Science 2.0: What Every Scientist Needs to Know About How the Web is Changing the Way They Work

Posted by | Categories ideas presentations and posters

Toronto, MaRS Centre – July 29th, 2009 – Free Admission
Slides and Speaker List available

The title of the conference was slightly misleading, as it suggested a broad view of science 2.0 landscape. Instead, I found that at least half the talks were aimed at a specific type of researcher: those that do computational science research. There were, however, some interesting ideas that were of a broader nature, which I will discuss further.

Michael Nielsen – Doing Science Online

Nielsen opened his talk with a discussion of blogging in the sciences. In particular, he described the blog of Terrence Tao, a mathematician and Fields medalist. What makes Tao’s blog special is that it is a place for very high-level thinking and discussion.  Tao writes blog posts outlining a mathematical problem he’s working on, along with his ideas for how they might be solved, or introducing a new way to think about them. The comments section is full of other mathmaticians offering advice, rebuttal, criticism, and discussion. It has, in essence, become a forum for mathematical thought that cannot be replicated in traditional journal-style publishing. The output of Tao’s blog is professional enough that it has been formally published in two volumes: “Structure and Randomness: pages from year one of a mathematical blog” and “Poincaré’s legacies: pages from year two of a mathematical blog“.

Blogs allow for a rapid exchange of information, almost in real-time. It also makes the scientific conversation readily searchable, and open. While traditional scientific publishing methods are still critical, it is interesting to note that other media can be an important part of the process. Another example is the so-called open notebook approach to using the web. In a similar way, ideas and notes are published and made available for viewing.

Tao and Nielsen, amongst others, have started up another blog (and associated wiki) called Polymath Projects, designed to be “massively collaborative mathematical research projects”. Essentially, these spaces allow many mathematicians to combine their talents to solve larger, more difficult math problems, which will later be published (attributed to a polymath pseudonym). While not a new idea (see Bourbaki for collectives publishing under pseudonyms, and later, Crowdsourcing), it is still incredibly powerful.

What can the library do, then, to support this kind of work? The simplest action is to support the tools that researchers and scientists need, like blogs and wikis. These tools will not use themselves, however, so the librarian must play advocate. Another, more complex act is to find ways to support open data curation for scientists, that allows for data to be re-used and re-analyzed.

Cameron Neylon – A Web Native Research Record: Applying the Best of the Web to the Lab Notebook

Neylon opened his talk by suggesting that the traditional mode of distributing scientific information is waning, while other modes are rising. The problem, he suggests, is that current publishing methods are too static, too non-interactive. Beyond this, traditional publishing is slow, doesn’t allow for re-use, mashing-up, and does not necessarily accommodate the ‘size’ of a publishable idea. Neylon sees modern science as requiring strong connections to other science, suggesting that it be less like words in a book and more like a highly branched and interconnected network.

In his lab, he is using the web in a different way – rather than do a bit of research, then transcribing it to a paper notebook, and then possibly transcribing it again online, he skips the middle bit. He has wired his machines to take the results of an analysis and upload it automatically to his website. The online lab notebook, then, is partially automated, networked and linked, and very interactive. But, most of all, it is open. Failed experiments, unused or raw data, and so on – it is all present and accounted for, and available to be manipulated and mined by other researchers.  There are hurdles associated with such openness, though: most researchers are less willing to share results and findings so quickly, lest they be scooped by a competitor. According to the Wikipedia entry, there are also issues with curation and organization of such an incredible amount of data.

Jon Udell: Collaborative Curation of Public Events

Udell pointed out that when it comes to public events, the most common system of notification is simple tacked up poster (on poles, windows, etc.). At the community level, this is a more comprehensive event aggregator than anything that exists online. As such, most of these posters don’t have an associated webpage, nor is there a comprehensive index. While these posters have a low barrier to entry, they offer poor searchability.

A solution that Udell envisons is an event aggregator – an online tool that collects calendar information from a number of disparate sources, and can than output them back to the end user. More than that, however, Udell wants to maintain some core values for this platform: collaboration, open data, standards, transparency, and re-use. This project also asks that users do not only need to be subscribers of data and information, but can be producers of it. Udell sees members of the project as ‘curators’ – people that go out and collect event information, but also create it, and encourage that the community produces it, too.

There is a challenge in this, however. Many event producers (cities, tourism boards, universities, etc.) do not publish their event data in an open format – the ideal is .ICS or iCal – and so that information cannot be aggregated.

udellI have taken a personal stake in this project. (you can, too! – In fact, Udell sees librarians as having role in this kind of work.) After the talk, I volunteered myself to be an event curator for Guelph, ON. I have found it challenging, in the sense that many of the organizations that list events in the city lock up their information in RSS or email notifications that cannot be easily captured. Nonetheless, I have ‘nagged’ the major event producers to open their information up, and continue to scour the ‘net for iCal feeds.

And so…

In the land of Science 2.0, I see a role for librarians – whether it be providing access to technologies or curating data or other kinds of information. It is important to be listening to pioneering researchers, discovering their needs, and finding ways to meet them.

4 Responses to “Science 2.0: What Every Scientist Needs to Know About How the Web is Changing the Way They Work”

  1. Jill Bedford

    Collaborative Curation
    This sounds like an interesting project. How would a regular person use this. I read the elm city project FAQs but it seems to be more for the curators as opposed to the public. I’m not sure from reading this how to use the collector. What is the starting point from delicious?

  2. ac

    Hi Jill.

    By ‘a regular person’, I assume you mean someone that is not curating the calendar. In that case, it is simple: for the town/city/group you are interested in, you can add the event calendar to your own (import into Google Cal or Apple’s iCal, eg.). Then you will have an amalgamated meta-calendar, if you will.

    You are probably right that the FAQ is for the curators, for there are more involved steps for them, including setting up a delicious bookmarks account, and adding individual calendars through that. The end-user doesn’t need to know anything about that part.



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