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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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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Are electronic lab notebooks for individuals or groups?

Posted by Rory on November 11th, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

I wrote a post last week over on Bitesize Bio comparing electronic lab notebooks to other collaborative tools like wikis and Google Docs.  What was interesting is that most of the people who commented on the post were looking not for a collaborative tool but for something they could use to document their own research, i.e. an individual tool.  This lack of clarity about whether electronic lab notebooks are intended for group or individual use dogs much of the discussion about  ELNs, which tends to get bogged down in debates  about particular features people would like to see in an electronic lab notebook.   See for example the discussion currently going on here.

I thought I’d try to unpick some of the confusion by separating out what elements are essential in electronic lab notebooks used by both groups and individuals, from features that are useful only for groups.

Features for groups and individuals

I have argued previously that the ability to add structure to the research record is the key distinguishing feature of an electronic lab notebook.  That’s because with structure you can replicate online what has traditionally gone in a paper lab notebook, and so the electronic lab notebook can become a replacement for the paper lab notebook.  So in my view neither simple online note-taking devices nor wikis qualify as electronic lab notebooks because they don’t let you add structure to the record of your research.  In the majority of cases people who have adopted note-taking devices or wikis use them along with, not instead of, paper lab notebooks.

Putting structure into the research record is equally important for both groups and individuals who are documenting their research.  And for individuals, that’s it!  The ability to create an online structured record of their research is really all they need.

Features for groups

Groups of researchers need two additional things in an electronic lab notebook, the ability to:

  • Share research data and information, and
  • Communicate about their research

Sharing research data and information

By definition a group of researchers needs to share data and information.    An electronic lab notebook needs to allow the group to do this in a controlled way.    It therefore needs a permissions system that allows some records to be kept private and other records to be shared with everyone or with selected members of the group.  To do this it needs to have an administrator.

Communicating

In order to collaborate effectively groups of researchers need to be able to communicate about their research. Obviously there are plenty of ways to do that outside the electronic lab notebook.  But that’s limiting because it’s not possible, or at least not convenient, for members of the group to communicate about the research they are undertaking in the context of the research itself.  Therefore to be fully effective an electronic lab notebook should include an internal means of communication, e.g. a messaging or notifications capability, and this should include the ability to link the messages or notifications to the record of the research, e.g. experiment records.

Conclusion

In conclusion, electronic lab notebooks can be useful for both individuals and groups. Both individual and group users need the structuring capability electronic lab notebooks provide.  And groups in addition need to use the collaborative and communication capabilities of ELNs.  Beyond that it’s all about features, which are important, but I think it’s useful to separate the woods from the trees, and diving in to a discussion about features without thinking about these broader issues often proves to be unproductive.

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What kind of data sharing do scientists want?

Posted by Rory on October 20th, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

In a recent article, Data Sharing:  Empty Archives, Bryn Nelson points out that although

“Some [scientific] communities have been quite open to sharing [data] . . . those discipline-specific successes are the exception rather than the rule in science. All too many observations lie isolated and forgotten on personal hard drives and CDs, trapped by technical, legal and cultural barriers.”

The communities where most data is not widely shared include disciplines like biology, chemistry, medicine and materials where the bulk of experimental data is generated by individual researchers and labs.  In this post I’d like to take a closer look at data sharing practices and attitudes in these ‘bottom up’ research disciplines.  Let me disclose my bias at the outset — this is that data sharing practices in these disciplines should be determined by the members of the community, not by funding bodies or other policy makers.  If data sharing is to become more widespread, it should be because the members of the community want that to happen, and it should happen in ways that they determine.

The starting point has to be existing attitudes to data sharing in the communities. A recent study of seven labs doing various forms of biology: Patterns of information use and exchange:  case studies of researchers in the life sciences came up with some interesting observations about those attitudes.  What the study found was that life sciences researchers

“are in principle in favour of sharing many kinds of information, and are remarkably willing to do so in order to facilitate each other’s research, without any apparent formal reward.  Thus information is extensively shared within research groups and laboratories, and informally across organisational boundaries through wider research networks, both before and after formal publication.  This may include sharing . . . standard operating procedures, plasmids, computer programmes, scripts and statistical analysis tools.”

So researchers are willing to share  information, but on their own terms.  Essentially they are willing to share information with people they are collaborating with, inside and outside the lab.  In other words, researchers are willing to share information with whom they the researchers want.

The study went on to report that

“Researchers are much more ready to share methods and tools than experimental data . . .  They are reluctant to share the data that makes up their ‘intellectual capital’.  In particular, they are wary of giving away their data for someone else to analyse and get the credit.  “

Researchers are willing to share experimental data, but only subject to two provisos

  • “First they are concerned that they need sufficient time to complete the analysis and, in some cases, to explore intellectual property rights . . .
  • Second they want to publish their results before or simultaneously to publishing their data — and they want to be the ones to publish the data.”

So researchers are also willing to share experimental data, but again only on their own terms.  And those terms are that researchers want to decide what data gets shared and when it gets shared.

Seven labs is hardly a representative sample of the hundreds of thousands if not millions of labs in ‘bottom up’ research disciplines like biology, chemistry, medicine and materials.  And yet the attitudes noted by the study have a strong feeling of familiarity about them, and it’s not implausible to assume that they are  broadly representative of  attitudes that are widespread throughout these disciplines.  The message from the scientists interviewed  in the study is loud and clear:  they are willing to share their data only when they can decide which data to share, whom to share it with, and when.

In the next post I’m going to discuss why many existing ‘top down’ data sharing initiatives have failed to take off because of lack of interest and support from the communities, and speculate about what kind of application, tool, or environment would be needed to enable scientists in bottom up research disciplines like biology, chemistry, medicine and materials to share their data in the controlled fashion they seem to prefer.

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Who are electronic lab notebooks for?

Posted by Rory on October 13th, 2010 @ 10:48 am

In last week’s post I looked at what electronic lab notebooks are for, and said that they enable groups of researchers to conveniently carry out four central aspects of the research process:

  • Record experimental data and other kinds of information
  • Add structure to the data and information
  • Share the data and information
  • Communicate about their research

The answer to the question, ‘who are electronic lab notebooks for?’ is implied within that statement, namely ‘groups of researchers’.  This week I’d like to zero in on the makeup of a typical group of researchers in an academic lab, and ask the question, among that group, who benefits from use of an electronic notebook and why?  Just the PI?  Postdocs? Graduate students?  Research assistants and technicians?

PIs

Lets start with the PI.  In most cases the PI drives the decision to adopt an electronic lab notebook.  PIs benefit from their lab using an electronic lab notebook in lots of ways — some of the things they like include:

  1. Having everyone in the lab working in an integrated environment.
  2. Having everyone using common structures to document their research, e.g. for experiments and protocols.
  3. For online electronic lab notebooks, the ability to access their own work, and that of other members of the lab, 24/7, from any web browser, when they are at home in the evening or on the other side of the world at a conference.
  4. The ability for lab members to conveniently work in groups.
  5. The ability to link experimental data with other kinds of information, e.g. protocols, and with physical things like reagents.
  6. Having an integrated searchable archive of the lab’s work that allows them and other lab members to find and make use of work done by existing lab members and those who have already left the lab.

Postdocs

Postdocs don’t have the same global view on the lab’s needs as PIs, nor do they have the PI’s long term interest in the efficiency of the lab or creating a usable, searchable archive of its research.  But they almost certainly will be working closely with others in the lab — the PI, one or more graduate students, and perhaps a research associate or technician — on their own projects and other projects involving lab members.  For that they will benefit from many of the same group advantages of using and electronic lab notebook that are valued by PIs:

  1. Having everyone using common structures to document their research, e.g. for experiments and protocols.
  2. For online electronic lab notebooks, the ability to access their own work, and that of other members of the lab, 24/7, from any web browser, when they are at home in the evening or on the other side of the world at a conference.
  3. The ability for lab members to conveniently work in groups.
  4. The ability to link experimental data with other kinds of information, e.g. protocols, and with physical things like reagents.

In addition, PIs are likely to particularly appreciate the benefits an electronic lab notebook brings in terms of documenting their own research, including:

  1. The automatic introduction of structure into their research record.
  2. Ease of use.
  3. Having data well organized in a form that it can conveniently be incorporated into presentations and papers.

PhD students

PhD students, and other graduate students, are likely to value these last three benefits just as highly as postdocs.  And they, too, benefit from the group aspects of the electronic lab notebook. For example,with an electronic lab notebook they can share information and ideas online with others in the lab — the PI and other students whose brain they want to pick or whose experiments they are keeping up with.   An electronic lab notebook means easier access to the PI — it’s no longer necessary to corral the PI during office hours to look at your paper lab notebook — with an electronic lab notebook you can send the PI a message with a link to your latest experiment and ask the PI to comment when he or she has time.

Unlike the PI and postdocs, at the end of the day graduate students are focussed on getting a degree, and that means their own work is of paramount importance.  In this respect they are likely to particularly appreciate the fact that electronic lab notebooks provide the flexibility for some records to be shared and others to kept entirely private.  So graduate students (and of course others in the lab) benefit from the group and sharing capabilities of the electronic lab notebook while at the same time having their own private space.  They can keep some records private forever, and other records private until they are ready to be shared, or reviewed, by others in the lab.

Research associates and technicians

What makes the life of research associates and technicians different from that of PIs, postdocs and graduate students is that their focus  is not their own research but  the work of  others.  They are supporting others, and  helping to organize the lab and ensure that the lab and its equipment, computers, and systems are running as well as possible.  In that regard they will from the enhanced structure, organization, and communication the introduction of an electronic lab notebook brings to the lab.

  1. With the structured records you can set up in  an electronic lab notebook it is much easier to get buy in from everyone to use common forms and formats for things that everyone in the lab needs to use, like protocols.
  2. With an electronic lab notebook lab members can document their experiments in the same online environment that is used to store and share general information like meeting notes and protocols — that makes for much better organization.
  3. With the electronic lab notebook’s messaging system technicians and research associates can communicate with lab members 24/7, and do this in a targeted way — for example if they have a question about a protocol someone has submitted, they can send a message with the question and insert a link to the protocol, making it easier for the recipient to respond quickly.

The bottom line?  Everyone in the lab benefits from the introduction of an electronic lab notebook!

Naturally Obsessed: What if the scientists had used an electronic lab notebook?

Posted by Rory on August 25th, 2010 @ 7:00 am

The film

Over a year after it was released, the award winning film,  Naturally Obsessed:  The Making of a Scientist, continues to attract praise and stimulate discussion. The film chronicles the experiences of three PhD candidates in the laboratory of molecular biologist Lawrence Shapiro at Columbia University Medical Center.  Here’s the plot, as summarized on the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center website

“In the film, shot mostly in Dr. Shapiro’s lab, the students are trying to beat worldwide competition in identifying the molecular workings of the protein AMPK, which controls whether fat is burned to produce energy or is stored as fat. The three scientists struggle with various personal challenges: Robert Townley has a history of rebellious behavior; Kilpatrick Carroll questions whether he should leave academia for industry; and Gabrielle Cubberley wrestles with self-doubt about succeeding in such a competitive environment. At the end of the film, Townley achieves success in his project and publishes the results, with Dr. Shapiro as the only other co-author, in the journal Science.”

Naturally Obsessed has been called “the best film ever to depict what goes on inside a real science lab — period.”  In my view it deserves all the accolades it has received;  gritty, realistic, entertaining, etc.  So it’s well worth watching.   Understandably, it’s the human dynamics of life in the lab that seems to have captured the imagination of most people who have commented on the film.   In this post I’d like to focus on an aspect of the film which has not received a great deal of attention, but IMHO is just as interesting as the human dynamics.  That is the light the film sheds on the research process in a lab, on the ‘research dynamics’ if you will.

Research dynamics in the Shapiro lab

Richard Rifkind, M.D.  co-producer/co-director of Naturally Obsessed: the making of a scientist (and Chairman Emeritus of the Sloan-Kettering Institute and founding Chairman of the New York Structural Biology Center,  observed in commenting on why he was inspired to make the film

“Scientific research . . .  is an investigation that starts with curiosity about a question that can only be answered by the collection of data, and  . . . must find the story in that data that resolves that original question. For the scientist, that story is buried somewhere in the myriad experimental data points collected in a lab notebook.”

Sure enough, Robert Townley’s lab notebook even features in the film.    Since  Townley and Shapiro’s paper was published in 2007, the period of filming must have been roughly 2004 – 2007.  That was before collaborative research tools like electronic lab notebooks were widely available.  If the film was remade today, and the Shapiro lab was using an electronic lab notebook rather than individual paper lab notebooks, how might that impact on the research process and the research dynamics in the lab?

Three kinds of research relationships are depicted in the film:  between Larry Shapiro, the lab head, and each graduate student, between the graduate students themselves and between each graduate student their own research.

Relationships between the lab head and individual graduate students

The key research links in lab appear to be a series of individual relationships between Larry Shapiro and each graduate student.  Although Larry says, “I don’t tell the students what to do, we are trying to train independent scientists,”, he also says, “As a PhD, you are an apprentice to the advisor,” and he clearly is closely involved with his students’ research.  So closely that Robert says at the end of the Science paper, “This is me and Larry’s paper.  Together we have solved this structure of this really important molecule.”

Relationships between the graduate students

There are close links in the Shapiro lab between at least some of the graduate students.  And these are not just social links.  Kil sums it up when he says, “It’s not just my data that enriches the experience, Rob has been sitting across from me, working here, and has done many experiments that I never would have thought to do, and they’ve turned out to be really useful.”

Relationship of each graduate student to their own research

This of course is the ‘obsession’ in the film’s title.  Some quotes give a flavor of the experience:

“Two and a half years of doing experiments and having them not work.”

“We did an experiment a year ago, the crystals were too disordered.  We went back to the drawing board.”

“You learn so much from failure, nothing from success.”

The lab

As depicted in the film, this lab appears to be more a collection of individuals each working independently on an aspect of a problem rather than a group working together on the problem.  So there isn’t — or at least does not  appears to be — a strong common research agenda.

How might the research dynamics change (improve!) if the Shapiro lab adopted an electronic lab notebook?

Relationships between the lab head and individual graduate students

If everyone in the lab was using an electronic lab notebook Larry would find it much easier to keep track of each student’s research.  He could, for example, check their records of their experiments — any time, from anywhere — and leave comments.  The students would also find it easier to communicate with Larry.  They would not need to track him down or wait until he was available to ask a question about a procedure or an experiment in progress.  They could simply send him a message, with a link to the experiment, protocol, etc., posing their question, and expect to get an answer back promptly.

Relationships between the graduate students

With an electronic lab notebook opportunities for exchange of experience and learning from each other –something the students value highly — would be massively increased.  They could if they wanted give selected of their fellow  lab members view or even edit permission on their experiments, so that their colleagues would be able to comment on experiments as they progressed, and in their own time.  Communication would no longer be limited to chance encounters in the lab.

Relationship of each graduate student to their own research

The organized, searchable record of their research that would come with an electronic lab notebook would prove a major plus for the students in the two biggest challenges they describe:  how to learn from failure and how to manage the mass of data they accumulate as years of experiments pile up.  With an electronic lab notebook their past research would be immediately available — to themselves, to Larry and to other lab members — and searchable.  It would be much easier to keep track of what worked and and what did not, and to understand why.  And the chance of ‘making progress’ more quickly by applying lessons learned to future experiments would be materially increased.

The lab

In the absence of an electronic lab notebook, the Shapiro lab appeared to consist of a series of one to one relationships, between Larry and each student, and between individual students.  An electronic lab notebook would provide a convenient environment where the lab, as a group, could share their research and ideas about their research.  Since they are all working around the common theme of better understanding the workings of AMPK, the lab as a group and also each individual would benefit from access to a greater base of knowledge.  Even better, this base of knowledge would accumulate over time, so future members of the lab, and Larry, would have convenient access to the work not only of current, but also past, members of the lab.