Create Change

Shouldn't the way we share research be as advanced as the Internet?

Scholars Speak


Zhigang Suo
Harvard University

Dr. Zhigang Suo-2
Zhigang Suo

Zhigang Suo is the Allen E. and Marilyn M. Puckett professor of mechanics and materials at Harvard University. He received his bachelor's degree in engineering mechanics at Xi'an Jiaotong University and his engineering science master's degree and doctorate at Harvard. Before joining the faculty at Harvard, Dr. Suo was a professor at Princeton University. He is an associate editor of the International Journal of Solids and Structures and a consultant editor of the International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, 2005. Dr. Suo is one of the founding architects of

How has the Internet changed the way academics research and communicate in engineering?

Among researchers, the big three uses are for email, downloading files, and searching. These three things are extremely profound. I download papers that I previously had to go to the library to copy. There are still some people who like to browse paper journals, but I know of no young people who do that anymore. Students complain if the paper is in print form, but at Harvard we have printers freely available to students and they make good use of it. I do a few searches a week. But anything you ask my students, they can search and find the answer. For example, if I want them to study a particular object, they search for the application. They find companies that make this thing and various uses and parts. In the past, you had to find a particular person who happened to be an expert in that field.

Tell us about the innovative Web site you developed called iMechanica.

This is a Web site that I created with a former student, Teng Li, who has joined the faculty of the University of Maryland. iMechanica is hosted on a server at Harvard. It's been up since September 2006. We now have more than 3,600 registered users all over the world, and perhaps more anomalous users.

The mission of iMechanica is twofold. First: to use the Internet to enhance communication among people in mechanics. We recognize that people will stick to their familiar ways of communication, such as publishing papers in journals and going to conferences and lectures. These are all effective. But the Internet provides something different, something extra. The Internet need not compete with other effective modes of communication. It may take some time to get used to, but it can enhance communication. The second part of the mission is to pave a way to evolve all knowledge of mechanics online. We believe that will happen within maybe five to ten years.

iMechanica is free: writers are free to post, and readers are free to read. We have very little management. The software itself is off-the-shelf open-source software found online. This open-source software has a huge community of people that develop and use it.

In terms of content, there is very little management. Everybody can sign up for a free account and can read everything. For you to post anything, you have to have an account. So whatever you post will be immediately online. There is no one filtering. Occasionally - maybe once a week, we get something bad. But we have monitors who look for that and if anything is posted that shouldn't, it only survives for a short time .

What inspired you to start this site?

I'm in a discipline called mechanics. But mechanics can be applied to so many things - biology, microelectronics, anything that involves change shape of something or breaking something. I don't need to tell you, everything breaks! People in the discipline of mechanics go to a lot of different conferences. Communication within the discipline is not very good. So we thought, why not give the Internet a try?

We have professional organizations that create Web sites. But they made it too closed and they became a bottleneck. As a result people don't go to their Web site for information, because they don't have much. Now we decided to go to the other extreme. Like MySpace, anybody can post anything on iMechanica. Initially, people said this would be really bad, but people don't have time to post insignificant information. It works out fine for us. It has not created a lot of work for any organization. The software cost us nothing and the server space is cheap, so it's possible to make iMechanica freely available. The cost to Harvard is very little.

We don't have funding from anybody. Initially, we tried to raise funding from NSF, but the idea didn't get funded. Reviewers thought it was revolutionary but probably wouldn't work. We now find that the lack of money is a blessing in disguise. We don't need money. If we had money, we would have to justify how we spend it, and it would become work.

I understand that the International Journal of Solids and Structures, for which you are an associate editor, recently adopted a more progressive policy on access to research published in the journal. In an iMechanica posting you wrote, "This time-delayed open access... provides a temporary relief of a tremendous tension between the traditional model of publishing and the potential of the Internet." Can you tell us about this?"

International Journal of Solids and Structures (IJSS) is perhaps the number two journal in our field. The number one journal (JMPS) is published by the same company, Elsevier. On its own initiative, Elsevier will make the content of IJSS free two years after publication beginning in October 2007. Two years for a technical publication is very old, but still it's a good step in the right direction.

In the next decade, what do you expect will be different with digital scholarship in engineering?

The most progress we will see is that more people are going to use the Internet efficiently. Some say the first generation of Web is all about reading. Few people directly create content online. You create content through your Webmaster. The second generation, which we are going through now, is about writing. Anybody can publish online - bloggers, MySpace, Facebook, iMechanica. I think that the third movement will be the personalization of content. I think that will be big. Now you have much material online. People have to go from this Web site to that Web site. But I would like to know the information just for me. We can already see that in entertainment. Personalization in academics is not there yet. I can imagine if you keep downloading certain kinds of papers and that information is stored, then the Internet can recommend to you what the next thing is you need to read.