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I am the research director at an engineering firm. I help our people find all kinds of obscure and sometimes hard-to-find information. On a typical day, I might answer questions as varied as 'what variables govern how fast a buried steel drum will corrode?' to 'what were the most popular pesticides for use on apples in the 1920s?' (answer: lead arsenate) to 'what is the odor threshold for whiskey?"

I love my job. And I love one of the tools that makes my job easier: the National Technical Information Service (NTIS).

Sen. Tom Coburn wants to scrap the NTIS because he thinks he can find everything with The Google, and has introduced S.2206, actually titled "Let Me Google that For You". This would in effect be tossing into the dustbin thousands of valuable scientific studies, most of which have already been paid for by taxpayers. This bill, like so much of the ham-handed Internet policy in Congress, is based on fundamental ignorance of the needs of scientists and how the Internet actually works.

While it might not be as hot-button as net neutrality, please join me, and the technical research community, in opposing this terrible bill.

The NTIS was created in the 1950s to help businesses access the significant amount of scientific research funded by various government agencies. But just because it was created in the 1950s does NOT mean that it is 'outdated', as so many news reports effortlessly assume.

Tom Coburn, in talking about the reports, makes a big deal out of the fact that roughly 75% of reports can be found elsewhere online.

Of course, that means that 25% of them are NOT online. I can attest to the fact that of these 25% of reports, many of them do not exist in any other form. They are held in microfiche format and printed on demand when someone needs them. Even those that are held in library collections can often only be obtained through lengthy Interlibrary Loan processes, if the items circulate at all. In my past decade at this job, I have personally acquired nearly 100 documents from NTIS that were not available anywhere else.

But the most valuable thing about the NTIS is their high-quality metadata index, which makes it possible for expert searchers to perform precise queries. I have used the NTIS structured database at least weekly during my career; even when the documents are available on the Internet, if I don't already know the title of the document I need, and am instead looking for research on a specific topic, I identify it through NTIS, even if I then later get the exact document from the EPA Web page (try searching via the EPA's document database--it's truly terrible).

And, as people who understand how the Internet works know, the majority of information on the Internet is NOT accessible by Google's bots. The computer programs that move around the Internet do not go deep into Web pages. Also, much of the content on the Internet resides in back-end databases; that information is served up as 'on-the-fly' Web pages in response to queries from a Web-based front-end. So even though many of these documents might be on the Internet, that does mean they can be found by the person looking for it. The NTIS is vital in pointing people in the right direction.

I teach a seminar for engineers on ‘Going Beyond Google’ to conduct high-level research. The NTIS has always been mentioned during my seminars, and is one of the more useful and easy-to-use tools available to experts. Google's PageRank system is particularly good at finding information that is commonly searched for and often linked. It is not so useful for finding highly technical and obscure documents. Precision searching of structured databases is absolutely vital for those conducting high-level research.

All researchers use structured databases, from the freely available (PubMed for medical information) to the very expensive literature databases available through university libraries. University libraries pay millions in fees for abstract databases alone; they are vailable resources, and the Internet has in no way made them obsolete. As the amount of information produced has skyrocketed, they are more important than ever for those trying to sort through the noise and find relevant, high-quality research. For 60 years, citizens have not had to pay any fees to identify government-funded research. Let's keep it that way, and save the NTIS.  

Activists have put together an excellent list of how to strengthen the NTIS, not scrap it. Please call Sen Coburn and his co-sponsor, Claire McCaskill, especially if they are your home-state Senator. Also please contact the members of the Science and Technology Committee, and ask them not to trash so much scientific information.

Originally posted to RiotLibrarian on Mon May 19, 2014 at 08:21 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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