Cultural differences reduce Japanese researchers’ visibility on the Web

A letter to Nature from former President, Masao Ito and former Secretary General, Torsten Wiesel. Nature 444, 14 December 2006

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SIR — As scientists, we are keenly aware that the world is developing into a single ‘laboratory without walls’, in which information passes as easily to the other side of the world as to the person working in a neighbouring institute. Although some people may be uneasy with this, to the brightest minds it is an enormous opportunity for progress, particularly in fundamental research. Yet information sharing is not necessarily symmetrical, and depends on the tools that each contributor has available.

Our experience in managing the international research projects sponsored by the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) illustrates the problem. This organization — of which we are president (M. I.) and secretary general (T. W.) was established more than 15 years ago by Japan as an international programme for research into fundamental life processes. The HFSP secretariat, which is based in Strasbourg, selects postdoctoral fellows and research projects via international review committees.

Publication databases and powerful search engines allow the secretariat to update information regularly and to find it readily. However, it has become obvious that not all institutes and countries are on an equal footing in this respect (see Websites and searching for collaborators). In the case of Japan, it has become apparent that many scientists suffer from a lack of international visibility, in that they are very difficult to find by search engines and indeed in publication databases.

As a consequence, Japanese scientists are less likely to be invited to participate in collaborative projects or to become reviewers, which deprives them of a full international experience. Three main issues need to be addressed. First, internationally comprehensible web pages must be constructed, to make a scientist’s research interests, research group and publications immediately clear to anyone who visits the site. Many traditional Japanese language scientists’ websites start with a description of their philosophy and artistic interests, which in Japan are recognized as important in a potential mentor. Although this is culturally appropriate for Japanese students and postdocs, its relevance is, unfortunately, lost on the international visitor, who is accustomed to the succinct presentations typical of Western research institutes and universities. One simple remedy would be for Japanese researchers to have a Western-style page within their website, easily accessible and clearly signposted, in English, on the homepage. Second, many academic institutions have websites based on their curricula, which are appropriate for Japanese students, but are of limited interest for international visitors. It is important that the homepage of such institutional websites provides a clear option headed ‘research’, in the English language, that leads to a page summarizing the research in a style that is familiar to international visitors.

Third, in many regions of the world, numerous scientists have similar or identical family names and initials, making literature searches in PubMed very difficult or impossible. This is certainly an issue in some Asian countries, including Japan. Some concerted effort is necessary to resolve this problem — perhaps by the addition of laboratory codes, or a ‘zip code’ for the initials of individual scientists — to allow these scientists to compete fairly on the international level.

All of these are pressing issues in global science communication. Frontier-level international research is becoming concentrated in those institutions and laboratories that have the maximum visibility on the World Wide Web.


Masao Ito, Torsten Wiesel
International Human Frontier Science Program Organization,
12, quai Saint-Jean,
B. P. 10034, 67080 Strasbourg-cedex, France