I spend quite a bit of time online. I have two blogs and a Twitter account, and through various services you can follow along with what music I’m listening to, some books I own, photos I took, or which sites I bookmarked.
I am aware that these things are public, and once in a while I might go through my Lastfm tracks to remove all evidence that I’ve been listening to something cheesy and embarrassing, or I’ll delete old tweets on Twitter. On my Flickr account, some photos are only visible to my friends and family who are also on Flickr. By default, all my Flickr photos are public, but I can manually set them to be only visible to friends. Sometimes I just want to upload a picture as a backup, and I’ll make it private so it doesn’t show up in my public feed at all.
Many, if not most, scientists are not in the habit of putting things online. The ones that are might be tempted by the concept of sharing the papers they read, letting everyone look at their lab notebook, joining a forum or writing a blog. If you’re reading this in your RSS feed or clicked through from FriendFeed, you’re probably one of those people. But think about your friends and colleagues who only turn on their computer for work and e-mail. They’re not going to tag their favourite papers or discuss the process of research with total strangers on the internet. It’s an extra thing to do that’s not already part of their lives, and no matter how appealing they might find the concept of open data or sharing information, they won’t join these sites or movements because it’s not something they are already doing.
So what are they already doing? They all have a database of papers that they use to cite while writing manuscripts. Something like EndNote suits their needs quite well: it keeps a record of all the papers they have and have read, and once it’s time to write that paper or grant proposal, they can cite the papers directly in their word processing software with one simple click. EndNote was the first reference manager they used, it roughly does what they need, and there is no need to abandon it. There is absolutely no good reason for them to export their library and upload it to something like Connotea or CiteULike. It’s just extra work, and it doesn’t benefit their research. The easiest way to keep track of papers is for them to keep using the tool they’re already used to.
Now go back a few paragraphs and read what I said about Flickr. When I need to quickly upload or save a picture, I will upload it as a private photo to my Flickr account. I could also have uploaded it to my own web domain, which is what I would have done if I didn’t have a Flickr account, but the Flickr uploader is simpler and quicker and it does exactly what I want at that moment, so that’s the tool I used. This just happens to be the same tool that allows people to share their photos with the entire world, tag them, and favourite photos that others took. I don’t need all that when I just upload a picture as a backup, but it’s there, and Flickr has become my default photo-uploader, even for non-shared items.
Someone recently told me that many people use Flickr only for that purpose: to just have a repository of their photos online, and not necessarily to share with everyone. And it’s true: if you browse around on Flickr, you’ll find a lot of accounts with few friends, and photos with little description. But because the default setting on Flickr is to upload photos publicly, and because tagging is so simple, people will do it anyway. It’s no extra work on top of what they wanted to do, which was just to put their photos somewhere, and Flickr is a very simple way to upload photos somewhere, simpler than whatever photo albums people used before. Tagging and sharing just came with the package, so they’ll use that.
Imagine if there was a bibliography reference manager that keeps a record of papers read, and allows users to cite papers with one click of the mouse, but does all this in a simpler way than EndNote, and perhaps has one extra feature that people really need but that EndNote doesn’t have. For example: if you’re co-writing a paper with someone else, the EndNote library needs to be on two computers. You can export it, but it’s kind of unwieldy. It would be easier to have a common shared library that both computers could use to cite in their word processing software. If such a program existed, and if it was easier to use than EndNote, and cheaper (free, even), and transferring all references from one to the other was fast and simple too, then people would adopt this new tool. Until then, what they are already using (whether it’s EndNote or another similar service) does the job and there is no reason to switch.
Now imagine if this utopian tool they all switched to because it was so simple and fast and useful just happened to come with the default setting to share your entire collection of papers and prompted to quickly tag everything once you added it. People would leave the public setting on, and they would tag.
You see this happening on Flickr. If you ask people directly if they wanted to share their kid’s birthday party photos with the whole world, they’d probably say no – but there they are, sharing their kid’s birthday party photos with the whole world. They don’t really care either way, they just don’t want to make any effort on top of putting the photos in an album for Aunt Mildred and Grandma to see.
This would work in the perfect utopian reference manager tool too.
Scientists probably don’t really care if you see what papers they are reading most of the time, but they just can’t be bothered to upload them all to Connotea to share them with you, because they can’t easily use Connotea to cite these references in their word processing software. If the tool they used anyway for citing references made their library public by default, they would use it. Like Flickr, there would still have to be a way to make something “friends only” or completely private, because there are papers that you might not want your competitors to catch you reading, but might still be useful to share with students or colleagues. But most of their libraries – well, you generally know what people are working on anyway, but that library they have with all the reviews and papers in their field is now only on their computer. If you want them to recommend something to read, you have to ask. In a default public reference citation manager, you could just see what they had, and if they tagged it or organized it you could also find out their favourites.
But wait, there’s more! Once such a system catches on, and many scientists have their reference manager publicly available, you can also see how many libraries a certain paper is in, and use that as a possible alternative or addition to a citation ranking. It wouldn’t work right now, I think, because the people who use sites like Connotea or CiteULike are the people who are used to sharing and tagging. I’d be willing to take a bet that the average Connotea/CiteULike user is (a) younger than the average EndNote-only user and/or (b) more likely to work in a computer-related branch of science or in publishing or information sciences. You need a tool that is adopted by the masses before you can use reader numbers fairly. Flickr has been adopted by the masses, because it does what people want and it does it in a simple and effective way. The fact that it’s a web 2.0 tool is secondary to many of its users, but it still got them to share and tag.
Of the existing reference managers, which is likely to be this Flickr for references? I had a look at this list that compares reference managers, and noticed that there is a division between tools that make citing papers easy (Endnote, RefWorks) and tools that make sharing easy (CiteULike, Connotea). Either Endnote/Refworks need to have their next version a default shareable tool, or Connotea/CiteULike need to come out with a super simple tool to cite papers while writing that is at least as good as whatever tool people are using now.
To be honest, neither seems likely. RefWorks is the opposite of open right now: In 2006, Canadian universities moved their RefWorks libraries to a separate server to hide them from the US government. The web-based version of EndNote does not have as many functions as the standalone tool, so people will still want to use the non-web (read: never sharable) version. CiteULike doesn’t have as many functions as people might want either (no option to hide a reference) and neither CiteULike nor Connotea seem capable of offering a stable tool to interact directly with word processing software, which is the only reason anyone would want to switch from EndNote, so both are stuck with the web 2.0-savvy users who don’t mind that they have all their references in multiple places: one for sharing and one for citing.
The one tool which might soon be able to do both public sharing and citing is Zotero. It’s a Firefox tool, but Firefox itself seems to be becoming the default browser for many, so that might not be a problem. Zotero currently allows you to bookmark a reference straight from the website (Pubmed or the journal itself, for example) and it has options for tagging and integrates with word processors.
It isn’t yet able to make libraries public, but the existing system makes it much easier for users libraries to be made sharable than the system used by Endnote. It’s different than Endnote, so there is a slight learning curve, but it’s free, and all they would need to do to be the Flickr of reference software is make users’ libraries public, and wait for users to share their libraries with new users for easy collaboration. Flickr users didn’t sign up because some blogger told them to, but because their friends invited them to look at their photos. That’s the trick. Scientists will sign up for a service if their collaborator on a paper asks them to sign up to share their library.
Writing papers in a fast an easy way is what scientists want, and if that happens to come with tagging and showing their collection of papers to the whole world, they’ll do that too. Once that happens, the concept of sharing will become more mainstream, and opening lab notebooks and data sharing can follow.