Web Magazine for Information Professionals


Paul Ayres examines how the SOSIG Subject News blog is keeping users up to date and providing reusable site content at the same time.

ESRC Launches Unique Online Research Resource for Social Sciences

A major new Web site offering unrivalled access to high-quality social and economic research is soon to be launched in the UK. Created by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), ESRC Society Today [1] will provide academics, students and researchers with a valuable free digest of social sciences research currently available, planned and in progress.

As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research, the Web site will provide a gateway to other key online resources from the UK such as Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG), the UK Data Archive and the Office of National Statistics - as well as international coverage from services such as Europa and Social Science Research Network (SSRN).

ESRC Society Today, combining the ESRC sites www.esrc.ac.uk and www.regard.ac.uk, will offer a broad picture of the latest research on the full range of social science subjects, including early findings, full texts and original data sets. Users can also establish online discussion fora, track down researchers in their key subject fields and find details on ESRC funding and training opportunities.

Notably the site is built on ‘intelligent’ Autonomy software, capable of identifying and relating concepts as well as specific terms. So, for instance, in the same way a conversation in a noisy room can be understood even if some of the words cannot be heard, the essence of a news article can be systematically identified by the software. Autonomy skims over the text and ‘understands’ the key concepts. It is then able to associate and return these concepts based on ‘natural language’ searches, i.e. using normally structured sentences (or indeed large passages of text) as search terms.

Autonomy also provides powerful personalisation features by familiarising itself with the interests, requirements, and even behaviour of individual users. The more someone visits the site the more intuitive the experience should become as the software adapts to them and refines their ‘profile’.

Furthermore it is possible to register for regular news bulletins and email alerts on one’s areas of interest, stay abreast of the latest research efficiently and effectively and also access information on ESRC funding opportunities.

ESRC Society Today [1] is currently in the soft-launch phase, as systems are fine-tuned and bugs ironed out. The site is scheduled to be fully launched at the end of May. You can register on the site, or join the mailing list for further information by emailing societytoday@esrc.ac.uk

SOSIG Subject News Blog

SOSIG has started its own blog to provide news of and access to, the latest links to online resources across all areas of the Social Sciences. Topical in focus, SOSIG Subject News [2] seeks to highlight the research resources behind the latest news.

The original impetus for SOSIG getting involved with blogs was the desire to provide a newsfeed to the pilot JISC News Aggregator [3]. However, it soon became apparent that as well as wanting to produce information about the latest service developments, there was enough enthusiasm within the team to provide a newsfeed that was subject-based and more focussed towards the needs of our users or geared towards attracting new users.

Unpicking the News

From a user perspective, what are the key differences between using the SOSIG site and accessing research information via SOSIG Subject News? Firstly, the blog can be used to highlight an existing topic on SOSIG, which may be the subject of an item in the news, so users can be made aware of the Best of the Web in that area.

News and academia can make for uneasy bedfellows, just think of the reporting of issues such as MMR or GM crops in recent years to see how research information and its reporting can shape public opinion. Rather than recycling items from dedicated news outlets such as the BBC or the Guardian, SOSIG Subject News seeks to be inspired by topical events, and to provide analysis rather than comment. In practice, this means pointing to press releases, government publications or research papers in full, rather than the editorialised version of them that may have been in the press and putting this in a wider research context by linking to key sites where further research resources can be tracked down.

For example, concerns within the legal profession about the recent anti-terrorism laws were widely reported. Unpicking the news provides links to primary source material such as the legislation itself, but also to briefing papers by pressure groups such as Liberty. This approach can help researchers get beyond the sound bite culture prevalent in the media and start to explore the evidence base behind the news headlines.

Secondly, resources that are strictly time limited, which may not make it onto the full SOSIG catalogue, can be mentioned on the blog as relevant to a particular subject right now, essentially providing a current awareness service. For example, the US Presidential election in 2004 proved to be a watershed moment for blogs, with the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimating that 75 million Americans went online to find political news [4], with blogs being a major source of that information.

SOSIG Subject News has responded to this by setting up a new blog category specifically for the 2005 General Election [5] here in the UK. Whilst reflecting the issues of the campaign, this short-term blog category can also help highlight some key resources that will be of use to academics long after the votes have been counted.

News You Can Reuse

The blog format of SOSIG Subject News provides a quick and easy way of creating content that has the advantage of being easily repurposed. It can be read in the same way as any normal blog, with users visiting the site, but the entries are also output as RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) newsfeeds. These blog-generated RSS feeds complement existing SOSIG services that inform users about upcoming conferences and events or new additions to the Internet Resource Catalogue. SOSIG now produces over 60 RSS feeds [6], allowing users to keep up to date about what is going on in their subject.

These can be exported and used by other Web sites or read by individual users via news aggregators, which can access the information remotely. Blog content can also be reused within the SOSIG site itself as a source of news and announcements. Users can access this information in the way they prefer.

The key for SOSIG content creators is that a single publishing point generates all these possible information outlets using a simple interface. This has been accomplished by using the WordPress [7] software, which allows multiple authors to contribute to a team blog and enables categories to be assigned to blog posts. The blog adopts the subject structure that users of SOSIG are familiar with, essentially providing 17 blogs in one, across all the major subject areas in the Social Sciences. This enables separate Education, Business or Politics channels to be created, which better reflects the needs of users in specific disciplines.

While the driving motivation behind most blogs is the provision of current and timely information, the SOSIG Subject News blog also provides comprehensive archive and search facilities. Readers are able to follow the course of particular subjects back through time or drill down to items that may be interdisciplinary in nature by using keyword searching.


Without a clear reason to set up and write a blog, it is all too easy to fall into the trap that so many others fall in to and quickly lose enthusiasm for blogging after an initial burst of posts. However, SOSIG Subject News has a sustainable future with a dedicated team of contributors and a clear mission to bring the latest information to the UK Social Science academic community.


  1. ESRC Society Today http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk/
  2. SOSIG Subject News blog http://www.sosig.ac.uk/subject-news/
  3. Improving Communications within JISC through News Aggregation, Paul Davey, Roddy Macleod, Malcolm Moffat, October 2004, Ariadne Issue 41 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue41/davey/
  4. The Internet and Campaign 2004, Lee Rainie, Michael Cornfield, John Horrigan, 2005 http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/150/report_display.asp
  5. SOSIG Subject News: General Election 2005 http://www.sosig.ac.uk/subject-news/index.php?cat=19
  6. RSS newsfeeds from SOSIG and Grapevine http://www.sosig.ac.uk/about_us/rss.html
  7. Wordpress http://wordpress.org/

Author Details

Paul Ayres
SOSIG Research Officer
University of Bristol

Email: paul.ayres@bristol.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.sosig.ac.uk/

Return to top