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Microsoft Research Offers New Software Tools That Support Open Access
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Posted On August 25, 2008
At the ninth annual Microsoft Research Faculty Summit held in Redmond, Wash., on July 28 (www.research.microsoft.com/workshops/FS2008), Microsoft Research announced its vision to define computing and scientific research. More specifically, the company announced free software applications and a forthcoming Research Information Centre, in partnership with the British Library, to support this vision. Unlike Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com), Microsoft Research does not sell anything. Microsoft Research has more than 800 researchers working across more than 55 areas of research, mostly based in Redmond. There are five other research labs worldwide.

Founded in 1991, Microsoft Research is dedicated to conducting both basic and applied research in computer science and software engineering. The scientific advisory board of Microsoft Research includes Clifford Lynch, Ph.D., executive director, Coalition for Networked Information; and Christine Borgman, Ph.D., professor, Presidential Chair in Information Studies, University of California–Los Angeles.

Speaking to more than 400 faculty members from leading research institutions worldwide, Tony Hey, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s External Research Division, "emphasized the role his group plays not only in supporting specific collaborative research projects, but also in improving the process of research and its role in the innovation ecosystem, including developing and supporting efforts in open access, open tools, open technology and interoperability."

This commitment to openness was not a surprise. Hey is a former academic who spent 4 years in charge of the U.K.’s e-Science Initiative before taking the position at Microsoft Research in 2005. Microsoft Research labs has committed to publishing in the open literature. However, while all the projects will be freely available as a download, Microsoft will not build applications on the Linux platform.

There are two new add-in programs for Word and Office that are downloadable from the Microsoft website (www.microsoft.com/downloads). While these tools are freely available, they require the full Office 2007 application to be available, and users must download a validation tool. There is no support for Apple computers, just Windows XP and Vista (which leaves me out of testing them). According to the media release, the Article Authoring Add-in for Word 2007 "enables metadata to be captured at the authoring stage to preserve document structure and semantic information throughout the publishing process, which is essential for enabling search, discovery and analysis in subsequent stages of the life cycle." But at the download site, the product promotes itself as a "Release Candidate of Word [that] … enables reading and writing of XML-based documents in the format used by the National Library of Medicine [NLM] for archiving scientific articles." I am sure that a mention of the NLM is a great attention-getting device these days.

The baseline technical requirements are the same for the Creative Commons Add-in for Office 2007, which allows authors to "embed Creative Commons licenses directly into an Office document (Word, Excel or PowerPoint) by linking to the Creative Commons site via a Web service."

At this time, the Microsoft eJournal Service is in an alpha version (http://journal.mssandbox.net). But I could log in, and after a rather annoying login process that forced me to sign up for an MSN account, I had a journal (although for 60 days only). The goal is to provide a "hosted, full-service solution that facilitates easy self-publishing of online-only journals to facilitate the availability of conference proceedings and small and medium-sized journals." Lacking any content or users I could not test this product beyond a superficial glance. But it reminded me of a template-based web hosting service.

The Research Output Repository Platform is also in a limited alpha version. And even the name may change, according to Savas Parastatidis who is the technical architect within the Microsoft External Research team that is responsible for it (http://savas.parastatidis.name). He said on his blog, "Yes, I know the name is boring. We have a better name but we weren’t able to secure it internationally in time for Faculty Summit. Anyway... ‘Research Output Repository Platform’ will have to be for now."

From a PowerPoint presentation that Microsoft links to on its website (from the Open Repositories 2008 conference held this year at the University of Southampton; http://pubs.or08.ecs.soton.ac.uk/84/1/Research_Output_Repositories_-_Microsoft_Initiatives.pdf) there are some glimpses of what will make the project very useful. The project is built on a semantic computing platform and will be a hybrid between a relational database and a "triple store." Triple store means it is "evolution friendly," there is no need to model everything in advance, and it provides semantic interpretation at the application. The media release explains that "This platform helps capture and leverage semantic relationships among academic objects—such as papers, lectures, presentations and video—to greatly facilitate access to these items in exciting new ways.

What I was pleased to see was that the commitment to data preservation (and provenance) should be baseline in this product. According to open access advocate Stevan Harnad, "Data-archiving and sharing will be the next big development, once OA has prevailed."

There is not much to add about the Research Information Centre, which is a forthcoming product and very little is being revealed anywhere about it, outside of the Microsoft media release. Microsoft is in partnership with the British Library with the goal to create a "collaborative workspace [which] will be hosted via Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and will allow researchers to collaborate throughout the entire research project workflow, from seeking research funding to searching and collecting information, as well as managing data, papers and other research objects throughout the research process."

But I found great irony in that though the link to get more information from Microsoft Research’s webpage leads to the IEEE Explore site where a conference paper is offered, "A Virtual Research Environment (VRE) for Bioscience Researchers" is available for a fee. Oh, and didn’t Microsoft just shut down Live Academic Search? And also pull out of the digitization project that included the Internet Archive, the Smithsonian, and the British Library? (See the NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=49423.) Still I hope Microsoft Research comes through and wows us with some great new tools.

For more information, see www.microsoft.com/mscorp/tc/scholarly_communication.mspx.


Robin Peek is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She also writes a monthly column called Focus on Publishing for Information Today.

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