Life Scientists Go Online: collaboration, communication and credit
Lucy Power at Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford
Following Tony Hirst’s talk on Network Ecology & the Knowledge Economy, Lucy Power took a look at the roots of scientific communication and linked early scientists’ sharing of marginalia to today’s potential version of the same collaboration – friendfeed.
Marginalia, making notes in the margin of books, was how our early scientists (or ‘Natural Philosophers’) communicated with each other and built on others’ research; sharing by posting their margin notes around the world, forming an ‘invisible college’. This actually continues in the present day, online.
Power is currently conducting research into the use of online tools by life scientists for their work and in particular is looking at friendfeed and also conducting interviews with the life science community. Friendfeed aggregates feeds from any number of sources – videos, images, blogs. The most common use is twitter and personal blogs but also posts directly to friendfeed itself. The main features include:
• The concept of liking. This is a very simple and instant way of giving a thumbs up to useful content, articles, data or images. Introduced by friendfeed and also adopted now by Facebook. One of Power’s interviewees liked the like button for “instant karma”.
• Commenting – just like marginalia, adding to and building upon others’ work. An interviewee liked the conversational aspect; that you can interact just as much as with the person sitting next to you in the lab.
• Sharing – feeding content to other groups within friendfeed. For example The Life Sciences group has about 1350 members and is very active.
The main use of friendfeed among The Life Scientists group is to discuss science and pose questions. They do their research first, they are not lazy; the questions are not necessarily being addressed elsewhere and can generate a lot of answers.
Power presents some examples of these researchers, through friendfeed, securing funding, getting published, and sharing ideas at conferences:
• One Chemist at
• The same chemist said he had not met half of the people he collaborated with, everything happened online with friendfeed’s The Life Scientists group kicking it off but also helping to move it forward. He was able to be published. ‘Publishing’ might be informally through blogs, or though the formal sense in journals.
• Conference Reporting. During the Intelligent Systems for Microbiology ISMB 2008 conference, all hashtags from twitter, comments from friend feed were aggregated, written up and published. It was a summary of conference but also a ‘meta-conversation’ about microblogging and the use of it at conferences.
So linking the 17c sharing of marginalia to current sharing such as friendfeed - what are the benefits?
• It’s much faster – obviously!
• Network effects – serendipity, people have even found jobs thru the network. An interviewee also mentioned the connections they made with their information management & librarians (a lot of librarians were feeding their twitter thru to friendfeed). Also, cross-disciplinary connections were made.
• Informality – low barriers to entry.
• Openness – ideas are traceable from genesis to publication.
• Global distribution of discussion is quote astonishing – you can fire off a question before bed in one timezone, wake up and have lots of answers from around the world.
Not drawbacks but aspects to be managed:
• Field and disciplinary clashes/differences
• Work habits, managing time
• Information selection – filtering the volume – the disadvantages of scale)
• Ephemeral – no formal archiving – of concern to the community – how can we preserve this and keep it. Still needs to be solved.
Q: With all the talk of social discussion and blogs evolving into journal articles, it was interesting to note that both examples used by Lucy Power were open access articles.
Power: getting into Nature would be the ultimate aim, if they think they might have half a chance, but yes a few people did say that they seek to publish in open access journals first.
Q: Is it no longer critical to publish in journals if the way in which reputation building is changing?
Tony Hirst: a lot of young researchers don’t feel they can just go for informal publishing as they don’t have an established rep yet. I was publishing five years ago but stopped – all my conversations take place online and through conferences, all real-time.
Q: What will be the role of librarian in all this?
Hirst: There are lots of tools for processing information and RSS feeds. One important thing is for librarians to get involved in building tools (e.g. yahoo pipes) for processing rss feeds or to build apps that help curate and aggregate.
Dorothea Salo: search for librarian groups on friendfeed too e.g. the LSW room/group – they really communicate with each other there. It can also be a great marketing tool so do just try it out.
- EDIT: view Lucy's slides (PDF)