on.

Electronic publishing

While being conscious that publishers and editors have to deal with and to take into account the natural human and corporate inertia, one sometimes wonders whether the most adequate methodologies and technologies are adopted to integrate electronic publishing within their activities.

Certainly authors have the feeling that more and more work has been gradually delegated to them (from the mechanical-typewriter times through the camera-ready-copy techniques to, nowadays, macros and web documents), while the publishers complain about the financial strain of `going electronic'.

On another level, most producers of information seem currently eager to preserve the equivalence of the material provided under various formats or languages such as PostScript, PDF, HTML, and so on.

While it is clear that there is no difficulty to offer a standard paper in such a way, a document (or rather a set of documents) genuinely tailored for the World-Wide Web (i.e. typically written in HTML) cannot fully be converted automatically in PostScript or PDF since there is no way to reproduce in these formats features currently available on the web such as hypertextual structure, sound, motion, applets, and so on. In other words, trying to maintain the compatibility between all the formats would be equivalent to reduce TV news bulletins to silent images of newspapers or magazines.

It is obvious that genuine electronic publishing will have to diverge from paper publishing and electronic provision of traditional papers, all these means remaining however complementary of each other.

Finally, should we not replace the concepts of `papers' and `journals' by the more appropriate ones of documents and resources in an electronic context?

Information handling packages

Information handling, processing, retrieval has been and is the matter of many books, conferences, studies, etc., including in our fields. However there seem to be too many applications of limited scope (proposals, tests, prototypes, demonstrations, and so on). Methodologies of large and general acceptance are lacking. Simple packages called by simple commands are needed.

Should we plead for a MIDAS of information handling and retrieval?

Other aspects

There are plenty of other points for which time will certainly be lacking during this workshop, but that could deserve a thorough discussion. For instance, are we (well) prepared to handle the fluidity of electronic information? Encryption - which has export restrictions in some countries and is totally banned in others (such as France) - might be a solution to the fragility of electronic substance as well as to the security of its handling. Are we willing to introduce it? p> How well are the learned societies, funding agencies, expert committees, and so on, doing in adapting to electronic information the unavoidable trilogy of validation-evaluation-recognition? Are we fully willing to tune our ethical considerations to the new context?

Which policy should we design to get rid of the dead wood on the World-Wide Web? These and other points are discussed in the paper referenced below.


Heck, A. 1996, Electronic publishing and information handling: Plenty of roses, but also some thorns, Vistas in Astron. 40 (1996) 303-316
[ESF CCMA Workshop on Strategies and Techniques of Information for Astronomy, Vistas in Astron. 40 (1996) 365-367]
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