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.

Social networking sites — threat or boon to science?

Posted by Rory on December 16th, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

Social networking sites and science

Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently argued, in Long Live the Web:  A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, that social-networking sites pose a two-fold danger to the web. First,

“Social networking sites assemble. . . bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not.”

A second danger “is that one social-networking site . . . gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation.”

In the last post I took issue with Sir Tim and argued that, on balance, social networking sites add rather than subtract to the flow of information, and stimulate rather than suppress innovation.   In this post I’ll look at the impacts social networking sites are having on science.  I’ll look focus on two large generic social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter.  In a future post I’ll look at social networking sites aimed specifically at scientists.

Facebook

Scientists, like everyone else, use Facebook, but generally they don’t use it in relation to their research.  Rather, like most people, scientists use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends.   As I have argued previously, the serious problems with privacy — or rather lack thereof — in Facebook put scientists off from using it for research.  An even more fundamental problem is the lack of support in Facebook for adding structure to data, which makes it unsuitable for recording experimental data.

Twitter

In contrast to Facebook, Twitter is used extensively by scientists to discuss issues related to scientific issues.   Importantly, this discussion usually does not reach down to the level of active research projects that individuals or labs are carrying out. Rather discussion centers around things like research techniques and trends, approaches, technology, publications and publishing, and the research process. Twitter is not viewed as a good place for discussing active research because of concerns about confidentiality held by the majority of scientists, who are not open science advocates, and limitations on the nature of the content that can be included, which are of course far more severe than even in the case of Facebook.

Science and social networking sites

So that’s how scientists are using, and not using, Facebook and Twitter in relation to their research.  Facebook is largely irrelevant as an environment or space for conducting scientific research and scientific discussion.  I would argue, however, that Facebook is indirectly playing an important role, (a) by shaping the way  younger scientists think about how to communicate, which in turn will impact on the way they carry out science as new collaboration and communication tools become available, and (b) in stimulating scientists to think about what these tools might look like, as Cameron Neylon did in an interesting post called, What should social software for science look like?.

Twitter is already an important  environment for conversations about science, so it is more than just a model or a stimulator of new ideas.  Twitter is already making a positive contribution to science in that (a) it facilitates conversations between people who probably would not have been in contact or found each other were it not for Twitter, (b) the conversations it stimulates probably would not have taken place without the Twitter platform, and (c) the conversations are useful adjuncts to other forms of scientific communication, e.g. those which take place in academic journals and blogs.  Like Facebook, Twitter is also a model and a stimulator of new ideas about ways of communicating that will over time  find their way into specialized resources developed specifically  for scientists.  An example is the powerful stimulus that Twitter provides to the spontaneous formation and rapid development of micro communities of interest.  This has led to the growth of these communities around specific areas of scientific interest on Twitter, and there is no reason to suppose the same thing will not happen on social networking tools developed specifically for scientists.

Overall:  thumbs up for social networking sites

So the story so far is pretty positive.  Twitter is already making a significant contribution to communication between scientists, and Facebook is stimulating lots of thought about how its  new communication model can be adapted and tailored to science.

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Facebook versus Tim Berners-Lee: do social networks threaten the web?

Posted by Rory on December 9th, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

Tim Berners-Lee: the threat posed by Facebook and other social networks to the web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently argued, in Long Live the Web:  A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, that the web is under threat from a variety of developments.  One of these is social-networking sites, which allegedly pose a two-fold danger. First,

“Social networking sites assemble. . . bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not.”

A second danger “is that one social-networking site . . . gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation.”

Are social networks silos?

Let’s start by looking at the first criticism, that social networks are silos that prevent you from using your data outside the site. The first thing to point out is that this is not always the case, or sometimes is only partially the case.  In some cases you can get at least some of your data out of social networking applications.  And new applications explicitly intended to be ‘open’ counterparts to ‘closed’ social applications are springing up, e.g. Diaspora, an open version of  Facebook.  Second, in many other cases social applications permit or encourage sharing of data with other social applications.  Facebook and Zynga is an example of this.  In these cases the ‘silos’ are more like the nodes between a series of connected tunnels.  You could argue that  the creation of the silos is an essential prerequisite to the creation of the tunnels, and so although in one sense they cut off exchange of data in another sense they extend the range in which data can be effectively exchanged.   And finally, the limits on moving data out of social applications, which certainly do exist — no denying that — has spawned it’s own corrective — the DataPortability Project.  This is supported by many of the largest social applications, including LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as Google, and is having an impact, albeit a gradual one, towards increased ability generally to get data out of social applications.

In sum I would say that the ‘ threat’ posed by social applications to the spread and portability of data, while it does exist, is greatly overstated by Sir Tim, and is tempered by a number of factors  including the self interest of the applications themselves and countervailing pressures, both commercial and public, towards openness.

Are social networks likely to become (and stay) monopolies?

What about the second danger alleged by Sir Tim, that one social-networking site (or search engine or browser) becomes so big that it becomes a monopoly, and results in limited innovation.  Yes, monopolies stifle innovation.  But I find it odd that Sir Tim cites search engines, browsers, and social networks as examples of this danger.  He should have more confidence in the robustness of the web he helped to create!   The evidence is that the web acts as a brilliant market whose dynamics act to prevent any emerging monopoly from getting too firm a grip.  On the contrary the emergence of each new wannabe monopolist stimulates a huge new wave of innovation which within a short period of time emerges to push it off the pedestal.

The rise of social apps is a classic instance of this pattern.  A few years ago, having perfected the search paradigm and dominated the search space, Google seemed poised to rule the web for decades.  Who was going to challenge Google? The only hope seemed to be from a combination of a monopolist from an earlier era — Microsoft — and an also ran which never quite made it to monopolist status — Yahoo. That combination fizzled out.

Where has the real challenge to Google come from? Not from these formerly dominant players, but rather  from new businesses developing a completely new paradigm — social.  These businesses emerged not as a result of government regulation of the dominant search paradigm, but rather in the messy, murky bottom of the pond, through trial and error and innovation. And when signs emerged that the new social apps were finding a positive reception in the marketplace, funding quickly became available to help them scale up, and in the space of a couple of years they have been so successful that they now appear invulnerable, just like Google did until they came along.  Search and its dominant player, Google, are being shoved aside by social, led by its dominant player, Facebook.  The power of the new paradigm is nowhere better exemplified than by Google’s own determined efforts to make itself an important player in the social space.

Does that mean that Facebook will in a year or two reach the dominant position that Google had a couple of years ago? That seems unlikely.  First, search evolved as an area where the emergence of single dominant monopolist was natural. Social seems different.  Already Facebook faces competition from other kinds of social applications, like Twitter, and finds it beneficial to serve as a platform for synergistic social applications like Zynga.  And looking ahead, some, like Mark Suster in  his recent post Social Networking: The Future, are arguing that a new generation of social apps focusing on specific verticals or communities of interest, like StockTwits for those interested in investing in the stock markets, are emerging to challenge Facebook.  Interestingly Facebook is supporting, not trying to suppress, the development of new social apps, as evidenced by its involvement in Kleiner Perkins’ sFund.

So it looks as if external forces, and Facebook itself, will act in such a way as to prevent Facebook  from emerging as a monopolist of the web during the ‘social’ era in the same way that Google briefly appeared to dominate the web during the ‘search’ era.  There will be no need to wait for a new paradigm to emerge to topple the dominant player, as happened with Google and search.  Instead the emerging web paradigm, social, may prove more robust than search in the sense that it allows for true competition within the paradigm.  If that proves true the social paradigm may prove longer lasting than the search paradigm, and there will be greater scope for innovation within the paradigm.  In any event the fundamental point is that the web once again is proving its mettle as a fantastic market which encourages competition and innovation, and prevents the emergence of lasting monopolists.

The verdict

Sir Tim pointed to a valid concern.  But for the reasons noted above I am not convinced by the implications he draws about the dangers of social applications. Reasons of self interest and public pressures are acting as natural correctives against the (early) tendencies of social applications to horde data and become independent silos, and in fact the creation of these temporary silos also has the countervailing effect of usefully extending the range in which data can be exchanged.  Moreover, the signs are that Facebook, the leading player in the social space, will never become a monopoly.  Rather, for reasons involving both self-interest and external factors, it (a) will be but one of a number of successful social apps, and (b) far from stifling innovation, will prove a key force in stimulating a major new wave of innovation.

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How to keep an online research journal — the tools are getting better!

Posted by Rory on December 1st, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

A dream app:  the online research journal

Would you like to have an online journal that gives you a snapshot of everything you were doing on a particular day, including research and related activity, like your thoughts on journal articles you were reading at the time, notes on conversations with others in the lab about experiments they were working on, etc.?  Would you like this journal to be available in a diary or calendar view?  Would you like the journal to sort out all the entries you made on a particular day and present them to you coherently without your having to do anything in terms of organization at the time of entering the information?

That’s the dream app that Kim Martin, at the University of Edinburgh, would like to see.  Andreas Johansson at  Lund University has a similar vision.  As Andreas says, “Sometimes it’s just easier to follow how your ideas evolved over time in this way.”

Three currently available approximations of the dream app

How far away are we from having that dream app?  Here are three apps, in ascending order of interest and relevance, that are available now and might be considered steps on the road to the dream app.

Facebook News Feed

Facebook has something — pretty primitive admittedly — along these lines already. Facebook News Feed is a constantly updating list of stories from people and Pages that you follow on Facebook.  Like the dream app, it captures everything, or rather everything of yours on Facebook (if you want it to; if not you have the ability to restrict what goes into News Feed) and presents it to you chronologically.  But it has no ability to differentiate on the basis of time, and hence is unable to present things to you in a diary or journal view.  And of course people don’t use Facebook for recording research, so the content of information it captures is not relevant.

Google Wave

Google Wave allows groups of people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and other things.  A wave is shared, so any participant can reply anywhere in the message and edit the content.  The wave can be played back so that any participant can see who said what and when.  So Wave actually has a lot of what the dream app would need.  Even better, it keeps the record of a group of people involved in a research project, not just an individual, and makes it possible to identify each contribution made by each individual.  It acts like a group journal or diary, focused on interactions rather than individuals.

What are Google Wave’s limitations?  It lacks a nice interface and doesn’t show you a diary or journal view. It is not particularly intuitive or easy to learn.  And most important, it’s been pulled by Google as an active app!  Nevertheless, Wave has been very useful in demonstrating the kinds of things that are possible in an online journal which is (a) focused on research rather than personal information, and (b) captures a group’s activities rather than just an individual’s.

Momento

The last of the three apps is Momento, an iPhone/iPod diary app for individuals. It allows you to write diary entries about what you are doing  on a given day. It also lets you tag friends (from your iPhone contact list), places, events, and add photos to these entries.  And it lets you import bits of information from services like Twitter, , Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Digg, and any RSS feed. The result is log of what you’re doing online.

Momento looks like a journal, which is broken down by days in descending order from the current day. You get a snapshot of any given day, including the most recent items (tweets, check-ins, etc). Clicking on any of these days takes you to a detail page which shows you all of your activity for that day.  There’s also a calendar view which allows you to go to any moment in the past. Clicking on a date will again take you to a specific day page with all of the info about what you did that day.

The dream app revisited

Although the dream online research journal does not yet exist, it’s clear from what is already available that its key elements would include:

  1. A detailed record of a group’s research interactions and documents
  2. The ability to recover contributions made by each individual, and when they were made
  3. Nicely presented diary and journal views

Why Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is not Google Wave — Scientists take note

Posted by Rory on November 24th, 2010 @ 11:47 am

Is Google ‘socially’ challenged?

A while back I wrote a post quoting Tom Coates, who said in an interview in Fortune,

“Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, email, and messaging . . .  But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

The Fortune article goes on to say, “Coates’s point is that you don’t have friends on Google, you have contacts and tasks.  These services reflect an engineering culture that is all about utility, but one that makes it hard for the company to create something that’s friendly and social.”

Google Wave — the exception that proves the rule

It’s ironic that one Google product which was designed to be social, Google Wave, got pulled.   Google Wave was/is “equal parts conversation and document, and allows people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.”  Why did Google Wave not survive?  The facts that it was too hard to understand and use, and  ahead of its time may go part of the way to explaining the reason.  But that’s true of lots of early versions of products which later evolve into killer apps.  And Google Wave had a fervent following among early adopters.  To my mind, a more compelling explanation (from the Brisbane Times‘ Digihead) is that Google Wave “didn’t tie in with our existing forms of communication – it was an entirely separate world trying to start from scratch“.   In any event, the pulling of Google Wave can be seen as another failure on Google’s part to be ‘social’, albeit that in this case it failed notwithstanding the social intentions Google had for it.

Facebook’s Modern Messaging System — destined to succeed where Google Wave failed

Digihead argues that unlike Google Wave, Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is likely to succeed because

“Hundreds of millions of Facebook users will be quick to embrace [Facebook’s messaging system] because it will presumably integrate tightly into the familiar Facebook user experience.  They won’t need to go out of their way to use it, or wonder whether or not their friends are using it. [The messaging system] will complement our existing communications habits and gradually become more central without requiring us to completely abandon our old ways.”

But Facebook’s messaging system is not Google Wave reincarnated

Facebook is being very explicit in comparing its new messaging system to Google Wave.  In this video interview, Joel Seligstein, the engineering manager in charge of the messaging system, talks about how the two relate.  He says that Facebook’s messaging system contains some of the same  features as Google Wave.   He also notes that Google Wave was focused on interactions, whereas the messaging system is focused on people.  As my colleague Leigh Gordon pointed out, Joel does not mention the fact that  interactions were the collaborative features of Google Wave where the innovative, cutting edge and exciting features were included, and none of these exist in Facebook’s messaging system!

Two different kinds of innovation

So Facebook’s messaging system is innovative in adding a better messaging capability to an existing social platform, whereas Wave was a brave — perhaps too brave — attempt to make available a  new and improved platform for real time collaboration by bringing improved an improved ability to communicate around interactions.

Why scientists still need what Wave promised

How is this of interest to scientists?  Google Wave generated a fair bit of buzz among tech-friendly scientists, for example  this post from Cameron Neylon on using the Wave in research.  Cameron saw Wave as bringing

“three key things; proper collaborative documents which will encourage referring rather than cutting and pasting; proper version control for documents; and document automation through easy access to webservices. Commenting, version control and provenance, and making a cut and paste operation actually a fully functional and intelligent embed are key to building a framework for a web-native lab notebook. Wave delivers on these.”

Is Facebook’s messaging system going to act as a replacement for Wave for scientists, or indeed others who are collaborating?  Not really.  As I have discussed previously, scientists don’t use Facebook for research, for a variety of reasons including the fact that it does not provide support for structuring research data, and security concerns. Facebook’s messaging system isn’t going to change that.  So for the time being people are still going to use ‘non-social’ things like wikis and Google Docs — which let you share but not communicate — in their research.   And gradually they will turn to electronic lab notebooks, which are beginning to add to the ability to record and share research data the ability to communicate about it with simple messaging systems.

What scientists ultimately need is something like Google Wave that is designed from the start to support both sharing and communication.  Something like Google Wave, but not Google Wave, because scientists need three things in a collaborative research tool that Google Wave lacked:

  • A simple interface
  • Intuitive usability
  • The ability to add structure to the research record
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What kind of application would enable controlled data sharing among scientists: Google Docs? Facebook? Something else?

Posted by Rory on October 27th, 2010 @ 9:49 am

In the last post I looked at a study which concludes that researchers in the life sciences are willing to share their data, but only on their own terms:  they want to decide which data to share, with whom, and when. My starting point was a recent article by Bryn Nelson lamenting the fact that data sharing is the exception rather than the rule among scientists.  In the article he gives a number of examples — some successful and some not — where top down data storage/sharing repositories have been established for particular disciplines and particular kinds of data.

Are these kinds of repositories a model for what might encourage widespread data sharing by scientists in bottom up research fields  like life sciences?  I think not, because these top down, centralized repositories generally remove control from the individual or group who is contributing the data.  They are really focused on data storage rather than data sharing. In most cases, moreover, once the data has been contributed it is open for all to see — that is the point of the exercise.  So it’s not surprising that when databases like these are offered to the researchers in the bottom up fields, they usually opt not to contribute their data.  There are few incentives to make contributing their data  an attractive proposition, and it’s yet another administrative burden.

An environment (or system, application, call it what you will) that would stand a better chance of attracting large numbers of scientists is one that does what they want — i.e. lets them  share that part of their research  data they want shared, with whom, and when.  The only kind of environment that will maks that possible is one that puts individual scientists, and groups of scientists, at the center, and in control. That is a bottom up application, not a top down, centralized application like the ones noted by Bryn Nelson.

Google Docs

Is there a model for the kind of application that might work?   How about Google Docs, which is already used by many scientists to share documents, spreadsheets and presentations? Google Docs allows users to share information in a way they control. However, it  lacks a number of necessary capabilities  to enable scientists share their research data when and with whom they want.  These include:

  1. The ability to create records with structure — i.e. the kind of structure scientists are used to putting into their paper labbooks to record experimental data
  2. The ability to link between records
  3. An audit trail of changes made to records
  4. A messaging capability

Facebook

What about Facebook?  Like Google Docs, Facebook permits sharing of information in ways the user controls.  Facebook, moreover, has the ‘social’ features that Google Docs lacks, particular the ability to communicate with other users.  But Facebook has its own set of shortcomings as a potential tool for sharing scientific research data. First, it is viewed as a tool for communicating with friends and family about social rather than work matters.  Second, there are serious problems with the privacy — or rather lack thereof — of data people put in Facebook, which might be acceptable for personal data but is not for scientific research data.  The most fundamental problem, however, is that Facebook, like Google Docs, does not provide support for recording and sharing experimental data because it does not provide the ability to create records with structure.

Essential elements of a data sharing application for scientific research

If neither Google Docs nor Facebook looks like a suitable candidate for a general data sharing application/environment for scientists in bottom up disciplines like biology, chemistry, medicine and materials, the above discussion does provide an idea of the capabilities such an application/environment would need to have:

  1. An individual, user-centric focus
  2. The ability for individual users to control with whom they share data, and when
  3. The ability to create records with structure so that experimental data can be recorded
  4. The ability to create links between records
  5. An audit trail of changes made to records
  6. A messaging capability

If and when an application with these elements becomes available, it would stand a good chance of being taken up by large numbers of scientists in bottom up disciplines like biology, chemistry, medicine and materials.  And that would bring benefits not only to the individual scientists themselves and those with whom they are directly collaborating, it also would lead to a far greater percentage data that is generated being, first, captured electronically, and, second, shared.

Privacy versus sharing: electronic lab notebooks, Facebook and wikis compared

Posted by Rory on September 29th, 2010 @ 9:08 am

Common misconceptions about sharing and privacy in ELNs

A couple of weeks ago I fielded the following question (assertion, really) at a conference on data sharing and storage in biomedical research:

“An electronic lab notebook is not useful because everyone can see everyone else’s work — there’s no privacy.”

To which I responded that good ELNs have a permissions system that allows records to be kept private.

The person who asked the question, still on the attack, then said something to the effect of, that’s no good because people can’t share their data.

To which I responded that the permissions system in a good ELN allows fine level controls so that any record can be completely private, completely public to the entire universe of users, or accessible only to a particular group of users.   In other words, it supports privacy and sharing.

I was a bit taken aback by the aggressiveness of the questioner, and felt quite pleased with myself in that I had, I thought, successfully countered both lines of his attack  on ELNs.  But reflecting on the exchange afterwards, I began to have second thoughts.  The questioner said that he was in a research support role with a group of academic biomedical researchers.  So presumably his comments reflected concerns/preconceptions the researchers he works with have about ELNs.  And judging by the tack he adopted, the prevailing view about ELNs is not positive — they don’t allow privacy, or they don’t allow  sharing, and in any event they are inflexible.

ELNs:  neither Facebook nor wiki

I don’t know how representative these views are.  Since ELNs have yet to be widely adopted by academic scientists, it’s probably the case that few people have first hand experience with them, so whatever the prevailing view is, it will be based on vague impressions rather than a good set of information.    Many labs have adopted wikis for sharing general information like meeting notes and protocols, and most of these wikis will be inflexible, and not offer scope for keeping private records.  So it’s quite possible that people just assume that electronic lab notebooks are beset by the same restrictions.  It’s also possible that people assume ELNs are only capable of replicating the crude and inflexible privacy/sharing regime you get with your Facebook account.  In other words, many people probably project on to ELNs concerns they have with information sharing applications they are familiar with without any understanding of how sharing actually works in ELNs.

Fine-grained and flexible sharing in ELNs and the benefits it brings

In fact there are some key differences between the sharing/privacy system of Facebook, wikis, and ELNs designed for documenting and sharing experimental data. Here are three of them.

1. Sharing and privacy in ELNs is simpler than on Facebook, and more flexible than in wikis.

When you think about it, sharing on Facebook is very complex!  You’ve got three categories of things you can share — things you share, things on your Wall and things you’re tagged in, and then within each of these a whole variety of subcategories.  And then you’ve got a variety of categories of people you can share with — everyone, friends and friends of friends.    Most people ignore most of the sharing  functionality — the system is just too unwieldy.  It’s also very inflexible — the categories of what you can share and what kinds of groups you can share with are decided by Facebook, not you!

Sharing on wikis is at the other end of the spectrum:  exceedingly simple, but it’s even more limiting.  The way most wikis are configured you are part of one or more groups and the pages in that groups or groups can be viewed by everyone in the group.  In other words, there is no privacy!  And of course no flexibility, since the decision about what group(s) you are in is made by the administrator, not you.

In contrast to both Facebook and wikis, sharing and privacy in the best ELNs are (a) simple, and (b) flexible.  They are simple because they don’t require distinctions between different kinds of things that can be shared or between different categories of people that are involved in the sharing.  For any record in the system sharing is set in the same way. They are flexible because a record can be shared with one other person, with everyone, or with any subset of people  using the system at the discretion of the person setting the permissions, and a different sharing regime can be set for each record if so desired.

2.  ELNs give equal weight to individuals and groups

Facebook, like most social media, is designed around individuals — sharing is about individuals creating groups centering on themselves.  Wikis are just the opposite — they are designed around groups — individuals are slotted in to an environment which is focussed on achieving group objectives.  Neither of these extreme orientations is appropriate to  labs.  When you think about what makes a scientific research lab tick, it’s the fact that it is designed to facilitate both group and individual objectives.  So what a lab really needs is a collaboration and communication tool that has been designed with both individuals and the group in mind. Enter the ELN!  As noted, ELNs allow for some records to be completely private.  So a PhD student, for example, can have their private space where their experiments are accessible to no one but themselves.  But ELNs also allow for the flexible sharing described above, so records which everyone needs to see, e.g. lab protocols and meeting notes, can be made accessible to everyone, and the records in certain projects can be restricted to a specified set of users, e.g. just to the group of students working on the project and the PI.

3.  ELNs  enable  sharing of a particular kind of information — experimental data — in the same environment as other general information.

ELNs bring another kind of benefit to labs engaged in creating and sharing scientific data that is not supported by the sharing regime in either wikis or Facebook.  This is that they are specifically designed to handle sharing of experimental data, the bread and butter of labs engaged in scientific research.    They do this by making it easy to put structure into the research record.  And with structure comes better organization, more targeted search, and better archiving.  So current and future members of the lab can more easily find and use data which they, and other members of the lab, have entered into the ELN.

So that’s a brief overview of how ELNs facilitate both sharing and privacy, and enable labs and lab members to record and share experimental data.    They are superior to wikis in these respects, and they don’t suffer from the sharing and privacy concerns people have as a result of their experience with Facebook.   That’s not too surprising since ELNs have been specifically designed with labs in mind!

Electronic lab notebooks: how ‘social’ should they be?

Posted by Rory on August 18th, 2010 @ 10:22 am

The web has gone social, with Facebook and Twitter leading the way.  And applications that were not designed with social networking as a core element are scrambling to add social features.  Often, however, that’s not as straightforward as it seems and can have unintended consequences, of which  Google Buzz is perhaps the highest profile example.  As Robin Wauters at Techcrunch pointed out, “Merging something designed for public broadcasting (Buzz) with something inherently private (Gmail) was just looking for trouble.”

The issue of how many and what kind of social features to include also faces developers of collaborative tools like electronic lab notebooks.  Although collaborative tools are designed to help people work together, they are not  necessarily ‘social’.   But how can something that is designed to help people collaborate not be ‘social’?   As a way into looking at that question, let’s examine what Tom Coates, until recently head of product at Yahoo’s Brickhouse lab, was getting at it when he was quoted in the August 16 issue of Fortune as saying,

“Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, email, and messaging . . .  But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

When I read that I thought, hang on a minute, what about Google Docs?  OK, Google Docs is not Google’s highest profile offering, but it is used by millions of people, so it surely must be included when considering Google’s ability or propensity to build ‘social’ products .  Document sharing is clearly a social activity, and the express purpose of Google Docs is to facilitate collaboration, so it must be the way that Google Docs is set up that, in Tom Coates’ view, excludes it from the ‘social’ category.

The Fortune article goes on to say, “Coates’s point is that you don’t have friends on Google, you have contacts and tasks.  These services reflect an engineering culture that is all about utility, but one that makes it hard for the company to create something that’s friendly and social.”   So in Fortune’s view in order to be ‘social’ it’s not enough to involve a group, in addition there needs to be an element of ‘friendliness’, and a focus on utility is implied to be anti-social.  Whether or not that is correct, it does constitute an explanation for Coates’s apparent oversight about Google Docs.  Google Docs is very much a utilitarian tool, and it is not designed to be particularly ‘friendly’.  So, even though Google Docs is intended to be used by groups of individuals, for these reasons it is not ‘social’.

Collaborative research tools, including electronic lab notebooks, are like Google Docs primarily designed for a utilitarian purpose — in the case of ELNs, to provide a platform for sharing and structuring experimental data and other information of interest to the research group.  On the Coates/Fortune view, this is at least one strike against their counting as ‘social’.  But since they are used by people not only to collaborate, but also to communicate, would they not benefit from being more ‘friendly’ and ‘social’?  Here are some capabilities, found in Facebook, that Fortune describes as the ‘social layer’.  Which of them would make an electronic lab notebook more ‘friendly’ (and useful!)?

What social features should an electronic lab notebook include?