Monday, April 14, 2008

The Big Question: If We Build It...

Boffin David Crotty, the Executive Editor of CSH Protocols, wrote about Why Web2.0 is failing in biology. The basic problem is that research scientists are overscheduled and overworked:
I can barely keep up with the literature in my field and with what my labmates are doing. Who has time to spend reading some grad student’s blog?
They can't afford to invest the time in new technologies which might, ultimately, make them better researchers. There's also a degree of snootiness about social networks, which are seen as full of teenagers chatting about rock bands. The only effective social networks for scientists are about finding another job after your present short term contract ends, or finding applicants for that post-doctoral place you need to fill.

As we begin the big UoL push towards personal learning environments for students, it's abundantly clear that this will only be successful if students perceive that academic staff are on board. Ultimately, I'm not worried about converting the students to the benefits of PLEs. I am concerned about how we convince colleagues to embrace the same benefits for their own careers.

Crotty's proposed solutions are to:
  • Create sites that save users time rather than asking them to invest time. Tricky one this, but OTOH, who ever went on a Staff Development course to use a Web2.0 site?
  • Quality = Relevance. Conflicts with "Filter on the way out".
  • Lower the barriers to entry, be obvious. Twitter replaces email? What else?
  • Cater to the culture of your readers. Not sure what that one means?
  • Have a buisness model. Which surely implies investment and reward...
My approach is probably going to involve a guerrilla campaign rather than any top-down full-frontal assault, and hope that hearts and minds will follow. Peer pressure is probably the only way we can progress. Web2.0 needs to be lived, not prescribed.

Where shall we start? RSS? Twitter?

Update from David Crotty


  1. I was looking at this article last night, it was very interesting and made me think alot about why I can't persuade my lecturer husband to join me on twitter.

    I think one thing that David Crotty missed was the very nature of science and scientists. I think that the scientists I know love to believe that the process of producing ideas in science is open, global, shared, collaborative, fast and efficient. But in fact scientist are actually working independently, competivitely in a closed, private, and individual way. Competition for funding has much to do with this, but the restriants of publishing, ownership and authorship of ideas promote also contribute to this more closed way of working.

    I agree that it is really important to get staff onside. I think we need to start at the personal benefit level and at the very local network level. So using delicious in YOUR lab, or with one other colleague that you trust. Using RSS searches for journal updates and current awareness for yourself.

    Start small.... and hope that the seed grows.

  2. Yes, it's going to have to be bottom up, because the top is the problem. I'm thinking grad student and postdoc wedge, sort of son of StatsVision. Offer Pete Meacock some sessions. Wanna write a grant?

  3. start with not twitter. And startign in own lab with people you trust a good idea

  4. Very interesting discussion. I fully agree that the push for "2.0" will be bottom-up as the young scientists are generally most open to new ideas. I am currently starting my own lab, so let me give you an idea of which tools I as a scientist find to be the most useful:

    1) RSS feeds. We all subscribe to table-of-contents from a number of journals. My first step was to one day unsubscribe from all the email lists and instead subscribe to the RSS feeds, which gave much more flexibility in how to read them and which entries to "star" and look at later. The next step was to dump some of the less important journals and instead subscribe to automated PubMed searches on my topics of interest. When you already use RSS feeds, it doesn't take much to also subscribe to a couple of scientific blogs.

    2) Google Docs (and similar tools). We use a word processor to write papers and send endless streams of Word documents by email. And we all make mistakes such as editing an old version of a manuscript instead of the latest one. Changing to a tool like Google Docs avoids these problems, yet it works exactly like your old word processor.

    3), Connotea, and CiteULike. Social bookmarking - especially of interesting papers - is something that is immediately useful. Although scientists may be reluctant to tell each other what they work on, many of us like to alert each other to new exciting papers. And email is not really the optimal tool for this.

    4) Private lab wiki. I think this is a great way to keep track of the projects in a lab. It essentially replaces the old lab books, so it is not extra work compared to what you would normally be expected to do.

    5) Blogging. Yes, I think it comes very late in the process - many if not most scientists will never get to this stage. But I think it is a good way to disseminate negative results and work that you don't plan to publish in the mainstream literature.

    6) Twitter. Maybe. Quite frankly, I don't really see the value it would bring to me as a scientist. Since I already suffer from information overload, I live happily without knowing that you are now mowing your lawn ;-)

  5. Thanks Lars, very useful comments.

  6. Thanks to all for taking a look at the article. I appreciate the feedback, as we're working hard on building new tools that people are really going to use. We're part of a not-for-profit research institution, so we can't afford a lot of expensive experimentation that's likely to fail. Note that this talk was given at a publisher's meeting, hence the reminder that one needs a business model (and as Jacob Nielsen points out, no, relyingad revenue is not a good business model:

    "Cater to the culture of your readers" just means that you need to understand your audience, understand their culture and build appropriate tools for them. Know their behaviors, how they interact, what tools they need. Customize what you're doing to their needs, rather than the apparently standard approach of building a tool and demanding that they change their culture to fit the opportunity offered by your tool.

    I recently did a newer version of that talk, this time it was given to scientists at a developmental biology meeting. It looks at things more from the user's point of view, rather than from the point of view of a publisher trying to build new tools into a journal's website:

  7. Thanks for the feedback David, much appreciated. You should persist with - it will save you time and has much more impact online, e.g.
    We are going to run with an approach to this problem here at UoL, so I may well be in touch with you again.