Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Science 2.0 - science comes of age on the Internet

by Marc Cadotte, Nicholas Mirotchnick and Caroline Tucker

The Internet is not just for lolcats and porn anymore, scientists have begun using it in constructive ways. The past few weeks’ controversy about the ability (or lack thereof) of bacteria to incorporate arsenic exemplifies how the relationship between science and the Internet is changing. If you’ve missed the debate over the recent Science paper, researchers funded by NASA’s exobiology/evolutionary biology program published experimental results suggesting that a Halomonas species could incorporate arsenic into its DNA in the absence of available phosphorus. This paper received extensive attention in the mainstream media, but also vocal criticism, which was expressed primarily through postings and comments on scientific blogs. Until recently, for scientific communication the Internet has functioned primarily as an electronic source of published journal articles. Earlier attempts to take advantage of the Internet’s potential (immediacy, accessibility, and ability to connect individuals, organizations, and ideas) in scientific discourse have been mixed (e.g. Nature Precedings versus PLoS ONE). The use of blogs as a forum for scientific debate suggests that this is changing: posters tended to be active scientists and the comments were similarly knowledgeable. In contrast to this online approach, the authors of the Science paper stated that they would only respond to peer-reviewed critiques and would not engage in discussions on the blogosphere.

The story of the arsenic-utilizing bacteria highlights an emergent tension in the transition to internet-based scientific discourse. Traditional communication in science has been primarily unidirectional, from the authors of a study to the readership of a journal. Any discourse transpired on the pages of a journal, regulated by editorial and peer review. This gatekeeping meant that this discourse was technically sound and kept personal grudges and tangential discussions to a minimum. This also meant, however, that only a few voices were heard, the discussion was slow (occurring over months) and only happened for one back and forth (journals will not devote precious page space to on-going discussions and debates).

This method of discourse is changing. Journals have experimented with online discussion or commenting features on their websites. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, for example, has a correspondence page with discussion threads for each paper they publish, and PloS ONE allows for comments to be posted to every paper they publish. While, in concept, these are positive developments for scientific communication, commenting features are seldom, if ever, used. The main obstacle to their success is that they are only available on the publishers’ websites, but scientists access articles in many different ways, from database searches to library links. Few scientists actually go to individual journal websites to access papers. This is not to say that there are not discussions about scientific papers occurring online. As highlighted by the arsenic bacterial episode, blogs are an important avenue for discussing and disseminating new ideas in science. Blogs may not, however, actually foster conversations very well. One person or a few people usually run them and there is little discussion among blogs (a comment on a blog post at blog X will not be part of the discussion of the same story at blog Y). Rather, the greatest potential to foster discourse is through virtual networks where people are linked together either through friendships or professional self-identification (e.g., as fisheries biologists), with Google Reader being a particularly powerful communication tool.

It’s exciting to think about what the future of science will look like, given the changes that we’ve already started to see. The major upside of new channels of communication is that they give us the potential to quickly reach thousands of readers, instead of the handful that usually read any given journal article. They also let us communicate in both directions, and in real time. The pitfall, of course, is that they’re free-for-alls; anyone can blog about science.

But here’s what’s unexpected: these free-for-alls have been amazingly reliable at filtering out the bad and promoting the good. Inaccuracies are pulled from Wikipedia faster than anyone had predicted, the social news site Reddit is “astonishingly” altruistic, with users eliminating offensive or erroneous comments from the site and promoting other users’ questions and problems, and the reputations of blogs are shattered if their content becomes unreliable. Social networking has revolutionized the way we consume news, with sites like Facebook and Twitter launching the best articles into viral webspace. The open-access world has evolved self-regulating mechanisms that work surprisingly well so far and if these media are to continue to grow, we will have to ensure that these mechanisms remain built-in.

Seems like an easy task, right? Apparently not. For some reason, academics are slow and conservative when it comes to adopting new media. A letter to Nature two weeks ago scolded scientists for not contributing their share to Wikipedia pages. Various facebooks for academics, like Mendeley and ResearchGATE have emerged, but last week, another Nature article complained that researchers aren’t jumping on the bandwagon. These sites are potential collaborative goldmines, but we seem to be incapable mastering what tweens can do with two thumbs.

It’s not so hard to imagine a world where anyone with a broadband connection can contribute creative ideas to science, the good ideas get automatically filtered to the top and the information is all free to anyone. In this world, children count ants (or bees!) in their backyards and upload their data to global networks. Revolutionary discoveries are published instantly on blogs and thousands of scientists get to decide if they’re valid. Every gene ever sequenced and every tree height ever measured can be readily downloaded in an Excel (or OpenOffice) spreadsheet. In this world, the report on our little arsenophilic friends might never have been published in Science, because instead of being reviewed by two referees, the thousands of readers on the blogosphere would have filtered it out, if was in fact porous.

Academics should be the first, not the last, to adopt new communication tools. We are no longer limited by the postal service, email or PDFs; the web has gone 2.0 and we should follow suit. So go forth, young researchers, and blog, edit and share. And then go tweet about it all so your eight year-old kid knows how hip you are.


  1. Great post! This should definitely inspire increased engagement in these media by ecologists (oh, and ping, since apparently Blogger still doesn't support pingbacks).

  2. Interesting post! I find it funny that the Nature Jobs article doesn't even mention Nature Network! They have a similar mission as ResearchGate.

    In my experience with my own site, I've found academic researchers to be reluctant to use social media because of privacy issues. Surprisingly, when I launched my social network for the sciences, the first person to call me about it was a lawyer in the University of Iowa's legal deptarment (I was a student there at the time). He told me to put disclaimers all over the site that warned researchers that discussion of project ideas could have a major negative impact on publication or the researcher's ability to apply for patents. Now, I'm not sure how true that is, but I think there's going to have to be a major paradigm shift in how people do science before they embrace open on-line collaboration. Even the guys at researchgate say that their private communities are much more traveled and vibrant than the open one. I'm not sure that the closed communities really solve the global collaboration problem, especially if the goal of a social network is to expand your connections with other relevant researchers.

  3. Terrific stuff. If you don't mind, I am going to quote you in a presentation on this topic at an upcoming conference.

  4. Thanks for the feedback everyone! I agree that a paradigm shift is needed, but there are perils as was highlighted by the e-mail hacking of climate scientists, namely misinterpretation of scientific communication.

  5. Great stuff! I'll just share my one easy-way-for-scientists-to-jump-on-web-2.0 tip: Twitter! Seriously! I've found that having a solid scientific community on twitter can lead to a fascinating new way to interact. It bridges geographic gaps and creates an interesting way to echo, recommend, and make short comments on primary literature to your peers. It's also a good way to interact more informally with colleagues and a larger community of those interested in science. I've found it to be quite a useful and interesting tool. @jebyrnes

  6. It is actually hard to believe that so many scientists have been slow to adapt to this type of sharing environment. But I am glad it finally happened.

  7. I agree about the paradigm shift as well that Brian Krueger mentions. From my very short time in a science career so far, the negative incentives for open communication and collaboration currently outweigh the positive ones. I think researchers are too paranoid about competitors to realize there are also potential collaborators out there. I think the paradigm shift would also need to involve innovative ways to fund research. The way things are now, competition is pretty fierce for grants, fellowships, tenure positions, everything, which leads to conflict and a general un-collaborative environment for scientists.

    ps. hey Nick! how is life!

  8. Thanks for the post, but if I could add just one thing...Mendeley really isn't going for the "Facebook for Academics" thing. In my opinion, we already have a Facebook and it works just fine for those who like such things.

    What makes Mendeley different is that the central object in the network is the document. They're connecting ideas and lines of research together, not just people. In this way, they're providing an service that actually does have value for academics and the person to person network emerges out of this. Based on the latest numbers, nearly a million researchers are using it, so I think that serves as a pretty effective confirmation of the usefulness and value of the idea.

  9. Scientists adopt those social media tools that help them do what they already want to do, and ignore the others:


    Which seems pretty reasonable to me...

  10. Jeremy I guess you are referring here to the CIBER report. My wife is a senior researcher at London University and is an enthusiastic supporter of social media - although I think even she would find twitter hard to justify. We enjoy all the communications that facebook et al provide - her in the university enviroment and me in disabled networking. We live in an age of rapidly converging social technologies.

  11. You are so right, internet is not only to watch porn, for me the best use is to read and look for information that I like.