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Sas, Arjan (1998), Science on the Internet: The pros and cons of publishing on the world wide web and the possibilities of monitoring information. Presentation held at the 10th ELISAD conference, Paris, France, December 4, 1998. Amsterdam, CEDRO Centrum voor Drugsonderzoek, Universiteit van Amsterdam.
© Copyright 1998 Arjan Sas. All rights reserved.

 

Science on the Internet

The pros and cons of publishing on the world wide web and the possibilities of monitoring information

Arjan Sas

Besides working as a researcher for the Centre for Drug Research of the University of Amsterdam (CEDRO) I've been involved in publishing on the Internet scientific documents and statistical data about drug use in the Netherlands. Since 1995, I have maintained the website of CEDRO, and since 1996 I have also maintained the Stanton Peele Addiction Web Site.

I started the CEDRO website for practical reasons. Working with Dr. Peter Cohen in a field of science that got much attention from journalists, students, policy makers, and activists I found myself spending way too much time on printing and mailing and faxing the same documents over and over again. With the well-known website DrugText as an example, I decided to publish the most requested documents on a website. I did not have any experience with building websites, but the process turned out to be surprisingly simple. Within two weeks I had managed to make a simple site, text-oriented, without any fancy graphics, containing a substantial number of documents about drug use and drug policy in the Netherlands.

The site became quite popular and received many visitors from all over the world, but more important it replaced much of the faxing and mailing paper documents since I had a website to which I could refer to if people phoned me for 'some information about drugs'. Since then, the CEDRO website has not changed much. Although many new documents have been added since, the look of the site is almost the same as in the beginning. There are two reasons why I have not made any important changes to the site's design. The first and most important reason is that the site seems to work perfectly as it is now. The simple design makes it readable for any lousy old web-browser you can imagine. You do not need the latest state of the art Internet Explorer with the newest plug-ins in order to access the information you are looking for. The other reason for not changing the basic design is that I did not have a budget for this site. Researchers at CEDRO have to earn their own salary, or in other words, we are not financed by the University, but have to seek funding from external sources. Until now it has been almost impossible to get funding for a website because no one saw the importance of publishing on the Internet. I hope this will change soon, but I am not optimistic.

Nevertheless there are plans for redesigning and expanding the site. The number of visitors to the site has grown steadily over the years. Every month over 16,000 text-documents are retrieved from our on-line library. To put things in perspective: 'paper' research reports generally are printed in impressions of 200 to 400 and usually are not reprinted.

Original photograph on the CEDRO website
Picture of the university building, originally placed on the frontpage of the CEDRO website.

Nowadays, most people who know CEDRO have first met us through our website. Sometimes this can lead to strange misunderstandings. For some years there was on the front page of the site a picture of the university building in which CEDRO had its offices. This led some people to believe that CEDRO was a huge organisation, with several hundred employees, with lots of money to be handed out to researchers all over the world, and lots of employment opportunities. In fact, there are only five people working at CEDRO, mainly working on temporary contracts. When I became aware of the possible misunderstandings I replaced the picture of the office building with a picture of a typical old wooden bridge in the vicinity of the university complex. It has nothing to do with drugs, but it stopped the applications for grants and scholarships.

Our website has become an important and inexpensive instrument for us to make our work available to a large audience, and to present ourselves as a research group. It works so well for us that a few months ago we stopped publishing certain reports in print. The electronic version is the only version available, although we sometimes have small quantities printed and copied for libraries that cannot handle electronic documents, or researchers who do not have access to the internet.

Because we now rely so heavily on our website, we will redesign and expand the site in the coming months. We are trying to get money to provide more translations in for instance Italian or French. Also, the site will get a more professional look, more or less following the official design of the University of Amsterdam. The section containing the drug use statistics — one of the most popular sections — will also be expanded, not only showing prevalence data for Amsterdam, but also for other cities in the Netherlands.

In 1996, Stanton Peele, an American social-clinical psychologist and writer on addiction and addiction theory, visited CEDRO to give a lecture. Afterwards, in the pub, Stanton and I got to talking about the Internet. I remarked that in preparation for his visit to CEDRO I had not been able to find anything by him or about him on the Internet, which I found rather remarkable for a well-known author. Coincidentally, he had just gotten an Internet account and an email address and he very much liked the idea of publishing some of his work on the Internet. We then decided to create a corner on the CEDRO website for him.

Frontpage of the first version of the Stanton Peele Addiction Web Site
Frontpage of the first version of the Stanton Peele Addiction Web Site.

After a few months it became clear that Peele's site had become as popular as the CEDRO website and that it deserved its own internet address. Right now the Stanton Peele Addiction Web Site is located on a webserver in New York and attracts about 750 visitors per day. I am still the webmaster, but also many other volunteers have spent much time in scanning and converting old hard-to-find journal articles and book chapters into HTML and puting them on the website.

From what you've heard from me up to this point you might conclude that the Internet is the ideal medium for publishing information. It's cheap, anyone can become a publisher, and lots of people will access the information, so it's perfect. Or is it?

When I started the CEDRO site back in 1994, some of my colleagues asked me if I was not afraid that others would steal our work, publishing it under their own name, or reprinting it on their own websites. They were sure that at some point others would take advantage of our site. Until the winter of 1997, I always found them wrong, but unfortunately the low-cost, low-threshold nature of the Internet kept up with us. During the last 18 months the number of people who have access to the Internet has grown dramatically. The costs of an Internet connection are down, the software for browsing the Internet or making a website has become extremely user-friendly, and suddenly everyone has to have a home page. If possible, this homepage should attract a lot of visitors. What subjects do attract lots of visitors? Sex, drugs and rock and roll! CEDRO happens to be in the drugs business, so it is a perfect example. And why should you go through all the trouble of scanning and editing your own documents if you can grab them for free from various websites?

Suddenly websites appeared on the Internet claiming to be the depositories of drug related information on the Internet. In fact they were not adding anything new but were just recycling information that already was available on the Internet. Sometimes they asked CEDRO for permission to include our work on their site, but often they did not.

I do acknowledge the value of many websites that collect large amounts of information about drugs, drug use and drug policy and make the documents available for anyone who is interested without charge. In fact, DrugText was my model when I started publishing on the net myself. Another large collection of drug-related material on the Internet are the various sections of the DrugLibrary — an initiative of the Drug Reform Co-ordination Network in the U.S. As a researcher I use this resource quite often.

So why do I object to other websites copying materials from the websites I maintain? For several reasons.

  • Copying without asking permission — to say the least — is impolite.
  • In many cases proper acknowledgements were not given. They just copied the text, but did not state where the documents came from, and in some cases even left off the name of the author.
  • The text was edited, sections were deleted, or even worse, comments were added in the text.
  • Some webmasters only paid attention to the first twenty-five lines of the documents, and did not bother to check the rest of the file for HTML errors they introduced by adding their own logo and other layout features to the document.

Especially this last problem made me believe that for many of these new websites quantity meant everything, for which they were willing to sacrifice quality.

When I add documents to the Internet I try to picture myself as a visitor to the site who wants to use the document for an article in a scientific journal. What kind of information do I need?

  1. First of all I need to have the complete article, including the footnotes and the references.
  2. Secondly, I need to know who the author is.
  3. Thirdly, I must be able to refer to the article. This means that information about where it was originally published must be included.
  4. Finally, I must be sure that the article that I access is genuine and that nobody fooled around with it, making changes, removing or adding text in a way the original author would object to.

This would mean that you never can be sure about the reliability of the information unless you get it from the source. Fortunately, there are organisations like the Lindesmith Center in New York that — in addition to work from their own staff — publishes documents from other authors on their site together with all the necessary reference information you would expect to find in a journal or a book.

However, an Internet search never can substitute for a trip to the library. With some regularity I receive requests from students who are in the process of writing a thesis who ask me to point them to sources on the Internet that will provide them with all the literature they need. Usually I have to disappoint them. Most of the information about drugs and drug policy is not on the Internet. Sometimes they respond with disappointment — or even worse — they are offended, because I refer them back to an — in their eyes — medieval source of information, but often they get back to me after they have read some articles and books, asking more questions. It is at this point that they have discovered the real power of the Internet. From behind their computer in a university building somewhere in the U.S. they have made contact with a researcher in the Netherlands who can answer questions or point them to other sources. If they had to do it by telephone it would have cost them a lot of money, and chances are that they would never have been able to reach me. If they had written me a letter, I would have had to write a letter back, which is much more time-consuming than typing a few lines in an email program and pressing the send button.

This is the aspect of the Internet I like most. It expands my possibilities for personal communication. During the five years I have had access to the internet I have met many interesting people from all over the world. Most of them I've never met face to face. They keep me informed on what's going on in other countries, or I send them information or give my opinion about certain developments if they ask me. Thus I've built a network that I use to stay informed.

Key Resource
The award presented to CEDRO in the category "Sas".

There are other ways of staying informed on the Internet besides personal communications. A few years ago some people started to use 'agents', programs that scan the Internet for information that satisfies certain criteria. It is pointless to ask an agent to seek information about 'drugs' because it will return a flood of information, just as any search engine would do. I briefly experimented with this new gadget, but soon decided that it was not of any use to me. Every now and then I am confronted with silly results of automated retrieval and indexing of information that bear out my initial conclusion. The latest example is an award that was given to the CEDRO website by Links2Go, a company that indexes websites in several categories. The CEDRO website was given an award in the 'Sas' category, undoubtedly because my name appeared several times on the site. Their index robot concluded that the CEDRO website must be about the programming language SAS that is often used for statistical analyses. CEDRO is now listed on their website among SAS user groups, SAS manuals and the website of the SAS Institute, the company that produces this computer program.

Besides the information offered on various websites, and personal communication through electronic mail, there are a few other resources on the internet that can be of use for monitoring information about drugs and drug use.

First there is Usenet, a system that consists of discussion groups for almost every subject you can think of. I don't use it. Because Usenet is an open system, anyone can post messages in the discussion groups through a program called a news-reader, which is incorporated in most webbrowsers nowadays. Many people engage in serious discussions, or at least talk about the subject their specific discussion group was set up for, but many others talk about other things, or post commercial messages, trying to lure people to their websites. I am sure you can find useful information on Usenet, but you have to wade through a swamp of off-topic information to reach it.

Secondly, there are the e-mail discussion lists. They look a little like Usenet discussion groups, but the messages are sent by e-mail. It takes more effort to become part of an e-mail discussion list because you have to subscribe to the list by sending a message to a 'list server'. Also, e-mail discussion lists are maintained by list-owners. This means that someone is in charge of the list and has the power to decide what can be posted and what cannot. Usually this works fine. Most list-owners only interfere with the discussion if the participants wander away from the topic the list was created for. Sometimes, however, a list-owner can go a step further.

An extreme example of how a list-owner can influence a discussion is a series of incidents in 1997 that became known on the Internet as the 'CD3 controversy'. The Controlled Drinking and Drug Use or 'CD' list was created by Dr. Jeffrey Schaler from the American University at the listserver at St. Johns University and had the goal of talking about the ability of people to control their drug or alcohol use. At some point Jeff Schaler argued that addicts should be treated as behaving rationally and intentionally, which met opposition from Robin Room. Another member of the list — Rob Ryley — entered the ring supporting Jeff Schaler and quoting Stanton Peele. So now in one corner we had Robin Room, against in the other corner Jeff Schaler, Rob Ryley, and in the background Stanton Peele. The discussion than got out of hand and at a certain point Stanton Peele posted a message asking people to 'reduce their anger level' or — as he put it — "otherwise, we won't have Robin to kick around any more, and this list will become very boring. "This remark certainly did not reduce the anger level. In fact, now the anger was also directed towards Stanton Peele. A few days later a notice was posted on the CD list by listowner Jeff Schaler, stating that "Robin Room, Stanton Peele and Robert Ryley had been dishonest and irresponsible in their posts and that they had made statements that had been shown to be false and had then refused to justify those statements, correct them, and/or apologise for them." The list-owner then announced that Room, Peele and Ryley would be expelled from the CD list if they would not apologise and correct their statements. Other people on the list started questioning the list-owner's decision, but on November 3, 1997 Room, Peele, and Ryley, — now better known as "the CD3" —, were banned from the list. A few days later other people who objected to this action were also banned from the list. Although I was not subscribed to this list, Jeff Schaler also blocked my e-mail address because Stanton Peele and I reported about this riot on the Stanton Peele Addiction Web Site. Because Stanton Peele complained about Schaler's actions to the president of St. Johns University, his access to all mailing lists maintained at this university was blocked. In the months following this series of events it became evident what happens if you end a discussion this way. The CD list has become a ghost town. Most postings are made by Jeff Schaler. There is no discussion at all.

As I said, this is an extreme example. Usually list-owners stay in the background and do not censor the discussion like Schaler did. I think list-owner Jeff Schaler forgot were he was: on the Internet, a place where everything you say becomes publicly available on websites and in news archives. He tried to stop Stanton Peele and me from publishing accounts of the CD3 controversy on Stanton Peele's website, claiming that he owned the copyright of every word he said at the CD list, and threatening us with legal action, but unfortunately for him it was too late. News archives like Reference.Com had already indexed the list and the whole discussion was accessible for everyone who was interested, beyond the control of Jeff Schaler.

Discussion lists, either on Usenet or through e-mail are very public places. Everything you say will be recorded and can be accessed through search engines. Although you might think you are among friends, potentially thousands may be listening in. It is unwise to say or do things on the Internet that you would regret later on, or that you do not want to become public knowledge. Larry Froistad did not realise this when he confessed on the Moderation Management list to murdering his five year old daughter. He was arrested by the FBI a few days later and the story was covered by the press worldwide.[*]

From what I've told you about my experiences with the Internet, you might infer that I generally have a rather conservative attitude to this medium. I believe that personal contact is vital, and that the Internet can facilitate this personal contact. However, when it comes to discussion groups or mailing lists, I am very careful. Sometimes people talk more freely if you approach them individually, instead of in a public place. On the other hand, if I have a question, and I need an answer fast, I throw it on a few mailing lists and I have the answer within a few hours.

In summary I can say that the new information technology that has become available to us during the last five years has given me the opportunity of expanding my network with people who I would not have met otherwise. Thanks to this technology people read my work who would never had heard about me otherwise. The Internet has become a marvellous tool for me, but it remains just like that: a tool. Personal contact will remain absolutely invaluable for science and communications of all sorts, despite the Internet.


* For more information about the Larry Froistad case, see:

Grohol, John M. (1998), Secrets confessed: The Larry Froistad case. Psych Central, 12 May 1998. Online: <http://www.grohol.com/froistad.htm>

Schaler, Jeffrey A. (1998), Moderation Management über alles. PsychNews International Volume 3 issue 2, July 1998. Online: <http://www.cmhc.com/pni/pni32c.htm>

Internet addresses of websites mentioned in this paper

(Some of these website might not be online anymore)

Other sites, established since this paper was published

Last update: May 25, 2016