Where does Skype (Microsoft!) fit in as a research tool?

Posted by Rory on May 13th, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

The news from Skype has been coming thick and fast recently.  In late March the launch of Skype in the classroom, a new Skype service aimed at teachers.  Then earlier this week the blockbuster:  Skype purchased by Microsoft.

I this post I’d like to look  how Skype already is being used as a collaborative tool by researchers, and look ahead to ways in which Skype could be integrated with other tools to put it at the center of research collaboration.

Stage One:  Skype for calls about research

Lots and lots of people are using Skype to discuss research these days.  For one to one calls, and also for calls with multiple collaborators to discuss ongoing collaborations and grant proposals.  Michael Mitzenmacher tried to capture the appeal:

“Yesterday, I used Skype on three different research projects to synch up with my collaborators .  . .  . Most of what I do with Skype I could do as well on the phone. [but] Somehow, the real value of Skype is that it’s running on my computer, where I’m doing the research work as well. I can look through relevant old e-mails or read relevant documents while Skype continues managing the conversation. Somehow, it all works more conveniently than using the phone and the computer.”

In this current usage paradigm, Skype is just being used as a cheap (free) and convenient calling channel.  Its wider potential is hinted at in Michael’s comment that the real value of Skype is that it leaves him free to access and play around with his research materials during the call.

Skype in the classroom points the way to Stage Two:  Skype as a tool for finding new collaborators

Skype in the classroom is basically  a ‘platform’ or directory, that allows teachers and students to find others with similar interests, and then, using Skype, make contact with each other and speak to each other.   So it adds a discovery mechanism to the basic communication capability.  Or, as Skype explains it:

“Teachers create a profile that sets out their interests, specialties and location, they can create projects. Projects are a way for teachers to find partner classes, partner teachers or guest speakers for a specific learning activity. You can browse through projects or even search by keyword, which makes it easy for teachers to share expertise and collaborate on projects even when they don’t already know each other . . . Once teachers find someone they’d like to connect with, they can add that person as a Skype contact. “

If Skype has created this platform for teachers, there is no reason it couldn’t create a similar platform for the much larger community of researchers engaged in science.

Stage 3: Skype as the spoke of a collaborative hub

Discovery and communication are two essential elements of collaboration, but they are just scratching the surface of what’s needed for a rounded collaborative environment.  The real win would come if/when Skype was integrated into the research materials that Michael Mitzenmacher refers to.  That is a  realistic possibility because scientists are now beginning to use tools — Google Docs and electronic lab notebooks, for example — in which these materials are collected under one roof and accessible not only by individuals but by groups.  So it’s possible to imagine a group of researchers in different locations talking about their research on Skype, and all looking at — or even jointly editing — the document they are discussing, and for that conversation to be captured on Skype and/or the collaborative tool in which the document is kept, so that it is searchable along with the contents of the document itself.

Will Microsoft take Skype in this direction?  Presumably not in the direction of easy integration with Google Docs!  A bolder strategy would be to use Skype integration as a backward way of making Office Web Apps more of a serious competitor for Google Docs.    But as long as Microsoft maintains Skype’s platform neutrality, it may not matter too much because the door will be open for third parties to produce market driven integrations with Skype.


To lab book, or not to lab book: response to Nick Morris

Posted by Rory on May 5th, 2011 @ 11:12 am

Nick Morris is the latest in a long line of people to ponder the merits of paper lab books versus electronic lab notebooks. He ends an interesting recent post called To lab book, or not to lab book, that is the question?, by posing another question:  How can we get mass adoption of ‘electronic lab notebooks?

As I mentioned in my comment on Nick’s post, hardly a day has done by over the past eight years when I have not thought about that question — pretty sad, I know! Nick’s post stimulated me to reflect on my current  thinking about the question, and I have set some thoughts out below.

Barriers to take up – they are formidable!

To set the scene, here are two pointers from others about the barriers to adoption of the electronic lab notebook.  The first was made recently by Rich Apodaca:

“Scientists hate learning new software.  They really really do.  Most scientists don’t consider using software to be a major part of their job descriptions – it’s a means to an end. That end is making discoveries, which is the source of bonuses, promotions, paychecks, and speaking opportunities. Learning new software, regardless of the format it’s delivered in, takes time away from the pursuit of that goal.”

Related to this point is an observation from a scientist quoted in a fascinating recent study, Patterns of information use and exchange: case studies of researchers in the life sciences.

“What amazes me is how little lumpiness there has to be in the use of something for everyone not to want to use it.”

So most potential users of electronic lab notebooks hate new software and are put off by the slightest lumpiness – not a very promising audience!  Nevertheless, I think those two points are pretty accurate, and this seems to be reflected in Nick’s own experience — he reports that “I have tried to explain to undergraduates for years (as part of an informatics course I teach) the value of the ‘electronic lab book’, but they don’t seem to get it, and/or are not interested.”

Four suggestions for stimulating uptake

1.  Make it mandatory!

I recently had an interesting conversation with a PI (who shall remain nameless!), who has been struggling with ways to get people in his lab to adopt an electronic lab notebook.  He said,” I’ve made it mandatory for my Phds; but I can’t do that with my postdocs, they’re too smart.   So there is one strategy: select those who have no choice but to give an ELN a try.

2. Pick a core group of enthusiasts to start

Another PI reported that although some of the longstanding members of his lab were reluctant to try out an ELN, the newer Phd students were more receptive and didn’t need to be convinced of the benefits.  Another strategy, then, is to get started with a small group of enthusiasts and let them convince others.

3. Give users an electronic lab notebook that solves another problem

The first PI was about to trial an ELN that also includes a sample management capability.  He thinks this may be the key to stimulating adoption.  Whereas many people in his lab are reluctant to adopt an ELN as a replacement for a paper lab book, because they think changing will be a hassle and it may not save them time, they are fed up with managing samples, keeping track of things in the freezer they can never find, and the like.  So they are receptive to the idea of a simple sample management system.  He thinks that if they start to use the ELN to manage samples, they will quickly see for themselves the benefits of recording their experimental data in the same system.

4.  Use the ELN as a teaching tool

A final thought is particularly directed at the question of encouraging undergraduates to adopt.  If a class of undergraduates are asked to go off and start using an ELN each on their own, the response is likely to be as Nick reported.  A more promising approach is to integrate an ELN into the class and coursework, by setting exercises/experiments that are conducted in the ELN, getting groups of students to work on projects together inside the ELN, etc.  This is certain to stimulate discussion and interaction around and about the ELN, which will increase interest in using it, not to mention creative ways of using it — the Facebook phenomenon, if you will.

So there are a few practical suggestions for ways in which PIs and teachers can stimulate take up of electronic lab notebooks.  My thanks to Nick for causing me to think systematically about the question!