Innovations in Science: A Birthday, the Internet of Things and the Future of Science Research

06/05/2015 12:48 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

I'd like to start this column by wishing Tim Berners-Lee a happy 60th birthday (June 8). I don't know him personally, but Tim invented the World Wide Web, and like the billions of us who use the Internet on a daily basis, I tip my hat to his legacy.

There isn't any facet of our lives that hasn't been impacted by the Internet in some way and certainly business today couldn't function without it. (Remember when we thought fax machines were breakthrough technology?) But it's probably had greater impact on science research than on anything else since the invention of the printing press.

Today we have the Internet of Things (IoT), a computing concept whereby everyday physical objects are connected to the Internet and able to identify themselves to other devices. In doing so, that object becomes greater than itself since it is now connected to surrounding objects and data. When several objects act in unison, it is known as having "ambient intelligence".

The IoT will most certainly change our lives. Buildings with Internet-based HVAC systems can be monitored for energy efficiency thereby allowing utilities to better determine when and where to boost or lower power as needed. A person's ability to interact with objects could be altered based on immediate needs or actions. This could be a life-line for an elderly person living alone. Devices would turn on or off or alert family members when a particular pattern of movement is interrupted. For the technology and entertainment industries, copyright and digital restrictions management could be much more easily enforced and help to combat Intellectual Property theft.

In STM (science, technology and medicine) publishing, an IoT has already proven to be advantageous to researchers. Research articles as an entity link to research institutions, funding bodies and, on average, 29 references. More importantly, they link to research datasets. In the lab, equipment is already interconnected and able to produce data that are then sliced, diced, analyzed and summarized by researchers either in the cloud or on hosted servers. Of course, it is ultimately the decision of researchers to make their datasets available by linking them to their research articles or by "publishing" them as standalones.

Our research shows that more than 90% of research datasets sit on hard drives and are not discoverable. This is likely to change rapidly as more and more funding bodies require researchers to make their data reusable in order to avoid funding projects that produce datasets that have already been generated. Also, many stakeholders want to make progress on the current debate of research reproducibility. So, by assigning unique identifiers to datasets as we do for researchers articles (the DOIs), publishers such as Elsevier are leading the way to make datasets citable and, as a consequence, enable researchers to receive applicable credit. It is also feasible that the data being collected could automatically be formatted into article templates, thereby reducing the time researchers spend on writing papers for publication, thus potentially increasing the speed of discovery as well as the transfer of that knowledge to help solve problems.

There have been thousands of published papers about the IoT and as the concept grows, we're likely to see thousands more exploring all manner of offshoots. In "Choices for interaction with things on Internet and underlying issues", published in AdHoc Network, the concept of the Social Web of Things (SWoT) proposes "how smart objects will be integrated with social networks to connect the physical and virtual worlds and facilitate interaction between humans and their devices." Understandably, SWoT is an intriguing next step in the Internet of Things and an active research area in its own right. I'll admit, I'm a bit concerned about the thought of my toaster and dishwasher "talking" to one another and linking to my Facebook page, but rogue kitchen appliances aside, the IoT is arguably the next big thing in science research and by default, scientific publishing.

The partnership between science and publishing is centuries old and has been the conduit by which knowledge has been shared between peers and the world at large. The resulting data, its management and related security are as important as the data itself, and therein lies one of the biggest challenges that will need to be addressed. A recent paper published in Computer Networks, "Security, privacy and trust in Internet of Things: The road ahead," raises the issue of privacy and how data will be secured, especially in this era of so-called "wearable tech" like the popular FitBit, blood pressure monitors and other research-related technology.

All that said, the IoT is a game changer in science, and it will be interesting to watch it unfold and enable the discoveries that will become part of our lives in the next decade.

In the meantime, best wishes for a very happy birthday, Tim. Hope the IoT brings you lots of good wishes and cherished memories for your special day. And cake, let's not forget the cake.