Apps are overtaking web sites: Will that happen in scientific research as well?

Posted by Rory on June 28th, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

Apps are overtaking websites

A Gilmor Gang video last week contains a fascinating discussion around the theme that apps are replacing websites as ‘the default architecture of the planet’.

If that’s true, in future the window to your research could look like



rather than



Before looking at what the implications of this change  for research could be, here are a few of the key points (assertions in some cases) I noted from the video:

  1. Ease of acquisition.  It’s easier to purchase an app from the appstore than something from most websites (except on Amazon), because Apple already has your credit card information.
  2. Virality.  It’s easier to build viral loops into apps than into websites and so popular apps get adopted more quickly.
  3. Ease of access. Many people never felt comfortable using the browser and an address bar to access websites. Accessing an app is more natural and appealing — you just click on it.
  4. Mobility.  The iPad is replacing laptops for people who are travelling or moving around, and use of native apps is higher than use of webapps on the iPad (and the iPhone).

The Gilmor Gang’s speculations are back up by facts: it was also reported last week that people in the US are spending more time using apps on smartphones than browsing the internet on a desktop computer or mobile. Drilling down, it’s also interesting to note what apps people are actually spending time on:  47 % of time is spent on games apps, 32 % using social media apps,  9% using news apps, and 7% using entertainment apps.

Apps for scientific research:  the current state of play favors ‘consumption’ of information rather than ‘production’ of information

That’s a total of 95% of time spent using apps on things which, it is safe to assume, are for the most part not research-related (although a small part of the time spent on social media apps and news apps could be related to research).  If you took a look a the percentage of research time scientists spend on apps as opposed to browsing the web, it would certainly be far lower than 95%, and doubtless a small fraction of the overall amount of time they spend on smartphones and browsing the internet.  In large measure this is due to the fact there there are (relatively speaking) so few apps aimed at scientific research.   There are a few for biology and for chemistry, for example, but they are only able to help with a tiny fraction of the activities biologists and chemists engage in in connection with their research.

In contrast to the paucity of research-related apps for science, there has been a veritable explosion of  apps for use in science ‘teaching’ and ‘education’, some of which are covered in a recent article.  What accounts for the difference?   One probable factor is that most of the teaching/education apps primarily provide content that is intended to be consumed by the users, or at most requires a little simple input from them, whereas most of the research apps require the user to ‘use’ the app in some way by inputting new information or manipulating information or features of the app.  With the current state of mobile technology, it is easy to get information onto a mobile platform like a smartphone or a tablet, but it is still relatively difficult to input information.  So ‘active’ research requiring ‘production’ of information is still much easier to carry out on a computer using websites and web apps.

The future: will research go the way of general usage?

In the near future — within the next 12 months — inputting information onto tablets is going to become much easier, because of improvements in (a) typing interfaces, (b) writing using a stylus, and (c) input via touch.  This will remove the most apparent barrier to using tablets for research in science.   As that happens, the compelling advantages of apps noted by the Gilmor Gang:  ease of acquisition, virality, ease of access and mobility — are likely to come to the fore with developers of tools for scientific research, resulting in an upsurge in apps produced for  use in scientific research.

Next week I’ll take a look at the implications of the likely growth in research apps for individual scientists and scientific communities.



How will the iCloud’s ‘it just works’ approach help scientists use their data more effectively?

Posted by Rory on June 15th, 2011 @ 10:44 am

It just works

A couple of months back a great quote flashed across my Twitter feed:

‘Researchers don’t want to manage their data, they want to USE it!’.

That quote has been rolling around in my head ever since.   We’ve adopted it as our mantra at Axiope, because it so nicely sums up what we’ve learned about how scientists think about their data.  When  Steve Jobs kept repeating the phrase, ‘It just works‘, in the recent launch of the iCloud, I was reminded of the quote again, and I thought, wow, that will appeal to scientists.  The purpose of this post is to look in a bit more detail about what it is in iCloud that ‘just works’, and how that could be relevant to scientists working with their data.

Data/stuff is wirelessly pushed between devices

As Jobs said, “iCloud stores your content and wirelessly pushes it to all your devices – phone, iPAD and mac/pc”.  So, if like most scientists you use your mac/pc and your phone in your research, and a small but growing number of scientists you use or are thinking about using an iPAD in your research, content entered on any device automatically appears on the other devices.

Apps are integrated

Apple’s calendar, mail and contacts apps are integrated with the iCloud so again, when something is entered into one of the apps on one device it is there in all devices.  Useful for scientists who already use these apps; will it help persuade others to adopt them?

Documents and file management and sharing

I suspect for that for scientists how documents and files get handled is more important than calendar/contacts/mail integration.   After all documents (which start out as documents and then of course also become files) are the key tool scientists use for recording and analyzing data, so like files they are an absolutely critical element that scientists will evaluate in iCloud. Here’s what one observer had to say about documents in iCloud:

“Documents in the iCloud directly attacks Google Docs with everything but collaborative editing in a richer UI that feels more directly competitive with Office”

But there’s a rub — you can’t share your documents with others.

Files are just as important as documents — here again the iCloud takes a big step forward.  MG Siegler pointed out in this post:

“Apple has been going out of their way to avoid using the word “syncing” with regard to iCloud. That implies that files exist in one place and need to be moved. But again, even that’s too technical for the story Apple is weaving. With iPad/iPhone and now OS X Lion, you don’t save documents anymore. They save automatically — but an easier way to think about it is that they just exist, as is, in realtime on all your devices.”

Dropbox–which Jobs mentioned in a disparaging aside–is already very popular with scientists.   Why?  One of the main reasons is, ‘it just works’.    The iCloud’s ‘automatic saving’ takes this a step further, a step scientists are likely to view as helping them to ‘use their data, not manage it’, and hence embrace.  But here’s the rub, as pointed out by someone who compared the Dropbox and iCloud experiences:

“I’d rather use Dropbox vs iCloud at this time. With Dropbox it gives you total control and the ability to use anywhere and everywhere. When Photostream, via iCloud, sends the pics I took on my iPhone to my iPad, it’s a broadcast stream. I can’t delete or change them for example.

And iCloud feels like a seprate universe from everything else in my life. As far as I can tell, I can’t point my Boxee to iCloud. I can’t send songs from iCloud to things like I don’t think i can share my iCloud data with my friends or family.”

So you will pay a price for files being taken care of automatically, and that price is a limitation on the ability to share files.

The bottom line

So what’s the bottom line?  iCloud will help scientists ‘use, not manage, their data’ by automatically saving files and pushing them between iPhone, mac or pc, and iPAD, and that is a massive reduction in the overhead of data management.  However, those who take advantage of this new option will find that it comes at the cost of making it more difficult to share their data — in its various forms — with others.  In other words, the overhead of dealing with your own ‘stuff’ is reduced, but the overhead of sharing this ‘stuff’ with others is increased.





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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!

What’s in a name? Electronic lab notebook versus Sample management . . . system

Posted by Rory on March 21st, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

Electronic lab notebook

Sometimes the way things are described can tell you a lot.  Take ‘electronic lab notebook’, for example.  That’s  a noun, and it describes a recognized category. Electronic lab notebook is a subset of a larger category, lab notebook (which itself is a subset of an even broader category, notebook).  How did lab notebook and electronic lab notebook become established as categories? Presumably that happened because people began to, first, differentiate lab notebooks, and then electronic lab notebooks, as particular kinds of notebooks, through their repeated use for carrying out particular tasks in a particular context, in this case the recording of experimental data, first on paper and then in electronic form.

Sample management . . . system

Compare that with sample management.  People talk about sample management . . . systems.  There is no categorical noun to describe sample management.  Instead what you have is a description of an activity.   Like recording experimental data, managing samples is a core activity in biomedical labs.    In fact they are the two central activities in biomedical labs.  So why has electronic lab notebook become a category described with its own noun, whereas sample management remains an activity?

Therein lies a tale:  history and functionality

First let’s look at the history.  As noted, the term ‘electronic lab notebook’ has a powerful provenance — it is a child of lab notebook and a grandchild of notebook.  So it describes an activity whose more generalised predecessors have been granted the status of categories for a long time.  And that’s probably related to the fact that the notebook function — taking notes — and its specialized offshoot — electronic lab notebook — are so fundamental to the activities to which they relate; notetaking in the case of ‘notebook’, and documenting experimental data electronically  in the case of ‘electronic lab notebook’.

What about managing samples?  People have doubtless been ‘managing’ ‘samples’ for a long time.  But they clearly have not thought of this as a fundamental activity in the same way that note taking is a fundamental activity.  So, sample management does not have anything like the provenance of ‘notebook’ .  What about functionality?  How does sample management stack up against documenting experimental data in terms of its importance in research?  Yes, it’s one of the two core activities of biomedical labs, but you can plausibly argue that it is a means to an end, in that samples are there, and hence need to be managed, primarily so that they can be analyzed in experiments.  In that sense they are ‘only’ another kind of data.    And so samples can sit alongside other kinds of data like images (interestingly images, like samples, are ‘managed’, so image management remains an activity and has not yet become a category) and written notes, that appear to be viewed primarily as ‘just’ material, or raw material, that goes into the experimental record.

What lies ahead?

If there is any merit in this analysis, it may be that sample management (and image management) will never become named categories in and of themselves.  Rather, as electronic notebooks evolve to become better able to handle management of samples and images, these activities will be subsumed under the electronic lab notebook framework.  Time will tell!

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Where to find answers to science questions?

Posted by Rory on March 8th, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

That’s a pretty big question, and when I typed it into Google there were 611,000,000 results!  I did that because I was interested in learning where people are going online these days to find answers to questions about science.  I was particularly interested in learning how many people are turning to what could be called ‘social’ sites to find answers to their questions.  What I discovered was interesting, and somewhat surprising.  In an attempt to make sense of the multitude of sources of information available, I divided up the sites people are using into four categories.

Q&A sites

The top hit on Google was  For those who don’t already know it, is a general purpose Q&A site.  You can browse by category, including ‘science’,and also subcategories, like ‘biology’ and ‘neuroscience’.  You can also do searches on any term — these are done on Wikipedia, which is linked in with is both participative, in that anyone can ask or answer a question or improve an answer to a question, and ‘social’ to a degree, in that you can follow a question, and rate a question.

A quick look at the questions under the neuroscience subcategory gave me the impression that the site is used primarily by the general public and students.  That’s because the questions are fairly general, e.g. ‘What type of neuron is a mirror neuron?’  There are not a lot of specialist questions that practising scientists would ask each other.

There are lots of other sites that provide answers to general science questions, but seems to be the biggest, most used and best resourced.  Quora is the new but rapidly developing kid on the block.  It’s structured from the ground up as a ‘social’ service, and you can follow both questions and people.  It will be interesting to see whether it is able to establish itself as a resource that is widely used by the science community.

Educational sites

There are dozens if not hundreds of sites that provide information about  and in some cases resources for doing science.  Many of these educational sites also answer science questions, usually of a fairly general nature, and they are aimed at the general public and students.   Typically the questions are answered by the site’s own experts or scientists in the the site’s network, i.e. the communication flow is one way, and these sites are not ‘social’ — i.e. no following of answers or people, no rating of questions, and limited or no opportunity for participation or communication beyond asking the question.  This limited functionality may be explained because in most cases the Q&A function is an adjunct to the main purpose of the site, which is to educate and/or entertain.  A good example is The Naked Scientists, which focuses on science podcasts.  It has a Q&A section, and in the Medicine section a typical question is, “How are blood cells made?”

Discipline-specific forums

A third category of Q&A sites are specialist , discipline-specific forums.  Examples of these are Biology Online and Chemical Forums.  Forums, arranged in a Q&A format, are at the heart of Biology Online.  The forums are arranged around subdisciplines, e.g. cell biology and genetics.  The questions here range from general to specialist, with specialist predominating, e.g. ‘Is there any difference between matured and active macrophage?  Biology Online is open, in that anyone can ask or answer a question, but the Q&A part of the site is not very social, i.e. no rating of questions, no following of questions, and no communication outside the forums.  The site also has other sections, e.g. Articles, Tutorials, and Books.  Users are encouraged to contribute to these, but again there are no social features, and these parts of the site appear to be less widely used than the forums.

Chemical Forums, in contrast, is solely focused on forums.  It has a variety of forums, focused on disciplines like organic chemistry and materials chemistry.  These contain mainly specialist questions.  There are also forums for categories of users like high school chemistry, undergraduate chemistry. and ‘citizen chemistry’.  The forums in Chemical Forums, like those in Biology Online, are organized in a traditional Q&A format, and  no ‘social’ elements like following have been introduced.

Specialist information services

In recent years a new breed of free services have sprung up providing information of various kinds to targeted scientific communities.  An example is Bitesize Bio, an ‘online magazine and community for molecular and cell biology researchers that provides daily tech tips and news articles on advances in molecular and cell biology’.   Bitesize Bio provides a variety of content, including articles and webinars, aimed at scientists working in molecular and cell biology labs.   ‘Questions’ is one of its major focuses.  Questions submitted to Bitesize Bio often have a practical bent, as the following example indicates:  ‘Does anyone know why we use different pH’s when making the stacking and resolving parts in protein gels?’  Anyone can submit answers, so the Questions section operates like a traditional forum.    The site itself has a number of social elements, but these have not been incorporated into the Questions section.


So there are the results of a quick trawl of the landscape, a bit of perspective on where those interested in science are going to find answers online, and the kinds of resources  available to them.  Here are some of the conclusions I took away from the exercise:

  • There is an insatiable desire to learn about science and how to do science among the general public, students and professional scientists themselves
  • A bewildering embarrassment of resources exists to satisfy this appetite for knowledge
  • These resources take a wide variety of forms and appeal to targeted segments of the overall base of knowledge seekers
  • Many but not all of the knowledge providers are incorporating a ‘social’ element into their Q&A facilities, often in an incremental and experimental way.

Google Science Fair 2011: “Science connects the world”

Posted by Rory on February 28th, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

Google Science Fair 2011

“Science connects the world” is the tagline of Google Science Fair 2011, billed by Google as the world’s first online science fair.  The fair is open to students age 13 to 18 from around the world, working on their own or with up to three others. Project submissions are due by April 4, 2011.  Why is the competition important?  First, it’s an interesting example of ‘online science’.  Second, it’s Google that’s doing it!

1.  An online science fair

A quick Google search (!) revealed that Google Science Fair 2011 is not the first online science fair; see for example the annual Summer Science Fair Contest.  But that’s a quibble and it’s probably fair to say that Google Science Fair 2011 is the largest and the  first globally oriented online science fair.  And the online aspect of the fair is  not just superficial: entering the competition, putting together the entry, and submitting results is all done

2.  From Google

How is it possible to do all that online?  Through using tools provided by Google, of course!  A list of 18 Google resources, things like Google Docs, Google Scholar, etc., is provided to suggest ways of putting together a submission, as well as a practical example.  Whether  you think using these Google tools is a necessary, or a sufficient, or a good, platform for carrying out an online science project is one thing.  The fact that Google has gone to the effort to organize the competition, however, is another. That in itself is interesting, and in my view significant, because it affirms Google’s belief that science is (a) important, and (b) worthy of its attention.

3.  A ‘social’ science fair?

Google Science Fair 2011 is an example of online science, and it provides a useful forum for young scientists to do science and interact with others as they do it. Moreover, Google is working with respected partners like Science Buddies, who have been providing useful resources to science students and teachers for a long time.  So Google Science Fair 2011 is clearly an initiative to be applauded.

Without intending to be critical of this (worthy) initiative, I think it is nevertheless interesting to ask the question: how would a science fair have to be structured if it was to progress from being ‘online’ to ‘social’.  The answer: it would need to have a number of key elements  missing from Google Science Fair 2011, including

  • The ability for data used in the experiments to be shared at the control of the entrants, e.g. with mentors
  • The ability for data used in the experiments to be made public after the competition has been completed
  • The ability to communicate around the experimental data, e.g. in form of an associated chat stream
  • The ability to find others who might be interested in collaborating in the competition or on other projects

With those elements we would be entering an environment where science is genuinely ‘social’ and could truly be said to ‘connect the world’.

How does funding of biomedical research and tech companies compare?

Posted by Rory on February 19th, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

If you’re not in Silicon Valley, don’t try to build the next Facebook

Mark Suster had a great post recently arguing that it’s not possible to build a tier one tech company — like Google, Facebook or Twitter — outside of Silicon Valley, because the venture capitalists in Silicon Valley are the only ones willing to ‘swing for the fences’ with large early investments in highly risky ventures which have the potential to produce paradigm-changing products or services.  Other cities don’t have the capital or the confidence to fund those kinds of ventures, Mark said.  Instead, they are forced to focus on (relatively) smaller investments in niche businesses, e.g. ecommerce in Seattle (Amazon), group purchasing in Chicago (Groupon) or internet advertising in Los Angeles.

Does it follow that you have to be at Harvard to make the next breakthrough in genomics?

The post is an interesting look at how the history of doing things in a certain way, the dynamics of funding and a network  of specialized expertise in various places drive the creation of different kinds of tech companies.  It prompted me to ask the question:  is there a comparable competitive dynamic in the funding and production of biomedical research?  There are of course some important structural differences between tech companies and academic research projects.  For starters, with academic research the working unit is an institution rather than a city or subregion, as in the case of tech companies.  The sources of funding are both different and more diverse — a group working on say a particular type of cancer research at any given university is likely to have funding from a variety of grants in addition to support from its host institution.  And with biomedical research there is likely to be a multi-institutional element since most medium to large scale research projects involve collaborations between groups at different institutions.  Finally, peer review plays a more important role in funding of academic grants that it does in funding of tech companies.

Tech companies and biomedical research projects have a lot in common

With those caveats the fundamental driver of both types of funding strikes me as being similar — to produce a positive result.  This takes the form of a successful new product or service in the case of tech companies and research which points to a promising new approach, diagnostic or drug in the case of biomedical research.  And in both cases there is fierce competition between those who are seeking funding, early stage companies in one case and groups of academic researchers in the other.

So is there a similar dynamic evident in the funding patterns of biomedical research to that Mark Suster identifies in the funding patterns of early stage tech companies? I.e. do certain large funders — the NIH, the NSF, Welcome Trust, etc., put very large sums of funding into riskier but large scale projects that have the potential to lead to paradigm-changing research results, and do they tend to place these bets with researchers in certain institutions that have a track record and a reputation that parallels that of Silicon Valley?  And do smaller grant funding bodies tend to place smaller bets with groups of researchers trying to solve niche problems?

In both cases it’s useful to understand your context and your funders

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I find it quite interesting to think about funding of biomedical research in these market terms.   If there is a direct analogy between funding of tech companies and biomedical research — even a less than exact one — it has implications for the ‘art of the possible’ for researchers applying for grants.  For example, if you are not in an institutional cluster that is the academic equivalent of Silicon Valley, it might not make sense to concentrate on game changing research.  In any event, in virtually all circumstances it would make sense to have a good understanding of the track record and expertise of the cluster you are in so that you can play to its strengths in crafting and presenting grant applications.

Belated reflections on Science Online 2011: Four themes stand out

Posted by Rory on February 14th, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

It’s hard to believe a month has passed since Science Online 2011.  Stimulated by the adrenalin rush that came from being even a virtual participant, I planned an immediate post to capture my thoughts while they were fresh.  Events have intervened and I am only now getting to this.  Hopefully the benefit of additional time to reflect will outweigh the detriment of forgotten points, not to mention ephemeral insights!

Room C:  Doing science online

I was following (from Edinburgh, Scotland) Room C, and saw the following sessions: The Digital Toolbox, Data Discoverability,  Open Notebook Science, How is the Web changing the way we identify scientific impact?, and Having fun with citations.

My first comment is a high level one — I was really pleased to see that a whole series of sessions, i.e. those in Room C, were devoted to the general area of what you could call online production and collaboration in science.  I  believe this represents a maturing of the ‘science online conversation’ (that’s obviously a misnomer because there are an ever expanding series of conversations, not just one conversation, so I guess what I really mean is a change of direction of the heart of the conversation) away from talking about science online and towards actually doing science online.

The promise held out by devoting a whole series of sessions to production and collaboration online was, for me, more than fulfilled in practice by the wealth of detail in the discussions in these sessions  about concrete ways in which people are exploring different ways, at different stages of the research process, of producing scientific output and collaborating in that process.  This seems like an even more significant affirmation of the fact that the age of doing science online, in a collaborative fashion, is not coming, but has in fact already arrived.

Four themes driving doing science online in a collaborative fashion

So what were the most interesting themes relating to doing science online, in a collaborative fashion, that came out of the Room C sessions?  For me, the following stand out.

1.  Data needs to to portable.  If users are not secure in the knowledge that they will be able to easily get their data out of a database, an application, or a piece of software, they won’t put the data in in the first place.

2.  Data must be discoverable, i.e. accessible for Google to index.

3.  Applications need to interface with as many other applications, services and databases as possible; having an  API is a practical way to make a start on fulfilling this ‘interoperability imperative’.

4.  Applications and services need to become more ‘social’, i.e. to provide mechanisms for discovering, communicating and collaborating with others with similar interests.

The revolution is already happening

It was encouraging that amidst the wealth of detail the discussions threw up around these and other themes were quite a few examples of developments — e.g. on the data repository front — applications — e.g. Mendeley’s API — and trends — e.g. citing datasets — where these themes are not just being talked about, they are being experimented with and implemented.    That confirms the point that doing science online, in a collaborative fashion, has become today’s story, not tomorrow’s.  The pace, moreover, is picking up, and here’s betting that by the time Science Online 2012 rolls around the themes and stories that were talked about in Room C will play an even more central role than they did in Science Online 2011.

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Where will the innovation in social networking for scientists come from?

Posted by Rory on January 13th, 2011 @ 11:17 am

In the last post I reviewed social networking sites specifically aimed at scientists, and in the post before that I looked at how scientists are using general purpose social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.  In this post I’d like to look ahead and ask, where is the innovation in social networking for scientists likely to come from: general purpose sites, sites aimed specifically at scientists, or new services which don’t yet exist?

Existing social networking sites for scientists

As I noted in the last post, no significant new social networking sites for scientists have been established since the initial rush in 2008, and the existing sites have their hands full trying to satisfy their users and build out existing features.  Based on the incremental changes they have been introducing to their sites, and the conversations that they are involved in — on blogs, in Twitter, in the press — there are no indications that any of the existing providers are planning major innovations.

Existing general purpose social networking sites

More innovation is coming from existing general purpose social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter than from sites specifically aimed at scientists.  Some of this innovation is relevant to scientists and some is not.  The recent introduction of Facebook’s new messaging system is an example of innovation which is not relevant to scientists, because Facebook is not heavily used for scientific discussions.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, is extensively used by some scientists — an admittedly small group compared to all the scientists out there —  to discuss their work, trends in their fields, and ‘real time’ things like what is happening at a conference they are attending.  A major question is whether this small group are early adopters who are pointing to the way scientific communication will be carried out in future, or, as argued in this post, an unrepresentative group of techies, open science proponents and bloggers who will always be outside the mainstream.  Only time will tell, but a recent study, If you build it, will they come?  How researchers perceive and use web 2.0, concluded that an increasing percentage of scientists(13% of those surveyed) are adopting web 2.0 services  (to be clear, this was a general conclusion not related to Twitter in particular) as a regular part of their working lives, and provided evidence of varying kinds that web 2.0 tools are moving into the mainstream.  This tends support to the view that innovations in ‘social’ applications like Twitter that are used by large numbers of scientists will be put to use in scientific communication as ways of communicating continue to evolve.

New general purpose social networking sites

The rapid uptake of scientists asking and answering questions relating to science, including detailed and technical scientific questions, on Quora, is an example of a new general purpose social networking site quickly finding a role in scientific communication, notwithstanding the plethora of other forums which scientists have already been using to ask and answer questions, and the ability to do that on specialized scientific networking sites like ResearchGATE.  Since not many general purpose social networking sites find an ongoing role, and of those not many will be relevant to scientific communication, it’s not likely that Quora’s example will be repeated regularly, but it is an indication that general innovations in social media can be relevant to scientists and that scientists can be among the early adopters of these innovations.

New science-specific social networking sites

Since no significant scientific social networking sites have been established since the first generation sites came on the scene in 2008, it is hard to say with any certainty what kind of innovation is likely to come from the next generation, when it does arrive.  But given the relentless waves of innovation occurring in the way research is being undertaken and ‘packaged’  it is would be highly surprising if some of these did not find their way into a second generation of social networking sites aimed at scientists.  This month two important gatherings, Science Online 2011 and Beyond the PDF, will be hosting discussions about a number of innovations which are already taking place or emerging.  These gatherings are fertile ground for pointers to the kinds of capabilities scientists will be looking for in social networking sites.