It’s difficult to imagine, but there was time before the internet. The web turned 25 this past week. Started at CERN as an endeavour to connect computers across the world and preserve scientific data, the web has revolutionized the way we all do science.
For those of us who once lived inside physical libraries with cold stone walls, books, and stacks of current journals the internet has certainly been a blessing. I will admit that the idea of stepping inside a library to find a particular journal or photocopy a paper is now an appalling concept, but it was once a regular feature of research. I can still remember searching through the Reference library at Yonge and Bloor as a high school student, trying to find information on a topic far removed from the ordinary. But now, I can barely fathom a time when information was simply not just there. Available freely for the taking.
What started out as a science experiment to connect computers and store data has fundamentally changed the way I do science today. Besides the obvious advantages of having and retrieving any article in any journal from any country, which is impressive on its own, the internet has had many other positive changes to my live. I can’t possibly begin to catalogue them all, but I will mention a few that are important in my everyday life.
The first and most important, is cloud storage and computing. I have always backed up all my data, presentations, and analysis on remote servers or in the cloud. All these gigabytes of storage capacity have been a veritable blessing. I can access all my personal files at any time from any device. Meaning that on weekends, I can work from anywhere. Cloud computing is less relevant but equally important in my opinion. Computing tasks which once required single or linked supercomputers housed in complexes can now be distributed and multiplexed across multiple computers. For something like modelling protein folding or finding new stars, having access to many thousands of computers has changed the way we do work.
The second and most obvious contribution, in my opinion, has been the absolute and unstoppable rise of open access and freely available scientific publications. The mindset of the internet has always been free and open to all. In fact, some Scandinavian countries have even declared internet access a basic human right, to which I agree. This right to information and ease of access is eroding at the traditional publication model and driving innovation and research. Science is meant to be shared quickly and openly and the internet allows and promotes this ideal. What’s important, is that it is also a self-regulating process. Errors, fraudulent behavior, and retractions can all be reported immediately.
Finally, the web has made available a breadth of expertise to all researchers. It’s nice to know that I am always just an email or a forum post away from resolving a pesky trouble shooting problem with a Western Blot.
To me, the internet is an open and equal space used to connect individuals and share ideas. For science, this is an enormous advantage. Sometimes I do miss spending time in libraries, but not often. Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee for starting something simple and amazing that will continue to improve our lives and push us all forward.
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