Tag Archives: social networks

Hoping they’ll lose Pinterest

The people who introduced me to blogging were not scientists or academics. They were online friends I’d met through playing games. A few of them set up their first blogs in 2001, and I thought it looked fun, so I started one as well. It was on an archaic blogging platform that doesn’t exist anymore. B2? Greymatter? Whichever came first. It was more a diary than anything else, and the only people reading it were my friends.

When I first started thinking about expanding my blog to cover science, there weren’t many other science blogs. I’d been clicking around to see what was out there, and I remember seeing the blog that was later revealed to have been the science blog of the woman who moonlighted as a prostitute and who blogged about that elsewhere under the Belle du Jour pseudonym. There were really only about five science blogs back then. It was ages ago. The web was young.

Now I manage a professional science blog, where researchers sign up for a WordPress account and blog about their work. Scientists have taken up blogging as an almost natural thing, and I don’t mind that at all. Of course they would. It’s a medium. You can use it for anything you want. Pictures of cats. Science. It makes sense.

The people who introduced me to Twitter were not scientists. They were my techie friends in Toronto, who I knew via blogger meetups. “What is Twitter?” I asked in a pub one night, and my friend said “It’s like Facebook, if it only had status updates.”

Now I manage two Twitter accounts for work. They’re followed by Twitter accounts from other scientific publishers. I don’t mind that at all. It’s a good way of keeping in touch. Twitter has become its own medium. You can tweet about anything you want. Sandwiches. Science. It makes sense.
I joined Facebook so I could see a friend’s photos that she uploaded there. She’s not a scientist.
Now I manage a Facebook page for work. I link to the posts and job ads that scientists have posted on our blog. Scientific societies ‘like’ my status updates – or at least the people managing their page do. I don’t mind that at all. Almost everyone has a Facebook page now, and subscribing to professional updates is a convenient way for them to see all the news they need to know in one place. Family news. Science news. It makes sense.

But sometimes, certain internet-minded scientists, who so fervently jumped on blogging half a decade after it first started, go a teensy bit overboard in their praising of an online tool.
I heard about FriendFeed via science bloggers. None of my other friends ever used it.
I heard about Google Wave at a science blogging conference. None of my other friends ever used it or even heard of it.

I heard about Google Plus via science bloggers. A few of my other friends created a profile, but immediately abandoned it – like everyone else.

The people who introduced me to Pinterest were not scientists, admittedly, but this time it only took weeks, not years, for the first science/web-people to jump on the bandwagon. They were really excited about it. Probably the most excited I have ever seen a group of mostly men be about a website of mostly pictures of dresses. And the dreaded questions were asked: “How can we use this for science?”

You can’t, okay! Just leave it!

Not EVERYTHING on the internet has to be twisted and molded into some sort of vehicle for science communication. If it’s a good fit for such communication, like blogging or Twitter, it will happen. But if you try to force your professional research interests onto something that is so purposely modeled after scrapbooks and inspirational pinboards and NOT after anything remotely resembling the way you normally distribute or find scientific information, you are only going to be annoyed and disappointed. Disappointed with the way it functions. Disappointed with the restrictions it imposes.

Why do I care? I didn’t care that FriendFeed or Google Wave or Google+ never worked out, but as soon as I now see the same group of people that thought those tools were the next big thing get completely disproportionately excited about an online product, I fear that it will succumb to the same fate. And I do rather like scrapbooks and inspirational pinboards.

Academics may have invented the web, but not everything that’s on the web has to do with academics. Nobody is going to judge you if you just want to use a product for fun, so please stop trying to turn everything you like into work.

My only consolation is Instagram – a safe haven of food and pets. Until the first person sepia-filters their lab notes and considers it as a medium for research dissemination, that is.

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Science Offline

This year’s Science Online London was probably my favourite so far in terms of the variety in the programme. There were sessions about communicating science using the web, but also also practical data-wrangling sessions. Something for everyone.
As much as I like how Science Online brings together various groups of people who each use the web in their own way to support, do, describe, or promote science, there is a tendency at such events to extrapolate that kind of diversity within the group to beyond the group. That’s not unique to Science Online (London or North Carolina), but also happens at SciBarCamps, Sci Foo, and related events. But none of these events are anything like the real world, and none of those groups are anything like the average “scientific community”.
Not everyone uses the web as much as we do, and you can’t just build a community from scratch on the web and expect scientists to join without actually integrating it into their offline life. If you really want to use the web to interact with scientists, you have to occasionally close your laptop and look offline.
breakoutsolo.jpgSo this year I hosted a breakout session at Science Online, together with Paula Salgado and Jesus Rogel-Salazar: “The importance of offline communities in online networking”
In our breakout session, we gave a few examples of projects where either an offline community moved online, or an online community expanded offline, to point out how offline interaction improved these communities. We also had several people in the audience who had similar experiences, and we had lots of stories to share.
I started with a few examples of offline communities moving online. My first example was the Node , which was suggested by an existing community of developmental biologists, and gets a large fraction of its new users through word of mouth. I also mentioned ArXiv, which started after a group of physicists were already emailing each other preprints of their work, and then decided to centralize that on the web. And the ultimate and most famous example is of course Facebook, which started at Harvard, where people who already knew each other created profiles and then told their friends. Two of these examples (ArXiV and Facebook) were also mentioned that morning in Michael Nielsen’s keynote talk. He mentioned them to emphasize that they started as small groups, and that that is why they worked, and that’s probably also the case for many other successful communities.
Jesus then shared the origins of #ukscitweetup – the casual get-togethers organised by Twitter users who all talk about science, and wanted to meet in person. There is no central committee or assigned group of people who organises these “tweetups”, they just happen whenever people feel like they want to meet offline again. The kind of conversations people have in the pub are very different from the ones they have online. Twitter is very fleeting, and you jump into the middle of conversations, or miss them entirely. In real life, you can spend 15 minutes talking to one person, and cover a lot more than you would have on social media. This seems like a basic concept, but it’s one that’s often forgotten when we get too excited about web 2.0. People do want to meet offline.
Paula had a few other examples of events that crossed over between online and offline, and some of the organisers were in the room to add more info where needed. One example was I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here. This competition allowed school children to interact with scientists online, and ask them questions via the site, but at the end of the competition there was also an offline meeting, which brought a whole extra dimension to it. For example, the teachers, who had been entirely behind the scenes during the online component, finally had a chance to meet the scientists that their students had been chatting with, and some of the kids also got to meet real scientists in person, which was of course even more exciting than talking to them online. Paula had been a participant in one of the I’m A Scientist events and also really enjoyed meeting everyone in person.
Another example Paula brought up was Science is Vital. Originally conceived online, in a blog post on Jenny Rohn’s blog, the idea expanded not only to an online petition but also to an offline demonstration held to protest a proposed cut in research funding in the UK. The campaign succeeded in stopping the enormous budget cut, but that would not have happened without the combination of online and offline engagement to reach as many people as possible. Science is Vital committee member Shane McCracken, in the audience, said that the petition was signed by many people outside of science as well. They had only reached out to scientists initially, but it spread from there.
Before starting the open dicsussion, we gave the stage to Mun-Keat Looi for a few minutes, because he had recently done an online/offline project at the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust invited some of their Twitter followers to visit the Trust and get a behind-the-scenes tour of the building. This not only gave this select group a chance to get to know the WT better, and ask some direct questions, but, vice versa, it also allowed the Trust to get to know some of the people who follow them on Twitter, and find out who they are.
The rest of the hour was spent talking more about offline meetings. Why bother attending a conference about Science Online, for example? Because it’s easier to talk to people and to meet new people at events like this, and it gives you a chance to walk into a session about something that might be new to you – something you’re less likely to do online. We also heard from Katrina James, who organises science tweetups in Bath, and talked about how to find people offline when you’ve only seen their tiny online avatars (if that at all). The group in Bath uses a bird to put on the table so that newcomers can recognize them.
Sara Fletcher works at the Diamond Light Source and shared how she uses both online (Twitter) and offline interaction with users of the synchrotron as well as with members of the public. Last year Science Online attendees had a chance to visit the Diamond Light Source as one of the fringe events. At the moment, the facility is running a writing competition, asking people to submit a short story featuring a synchrotron.
All in all, we had quite a lot of examples of a range of very different projects, all related to communities of scientists using both online and offline tools. Sometimes the offline engagement even gets people to become more active online: friends who come along to tweetups sign up to Twitter after seeing the other people that use it, the Node regularly gets new users who heard about the site through a friend, and many of the people who signed the (online) Science is Vital petition heard about it in offline conversation.
The web is a great way to support scientific communities, but it will never be the only way, and you must remember to also connect offline!

My friends moved away, but I have their new addresses

A bunch of my blog friends, most of whom I know from Nature Network, have left this place and started their own indie blog network, called Occam’s Typewriter
They’ve just launched tonight, in typical blog fashion, with drama. They had wanted to leave a farewell post, and found themselves logged out of their blogs before being notified by Nature Network that this would happen. Cue instant drama and premature launch.
So on the off chance that you’re looking for them over here, the following bloggers have moved, and no longer have access to their blogs to reply to any comments or to post their own farewells. If a final post appears, it was either prescheduled or posted by Nature Network staff.
Richard Grant moved “Confessions of a (former) Lab Rat” from here to here
Jenny Rohn moved “Mind the Gap” from here to here
Stephen Curry moved “Reciprocal Space” from here to here
Austin Elliott moved “Not Ranting – Honestly” from here to here
Frank Norman moved “Trading Knowledge” from here to here
Erika Cule moved “Blogging the PhD” from here to here
Cath Ennis left her NN blog a while ago, and moved VWXYnot” here
Henry Gee left his NN blog a while ago, and moved “The End of the Pier Show” here
Obvious elephant in the room: why didn’t I move with my friends to the new place?
I’ve been invited, and I’ve thought about it, and weighed all the pros and cons, and decided to stay on Nature Network, keep my music blog where it is for now, and just use the guest blog on OT once in a while. Lots of reasons, and nothing any of you really care about, so I won’t bore you with my full pro/con list.
If you want to know why the others did move, you’ll have to ask them over at their new place. They also weighed pros and cons and thought about it a long time, though – I can tell you that much.
I also really hate internet drama, so never have I been happier to not have joined OT than now that the launch is paired with drama of epic proportions…
Consider this blog a drama-free zone.

Sci Foo – blogging session

I’m not home yet, and currently at another conference, but here’s a summary of the blogging session I was in at Sci Foo, interspersed with my post-session comments.
John Dupuis , of ScienceBlogs, gathered together a group of bloggers among the Sci Foo attendees, all from different science blog networks, to talk about the joys and sorrows of blogging on a network. It was attended by about 15 people, mostly bloggers themselves, and they pitched in with their stories as well. It was quite interesting to hear everyone’s blogging tales.
I mentioned that I’m 2 months short of having been blogging for a decade. I started in October 2000 [Fact-checking just now, it was actually September 17, 2000 Thanks, Internet Archive!], manually updating html on geocities pages to connect entries to the previous and next entry. It wasn’t about science, it wasn’t even in English, and I didn’t know the word “blog”, but as soon as I found out about blogger half a year later, I gradually moved from there to b2 and to wordpress on my own domain. I started blogging purely about science-related things in 2005, and joined Nature Network in 2007.
The longest-standing science blogger in the room was probably Derek Lowe, who has maintained In The Pipeline since science blogging prehistoric times. He never joined a network, but I pointed out that he doesn’t really need to: he’s been around for so long, and made a name for himself in science blogging all by himself.
Jonah Lehrer , who currently blogs at WIRED, started his blog on ScienceBlogs when his editor cut about half of his book, and he wanted an outlet for all the things that had been cut. “Of course, that’s not how blogging works” he added, and confessed to not having drawn on that source of material for his blog.
John Dupuis joined ScienceBlogs quite recently, after being invited when he criticized them for not focusing enough on librarians… He said that he really noticed a difference in his writing style now that he’s on a network. Since he is competing with other blogs on the ScienceBlogs last 24 hours page, he found that writing titles has become more important: people tend to click an intriguing sounding title more often, and he saw his visitors on those posts go up.
Carl Zimmer left ScienceBlogs for Discover last year, because he had worked with them as writer before, they made a good offer, and he preferred their small network over the massive crowd at ScienceBlogs. Discover only has about eight blogs, and, as he said “it’s not likely to get much bigger”. That is entirely different from the enormous number of blogs at either ScienceBlogs or Nature Network, and I brought up that some people at Nature Network who have been there since it was smaller are now feeling that people don’t notice their blogs. Plus, because all the very good established bloggers have already been picked up by other networks, we’re getting a lot of novice bloggers, of sometimes dubious quality. (I should point out that the reaction I got at this session when I carefully brought this up was entirely different that some of the comments Richard got on his post . It wasn’t just that nobody was personally offended, but they seemed to appreciate the sentiment, and the response was generally one of understanding – nobody likes getting lost in the shuffle or feeling out of place). Someone whose name I sadly don’t remember brought up the idea of tiers of blogs, but that comes with the problem of most people being “second tier” and nobody wants that! I’d probably be second tier, so yup, I’d agree that that’s not really the solution either…
I also brought up that with the dilution of blogs on Nature Network, we can’t even be sure if we’re really losing readers, because we don’t see out stats and referrals, but are now at the point where it becomes near impossible to find other blogs on the same network, and that is just not very helpful.
ScienceBlogs has entirely different things going on at the moment. I won’t rehash Pepsigate for you – you can find it elsewhere online – but what it came down to is: in the past few weeks a number of people left ScienceBlogs because Pepsi almost had a blog there. John pointed out that most bloggers stayed, but the ones that left were some of the most high-profile ones on the network. Carl said that following the whole saga made him sad, having been a former “SciBling”. (I think that comment really showed how people tend to feel connected to their networks.) He mentioned that a few people from ScienceBlogs now started up their own, independently run, network. [It has since gone live – Scientopia ]. Carl added “I think we’re going to see a lot more of those independent networks come up, now that people realize they can just set up their own.”
And we didn’t get to this in the session, but it is rather odd/interesting, isn’t it, that all those science blog networks are run by publishers? Are indie networks the next big thing? (There’s a free session suggestion for any of the upcoming blogging-related conferences. Bora, are you writing this down?)
So was this discussion, held in the closed environment of SciFoo, in any way useful? Well, for Nature Network it was. I didn’t mention it at the session, because I didn’t want anyone to censor themselves, but Steve Scott (head of online communities at Nature) and Dan Pollock (associate director of nature.com) were both present. I hope they got some useful ideas about where to go with Nature Network after hearing from some bloggers elsewhere on the web. They were both very nice, in case you were wondering, and really interested in what everyone had to say.
I also ran another session at SciFoo, and met tons of interesting people, and gave a short lightning talk, but that’s something for my other blog , about science and music. I may have too many blogs, and am currently trying to figure out what to do with everything to get some semblance of organization back into my web presence. Nature Network’s upcoming features will weigh in that decision, but won’t define it.

Everybody’s blogging about blogging

…and I’m not blogging at all, it seems!
I’m busy. Really busy.
On Friday I’m flying to San Francisco for SciFoo. There I have already agreed to take part in several sessions. I committed to a five minute talk about a topic I still need to interview two or three people for between now and tomorrow afternoon, and then spend the rest of Thursday at the computer to work it all out. I also co-proposed a session about blogging networks together with bloggers from ScienceBlogs and Discover, to talk about ch-ch-ch-changes.
Changes at Nature Network are afoot: Heather quit blogging. Cath left NN. Ian and Richard are rebelling. I thought I was fine here, but will I be fine if all my friends leave?
So I have that to think about, and the rest of SciFoo, and the Science/Music project, and I’m also blogging at work and recruiting people to blog and yesterday I spent all day e-mailing.
Three days after SciFoo, I’ll be multitasking at a developmental biology conference where I’m meeting people in almost every break in between (tough) sessions to talk about the Node.
In between, I’m on a mini vacation.
Staying in a house made out of garbage in New Mexico.
About which I somehow agreed to write an article for WorldChanging Canada.
Two days after I get back from the last conference, my parents are coming over from Holland to bring my cat to England. They’re staying for five days, after which I immediately get visitors from Canada.
So if the blog here seems a little dead, don’t worry – I haven’t left, I’ve just gone insane.

BarCamb

I went to BarCamb this weekend. It’s BarCamp, in Cambridge, hence the name.
Attilla Csordas (who also lives in Cambridge now, in case you’re trying to keep up with the physical locations of online science folks) mentioned that there were fewer scientists than he had expected. That’s because the first BarCamb, organized a few years ago by Matt Wood (who was also here, but not organizing), was much more aimed at scientists – like SciBarCamp. But compared to the regular (non-science) barcamps I’ve been to in Toronto, I thought there were actually surprisingly a lot of scientists or friends-of-scientists there: about five or six people with a background and/or career in science, three computer geeks with biology partners, and a few others with an above average interest in science.
I really enjoyed the variety of the talks, though. I didn’t go to the very tech-heavy ones, because I don’t really understand how computers work at all, actually. Case in point: I couldn’t even manage to properly use OpenOffice Impress (I miss my trusty PowerPoint!) so the slides for my own talk are messily pasted from old talks with a lot of photos added in and very little text. I talked about unconferences for scientists (and a bit about scientists and internet) and how hard it is to get them to go to one. (I typed out some of the things that were discussed in the session, and you can see them in the description of the slideshare page, if you click “more” on the right side, right under the embed code.)
Some of the talks I attended were about: an idea for an iPhone app to learn Chinese/Japanese symbols, autism in the legal justice system, the practicalities of developing an archiving system for archaeological data (how to overcome different ways of thinking between academics and software developers), how to fit an entire scientific proof into a tweet using special characters (inspired by F1000’s sci140 contest), where to find inspiration for photography, the connection between CycleStreets and Open Street Maps, a geolocation system to locate the nearest beer , and a screening of the latest episode of Dr Who (the last half of it anyway.)
I also played a mafia-themed card game last night and won both rounds. (Don’t mess with me!)
I deliberately didn’t bring my camera, because I’m too far behind on looking at photos I took weeks ago, but others took photos, and they’re on Flickr. You can also read up on the event on Twitter.

From the Vault – The FriendFeed Attitude

In February I wrote a blog post about FriendFeed, explaining why I thought it was not as wonderful as everyone many ten people say it is. I didn’t post it, because it made me angry all over again about the “OMG, best tool for science communication, EVER”-attitude. I didn’t want to unleash my frustration on the world, so I let the blog post simmer for a bit.
Several months later, I not only stand by all of my original points, but I have more evidence for you to prove my point, which is that Friend Feed is not at all a good tool for scientists to communicate.
Okay, let’s have a look at the start of the post I wrote months ago:
bq. When I decided to leave FriendFeed, I didn’t think that the fact that it made me stressed and unhappy and utterly and completely frustrated and angry was good enough a reason to leave. I don’t do rash decisions. Surely there must be good things about FriendFeed that I wasn’t seeing.
bq. A while ago, Berci Mesko started a Google Spreadsheet list of how FriendFeed is useful to scientists. Ah, there you have it. The reasons to stay. The things that make FriendFeed special and useful. The list is not very long [smirk], so let’s go through it one by one.
Okay, the list got a little bit longer since then, but I won’t go through all 20 items. There were 15 when I did it the first time, and well, you’ll start to see a trend quite soon, so I’ll stop after 10.
bq. 1. Funding for ONS challenge
Jean-Claude Bradley got funding from a grant he heard of on FriendFeed. That’s great! However, hearing about things is not unique to FriendFeed. You can hear about things lots of places. If there was no FriendFeed, he might have heard about it elsewhere. In fact, the poster, Bill Hooker, had heard about it elsewhere. FriendFeed is not the main channel of communication for exchanging science information.
bq. 2. Making the Wikipedia entry for Open Notebook Science
Okay, so you can use FriendFeed to start a project online and have people comment on it. That’s nice. I like collaborative things. You can also do the same with a blog post, a forum, or even with a wiki on which you can leave notes when you make an edit. Like on Wikipedia. Which, you know, would be the normal platform for people to start and edit a Wikipedia entry…
bq. 3. Expanding the reach of live conferences
Alright. I’ll give you this one. The ISMB 2008 conference in Toronto was actively reported on in the FriendFeed room for that conference. It made it possible for people who were unable to attend the conference to get live feedback from people there, even if they didn’t personally know anyone there (eg. could not be kept up to date by e-mail or other personal messages). It was much more coherent than having several people liveblog the event on their own site. Here, FriendFeed actually was a benefit. In fact it was such a success that the model of commenting live on ongoing conferences in FriendFeed has also been used in several subsequent conferences, although all of those were related to science communication, and either organized or heavily attended by people who were already into the whole “let’s use the internet to talk about science”-thing. ISMB was a little more special in that regard: it was a big international, data-swapping, conventional scientific conference. Still, only a very small number of participants used the room, but the FriendFeeders very clearly acknowledged this in the paper they published about it afterward. Overall, this is a new way of exchanging ideas that could not as easily have been done on another platform. The fact that there is a published article about this strengthens that this use of FriendFeed is new and special.
Spoiler alert: this was the only thing in the list that I thought was unique to FriendFeed, and it still is. But, oh, how sad… In the mean time, I have discovered something that makes FriendFeed suddenly a whole lot less interesting to use for note taking at live conferences. You see, when FriendFeed changed the layout of the site, I was finally able to find out how to delete my account. And when I did, all the posts and comments I had ever left anywhere on FriendFeed disappeared with me. Including the notes I took at conferences. HAHAHA!! Oh, sorry. I’m sorry, that my personal decision to delete my account has completely screwed up your brilliant system. How thoughtless of me. How rude to interfere with this well-oiled machine that is user-generated data. On the bright side, the FriendFeed-archived notes are so hard to find again that nobody will notice that some items are missing!
Okay, let’s continue a bit more. It will get boring very soon, but you can handle a few more just to get an idea of the general trend.
bq. 4. Quick CID to CAS lookup
This is an example of how you can ask a question on Twitter and then have someone else reply to that Twitter question and port their Twitter stream to FriendFeed, where someone comments on it with the solution. It’s kind of like how you can post a question on a message board or on your own blog or on Ask Metaflter and maybe someone else might accidentally run into it on Google or through a link from someone else’s blog and know the answer and be kind enough to pass it on to the original asker.
It’s just another one of those things that happen all over the internet and the fact that this time it happened on FriendFeed is not something that makes the site especially unique. It is, however, a nice example of how FriendFeed is very good at detaching answers from questions and splitting up conversations so that they are incredibly difficult to follow. But thankfully we’re not collecting those. That list would be unmanageably long.
bq. 5. Collection of Scientific FriendFeed examples
This very list was collected on FriendFeed. That makes sense. I mean, if you’re going to reach the 12 people who honestly think FriendFeed is useful to science, then I suppose FriendFeed would be the way to contact them all.
bq. 6. Publication of conference report
Yes dears, this is wonderful, but I just gave you that one point already at number 3. I’m not counting it again. The resulting paper is because number 3 on this list was the only useful one so far. The paper itself is not an additional useful aspect of FriendFeed.
bq. 7. FriendFeed’s References Wanted Room
This is a room in FriendFeed where people who don’t have access to certain journals they need, can leave a message and others can check if they have it at their library and send it along. Ignoring the fact that this is possibly illegal, the concept itself is definitely useful. But. This can be done on other sites. This can easily be run as a forum, or MUCH much better at a dedicated website where people can send each other messages with attachments without revealing their e-mail address to strangers on the internet. FriendFeed is clearly a platform on which this can be done, but I don’t think it’s the best one for the job. Also, the entire concept relies too much on altruism. That’s lovely, but not likely to work well for anything in the long run. If this room were truly a popular place, you would soon notice it overflowing with needy greedy people who only want papers and are not willing to look them up for others. It’s not there yet, because in internet terms it’s not that popular. That is because it’s on FriendFeed, though. It’s not the best platform to be successful, but it works as a result of its own unpopularity.
bq. 8. Sorting PubMed articles on Impact Factor (also )
Okay, so you can use FriendFeed to start a project online and have people comment on it. That’s nice. I like collaborative things. You can also do the same with a blog post, a forum, or – wait, I have this terrible feeling of déjà-vu
bq. 9. Survey of the proteins on Wikipedia
Okay, so you can use FriendFeed to start a project online and have people comment on it. That’s nice. I like collab- wait, I have this terrible feeling of déjà-vu.
bq. 10. Finding collaborators to help with preparation of a beam time proposal
I have this terrible feeling of déjà-vu, again
And it just went on, and on, and on, and on like that.
FriendFeed does exactly the same as any message board or e-mail list or wiki or forum: it lets people communicate with each other. What it brings new to the table is the uncanny ability to completely rip apart any potentially coherent discussion into uncoordinated rambling in three to four different locations. They’re often the same people participating in all places, saying “for more on this, go here!” quite a lot. If you like clicking on links and going nowhere, then FriendFeed really is the perfect tool. You might be, too.

Scientists and Web 2.0

A couple of weeks ago I went to Washington D.C. to talk about scientists and the internet at the Allen Press seminar. I shared the session slot with Andrea Powell of CABI and Will Fisher of ASHA. They told the audience about the web 2.0 tools they had implemented, and I talked about how web 2.0 tools are received among scientists. Anna Jester of Allen Press then asked us to write up our talks for their newsletter, which was a great motivation for me to also write a blog post about it. (It’s the same text I also submitted, and, yes, I asked if I could also blog it. It would be sad if I didn’t have any netiquette after giving an entire talk about the internet…) The corresponding slides are here (and contain more than what I ended up writing down in 600 words), and I also have some pictures from my trip.

National Press Club, where the conference was.

Me, speaking (from here )
Scientists and Web 2.0
Modern day research can’t do without the internet: people use it to e-mail colleagues, look for articles, submit manuscripts, and search databases. But in recent years the web has also become a distraction from work. The image of the web as a frivolous time waster is one reason that researchers may be hesitant to adopt web 2.0 tools in their daily workflow, but that is not the only obstacle in getting scientists to become more active online. In general, many people use the web only passively, without commenting on blogs or editing wikis. And when it comes to discussing research, there are some extra hurdles: If you leave a comment on a published article, the author may very well be your next peer reviewer, so you don’t want to be too critical. There is also a fear of being scooped. What if you accidentally give too much away online?
Another major factor that makes scientists reluctant to join a social network, blog, or comment on research articles is simply that there is no incentive to do so. There are certainly scientists who are very active online, but this small group of people is doing that in their spare time. There is no professional benefit to leaving a comment on a research article. The same is true for science blogging. Science blogs make for an entertaining read, and they’re fun to write, but blogging is not for everyone. Arguments in favour of scientists blogging often mention that it makes for good outreach, or it improves the overall image of blogging, but that is no direct professional benefit to the blogger. The ones that blog are often those that already like writing, or want to improve their communication skills. A modest, but growing, number of scientists is now also on Twitter. It costs very little time to use Twitter, but the fleeting nature of the site does not appeal to everyone. Twitter is like standing in a crowded room: You might pick up on an interesting conversation, but you have to go in there knowing that you won’t be able to follow what everyone is saying.
Maybe scientists don’t want to openly talk about science online, but they can still use online social networking sites. In fact, scientists already have offline social networks: they are part of a department, and they know people in their field all over the world thanks to conferences and peer review. It seems like a good idea to move those networks online, and indeed there are many online social networking sites for scientists. Too many. Networks become scattered rather than organized, because there is currently no default scientist social networking site where everyone is connected. Some are more popular than others, though, and this may change once one network reaches a critical mass.
Other sites are meant to share your library of papers with your peers. But sharing what you’re reading is not important if all you need is a tool to cite references into a manuscript. Many scientists swear by the citation manager they’re currently using, and will not easily switch to a new tool. A social reference manager will only catch on if it can also make writing papers a lot easier and if enough people use it that it becomes a default tool.
Altogether, there are a number of reasons why scientists are not eager to adopt web 2.0 tools: the frivolous image, a reluctance to use new tools, lack of time, lack of incentive, and fear of negative effects on their career. Before promoting the use of web 2.0 tools or sites by scientists you should ask whether it’s really beneficial. Does it save time? Does it make work easier? Can it be used passively (without the need to contribute)? If it does, it may catch on, but this is a tough audience!

Magnolia

Lincoln Memorial