Friday, May 16, 2008

Science and the Web 2.0

I recently came across an interesting article by Davit Crotty from Bench Marks: Why Web 2.0 is failing in Biology about a talk he gave at the American Association of Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing (AAP/PSP) meeting in Washington some time in February. He has a couple of interesting slides discussing the potential merits and hurdles in webifying science, and draws our attention to this last year's article from The Register
Scientists shun Web 2.0

[...]

A panel of science web publishers said scientists had consistently shunned wikis, tagging, and social networks, and have even proven reticent to leave comments on web pages.

The refusnik stance presents a puzzle in light of arguments in favour of Web 2.0 services which are more compelling for science than for trivia - the biggest web 2.0 market to date.

[...]

The penetration problem seems to stem from the extremely competitive and rigorous funding process. Research projects have to justify every penny and minute spent by their scientists, presenting a catch 22 for web 2.0 as a tool for science. Researchers won't use the tools until they justify their worth, but they are worthless unless researchers use them.


David's examination of this problem is somewhat more insightful than the article at the Register, and he mentions a couple of good reasons why scientists do not use the Web2.0 all that extensively, and I find myself agreeing with him.
  • First of all, there is the issue of time. We're all busy already anyhow, and since there seems to be a correlation between lack of time and what is commonly considered a successful career, there is the effect that those with more expertise shy away from doing anything not directly career related.


  • Then there is the problem of lacking incentives. Why spend time on something for which you receive no credit? When one can passively benefit from other's activities, why be active oneselves? I.e. when you read a commentary on a paper and you disagree on the opinion put forward, is there a benefit of starting an argument, or were you just interested in hearing other peoples thoughts?


  • Further there is the overabundance of offers. There are loads of sites that do more or less the same. I am a curious person, and I sign up for many things just to have a look and then wait and see where it goes. In such a way I must have a dozen of accounts I never use and can't even recall. NatureNetworks is presently one of the Web2.0 offers that looks quite promising to me. But I guess most people just choose not to choose until peer pressure gets high enough. In a conservative community this can take a while.


  • And then there is the most obvious factor in which sites need to be appropriate for the community, and no, a MySpace for science probably doesn't sound very convincing for most of my colleagues. (Yes, I do have a MySpace account. No, I never use it.) As David puts it "Scientists interact in very different ways than teenager and their peers, or rock bands and their fans. Scientists don’t find collaborators by chatting online with strangers."


When it comes to science blogging, Sean Carroll is quoted with saying that way scientists communicate is already efficient and thus physics blogs are unlikely to play a more prominent role. I do mostly agree with him, but this statement depends so some extend on the infrastructure of your workplace. If more people come through your institution than you can possibly talk to anyhow, you certainly have no need to find like minded people online, but not everybody everywhere is thus lucky.

As I explained in my last year's post Physics Blogs, I further do also not think that blogs are a good medium for scientific discussions simply because of the organization (the host being able to edit and censor, the journal-like structure, the background noise).

Blogs are however useful to provide readers with an impression of how the work and life of scientists looks like, and they thus contribute to making the 'ivory tower' a little less detached. They further fulfil a social networking function within the community in that one frequently find advises on how to give talks, prepare presentations, deal with complicated coworkers, write applications or proposals and other topics of that category where people exchange experiences.

Sean further is quoted with
“A blog raises your profile, but it raises your profile for something other than research. [E]ven if you are extremely productive as a scholar, some professors may view a blog as sign that you could be spending more time in the laboratory or library, engaged in traditional research.”


Well, this doesn't seem to go very well with the above assertion that very few scientists notice the existence of the blogosphere altogether. Though the fraction of people in the community who have heard of one or the other blog is increasing. Anyway, some might say the same about other activities, like engaging in interest groups or surfing. This concern also isn't at all confirmed by my experience. Blogging or not, as long as I got my work done in a timely manner to the satisfaction of my supervisors and/or employers they didn't care very much how, where or when I worked, or what else I was doing. That is one of the few features (possibly the only one) that makes the academic world attractive for me.

A colleague (who shell remain unnamed because he doesn't like his name to appear in the blogosphere) recently mentioned he stopped reading this blog because he finds it scary I'm writing so much. Well, I on the other hand find it scary other people talk so much! The science blogs I read I find very different in the composition of topics (and in the quality of writing), but the one thing I guess all bloggers share is that they like to write.

15 comments:

a quantum diaries survivor said...

Hi Bee,

I disagree with Sean, and so in part with you too, about the fact that phyisicists have enough communication with each other and that therefore blogs are no good for that specific purpose.

My experience is that through blogging I enlarged significantly the pool of scientists -mainly theorists, but also researchers in other fields- with whom I can have a conversation and to whom I can ask things or information (either in the blog or, having known them by blogging, by other more direct and private means such as email or telephone calls).

This, however, was the result of hard work on my side, trying to "be interesting" in my blog for that specific audience. Of course one may rightfully question whether it is a game worth playing.

Then there is another thing to mention. By doing scientific outreach in a blog one gets in contact with the press. Science reporters notoriously look for information in our blogs, and sometimes they contact us. Now, although this is good for them more than it is good for us, it does allow us (researchers and bloggers) to extend the reach of our communication capabilities.

As the spokesperson of CDF Jaco Konigsberg puts it, "blogs have put a powerful megaphon in the hands of a few people out there". Maybe a megaphon may not be the preferred way by which to communicate, but it sometimes proves handy.

Just my personal experience.

Cheers,
T.

Uncle Al said...

Research projects have to justify every penny and minute spent by their scientists...

...neatly euchering out any chance of discovery. A huge swath of science is serendipity: super glue, penicillin, nylon and polycarbonate, Ziegler-Natta catalysts for polyoelfins, NMR (badly calibrated magnet), electricity (Volta and frogs), vulcanization, electromagnetism, the Edison effect and vacuum tube amplifiers, x-rays, Valium (dye intermediate with the wrong structure assigned; derivative for human use broke apart in water to make the active molecule)...

Efficient research is overall impotent. Pederson was amused by a small tuft of wiry white crystals in a failed chemical synthesis. Despite employer displeasure re insubordination he won a Nobel Prize/Chemistry. Fetnman got his from a spinning dinner plate. Screw around - it's good for the world.

Bee said...

Hi Tommaso,

I guess it depends very much on the personal situation and also preferences. I interpreted Sean as saying not that blogs are no good for that purpose, but that they are not necessary. It is certainly possible to find people with similar interests and even coworkers via the blogosphere. I have not really made any attempt to do so, in fact I hardly write about my own work, so thanks for sharing your experience.

Regarding the press, yes, this is true. In my case however the journalists requests circle around black holes at LHC and the case Lisi, both of which are topics I am not very interested in talking about, so more often than not I decline to say anything or refer to other people. Either way, it is an aspect that I didn't anticipate and also that I'm not entirely happy about as I a) don't like phone calls and b) don't like drawing attention to myself altogether.

Best,

B.

Neil' said...

Well it looks like some "real scientists" leave posts here and QDS, NEW, UP, CV etc, and they also attract the semi-pro/amateur types like me and Carl Brannen. (But it seems only a few "real cranks" which I guess is a relief. Look at even the average quality here or at CV etc.) I wonder how much "real work" has been accomplished, as far as worthwhile notions being noticed and developed etc. One thing I wonder, are the newsgroups on Usenet useful to anyone? How about the moderated group sci.physics.research, there is plenty of intelligent conversation there.

But here's the real kicker: Brannen reports how physicists have to reference his website in papers since he did important work as an amateur whiz-kid before writing any (there really should be a profile article about him and what he accomplished in Discover etc.) But does anyone know of a paper citing a blog post or comment, from that being the legitimate source of the idea?

Al is right on about serendipity and now bureaucracy stifles it, maybe blogs can help.

BTW I am glad Bee puts up this blog, it offers interesting commentary and does a service to scientific literacy. I think she should be proud that her output here scares somebody!

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I have to agree that the number and quality of science blogs is somewhat limited. However, I don’t think this serves to indicate they have little value or effect. Like I’ve said in the past, as a consequence of age I have watched all of this develop from both the perspective of a participant and an observer and have discovered as like many things of human invention, it is for the most part an instrument molded by evolution and not revolution.

In the early days it at first was largely a place where like minded people of rarer interest could meet; that until then was simply not possible in the pre net world. Things gradually began to change as the net became more the place of the masses, which in turn attracted the commercial interests that so dominate things today. I would suspect in terms of numbers there are actually many fold more of rarer interest that enjoy what I and a few did so early on.

What is different is the ratio has changed to those that represent the norm and thus our perception is that it has not grown and yet this is not the reality. Things like MySpace, Facebook, UTube and alike service this sector; while academic Blogs such as yours, plus web sites such as TED and resource sites, service the other. There is of course some room for overlap, yet it is more in those of rarer interest overlapping onto the common, then the other way around. It would be nice to imagine that this media could spring board a brave new world, however as of yet it simply mirrors the one we have always had; perhaps a little better yet certainly not much worse.

I however feel grateful that I can share and benefit from what I see as the better side of it all and as yourself still hold hope that more will come to realize this potential. Most important of those we need to understand this is your colleagues, as this can only expand if they participate and contribute. I therefore thank you, Stefan and the other few for their contributions and challenge the others to be as generous and forward thinking as yourselves; who at this point should still be regarded as the pioneers of that and as of yet to manifest brave new world.

Best,

Phil

X said...

Hi Bee,

” Regarding the press, yes, this is true. In my case however the journalists requests circle around black holes at LHC and the case Lisi, both of which are topics I am not very interested in talking about, so more often than not I decline to say anything or refer to other people. Either way, it is an aspect that I didn't anticipate and also that I'm not entirely happy about as I a) don't like phone calls and b) don't like drawing attention to myself altogether.”

Perfect. I consider a scientific blogs like yours still emerging form of communication. It is hard and important work to initiate the discussion, maintain and structure it. In my opinion it is much more valuable than publication 100 pointless papers. And to my taste you put CV in your small pocket.

Regards, Dany.

Anonymous said...

Atlas was the universe’s pilaster
Expansion was increasingly faster
He eventually saw
That cosmology’s law
Was something that he couldn’t master

William said...

What is web 2.0? Is illustrated beautifully ...

http://infosthetics.com/archives/2007/02/web2_in_5_minutes_movie.html
...
HERE :>)

Uncle Al said...

When Atlas carries the world upon his shoulders, upon what does he squat? Micro-management is inherently ridiculous not for the elephant but for all those tortoises. In a proper universe Atlas would squat upon himself in mirror image as an artifact of geometry not cost-accounting.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Uncle,

“When Atlas carries the world upon his shoulders, upon what does he squat? Micro-management is inherently ridiculous not for the elephant but for all those tortoises. In a proper universe Atlas would squat upon himself in mirror image as an artifact of geometry not cost-accounting.”

This is not a question of supporting the world, yet rather moving it. Archimedes claimed that with a lever long enough, all he then needed to move the earth was a place to stand. In terms of this discussion it relates not to a place as in the conventional view, yet rather a starting point or frame of reference. The Web appears to be the lever required and I would say the starting point rests with the academics; many who claim to want the world so moved and yet contribute little in terms of action and commitment as it relates to their own time and effort as the resource. No I’m afraid that many academics suffer the same as us all and that is not to see the world as the object worthy and in need of movement, yet rather only themselves.

Best,

Phil

Anonymous said...

Holding Up The Sky
Ever felt like you have the weight of the whole world your shoulders? Well.... contrary to popular versions you may have heard while growing up - Atlas held up the axis of the sky (not the earth).

Atlas held up the vast heavens from the western edge of the Earth located near the Garden of the Hesperides. And this holding up of the sky "thing" was Atlas' fate and punishment as decreed by the chief Olympian thunder god Zeus.
http://thezodiac.com/atlas.htm

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

In my opinion it is much more valuable than publication 100 pointless papers.

Thanks for the kind words. Just that the 100 pointless papers would look more impressive in my CV ;-)

Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“Just that the 100 pointless papers would look more impressive in my CV”

Don’t mention it. As we say in QM, repetition of a measurement in the pure state adds nothing to knowledge. However, it defines a future with certainty. Boredom. I think that doing what you like to do and enjoy it is a much better criterion than 100 pointless papers in CV or PRD.

Regards, Dany.

P.S. You succeeded to wake me up at 1 a.m. I should carefully check vs. others ref frames. If O.K., you will see it in arXiv. Thanks for the kind words.

Ad lagendijk said...

Scientists profit from collaborations. Physics has a long standing tradition in productive (international) collaborations. So, if Web 2.0 would intensify all these social connections scientists, including physicists, could benefit.

But science is more than just one collaborating social network. Science is also about generating new knowledge, and refining and expanding already existing knowledge. As I explained elsewhere Web 2.0 has nothing to contribute there.

Plato said...

Thought you got rid of me?:)

Information Overload?

This shows the benefit that Tammaso Dorigo reveals helping one understand the current scientific basis currently being examined in the LHC.

This article should be linked to Information Overload above.