As I mentioned earlier this week, I’m collaborating on a series of articles about the future of scientific communication. For the next piece (as of this moment, very much a work in progress), we’ve taken as our (loose) theme the role of the “interactive web” (FriendFeed, Twitter, blogging, social networking) in scientific publishing, communication and in the doing of science itself.

We’re especially interested in finding real-world examples of ways that the social web has been used by scientists to initiate and/or implement collaborations, but really we’d like to hear about any cases in which Web 2.0 tools have been used in scientific communication, writ large (manuscript preparation, disseminating results shared at a conference, etc.).

I thought it would be deliciously recursive to use a blog to solicit such examples — I’ve also been posting in The Life Scientists room at FriendFeed, tweeting on Twitter, and preparing a post for the relevant forum on Nature Network.

So, if you have a scientific Web 2.0 story you’d like to share: please post a Comment here, get in touch using one of the networking systems mentioned in the last paragraph, or if you’re feeling traditional email me.

I’ve added a category to the right-hand column of the Ouroboros main page: “Links: Search”.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to filter the literature. For scientists attempting to keep abreast of relevant knowledge, efficient search is necessary — though certainly not sufficient; even the best modern search tools either yield an unacceptably high false-positive rate (i.e., results that aren’t really of interest) or require a large investment of time and effort in order to tune searches for the needs of a specific user.

Search is improving, however, and I enjoy playing with the newest technologies. I’ve been a longtime adherent of HubMed, which is simply a better skin for PubMed. Lately I’ve been enjoying the intuitive interface of novo|seek, which allows the user to rapidly configure their search based on a group of related concepts, which the search engine delivers automatically based on the initial query terms.

So I’ve started a list of useful or otherwise noteworthy search tools. Check them out, share your thoughts, and let us know whether you’ve got a favorite that’s not already listed.

Over at her new consolidated blog I was lost but now I live here, Shirley Wu has a thoughtful piece about the coming changes in academic publishing, the institutional disincentives against engaging in barrier-free publishing (e.g blogging), and one clever way of breaking what she terms “the silicon ceiling”. It will be of particular interest if (like me) you’re interested in promoting and participating in open science.

I echo many of Shirley’s thoughts regarding the attitude of older/more established scientists about “frivolous” activities like blogging — my last two advisors are benignly mystified by my involvement in this activity, and I suspect that (if they thought I’d listen) they would advise me to spend “more time at the bench” (as though the two things traded off in that simple way). Like many science bloggers, I blog in part because I feel like it will do my field some good, and in part because I feel some compulsion to do it. Of course I hope that someday it will “pay off” in a professional sense but, as Shirley points out, the Powers That Be™ are pretty happy with the way things are, and they’re generally suspicious of activities that don’t fit into the standard model of careerized, professional science.

In the meantime, some things will continue to change slowly, one retirement party at a time.

As I mentioned, I spent most of last week and weekend attending two unconferences, BioBarCamp and Scifoo.

By their very nature, unconferences tend not to converge on a single topic; over the past week, I paricipated in discussions whose topics ranged from the importance of database annotation to how mushrooms could save the world to the current technical considerations involved in settling Mars. Nonetheless, even in the anarchic environs of an unconference, self-reinforcing trends arise over the course of the discussions, and themes do emerge (though each participant might perceive different patterns and come away with a completely different report of an event’s most important themes).

For me, the most powerful and important theme emerging from the week was the idea of “open science.” This term refers not to any one initiative or project, but the cloud of concepts that includes open access publication, use of open source solutions (especially for protocols and software), commons-based licensing, and full publication of all raw data (including “failed” experiments). It also incorporates more radical ideas like opening one’s notebook in real time, prepublishing unreviewed results, replacing current models of peer review with annotation and user ratings, and redesigning (or ditching) impact factors. The world implied by these concepts is one of radical sharing, in which credit still goes where credit is due but by dramatically different mechanisms.

Open science isn’t so much “pay it forward” (though there is a bit of that) as an effort to create a (scientific) world in which no one is paying at all, a world in which there’s no incentive to withhold or protect ownership of data. The science fiction writer Iain M. Banks once wrote that “money implies poverty” — indeed, many of the current models of data ownership and publication, and their accompanying “currencies” of proprietorship, prestige and closed-access publication, imply a world in which data is scarce and must be hoarded. But data is not scarce anymore.

Given a suitable set of one-to-one and one-to-many agreements between the stakeholders, then, the benefits of sharing could come to outweigh any conceivable advantage derived from secrecy. Perhaps “open science” could be defined (for the moment) as the quest to design and optimize such agreements, along with the quest to design the best tools and licenses to empower scientists as they move from the status quo into the next system — because (and this is very important) if it is to ever succeed, open science has to work not because of governmental fiat or because a large number of people suddenly start marching in lockstep to an unnatural tune, but because it works better than competing models. Proof of that particular pudding will be entirely in the eating.

During the meetings, I met quite a few people involved in this mission, and I want to mention their organizations and projects here:

  • OpenWetWare, “an effort to promote the sharing of information, know-how, and wisdom among researchers and groups who are working in biology & biological engineering” – including tools for protocol sharing and open notebooks;
  • Epernicus, a social networking site for scientists that automatically connects peers based on institution, history, skills and research focus;
  • JournalFire, “a centralized location for you to share, discuss, and evaluate published journal articles” (still in beta);
  • Science Commons, the scientific wing of the Creative Commons, which “designs strategies and tools for faster, more efficient web-enabled scientific research. We identify unnecessary barriers to research, craft policy guidelines and legal agreements to lower those barriers, and develop technology to make research data and materials easier to find and use.”;
  • Nature Precedings, “a free online service launched in 2007 enabling researchers in the life sciences to rapidly share, discuss and cite preliminary (unpublished) findings”; and
  • UnPubDatabase, a discussion of ways for scientists to rapidly and efficiently publish “negative” results, both to allow re-analysis of data and to prevent the scientific community from following the same blind alley more than once.

Academic scientists aren’t the only ones to potentially benefit, by the way — pharmaceutical companies routinely run the same experiments as one another and often find that expensive trials could be avoided if they’d only had access to data mouldering in a competitor’s vault — so open science can benefit the profit sector as well, and there are already plans underway to make that possible.

I’m enthusiastic about bringing open science into my own project and my own laboratory — indeed, in a fit of post-conference ecstasy I basically put myself on record promising to do so. For reasons that have everything to do with available energy levels, I suspect that full-blown openness is probably easier to accomplish when it’s present from the beginning of a project, so I’m especially eager to put these ideas to the test in a large-scale collaboration that is just getting underway. I have no idea how it will go — I expect to meet resistance, especially to the more radical ideas like open notebooks — but it’s nonetheless an exciting time. Will I be able to convince my collaborators to try out open science approaches? Once implemented, will they work? I don’t know, but I am convinced that it’s a hypothesis worth testing.

One of my favorite aspects of blogging is the contact it affords with the biogerontology community. Many readers have reached out, sometimes to say hello and other times to engage in discussions — sometimes of scholarly topics, and other times regarding professional considerations like how to look for a postdoc.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to share the contents of those interactions with the community at large; one consequence of this is that I end up having similar conversations with multiple people who might benefit from interacting more directly with each other. Thanks to some relatively recent conversations with readers (you know who you are, and I thank you), it occurred to me that social networking tools — despite their faults — might allow for a more efficient (and democratic) sharing of ideas, and maybe even create a repository of good advice and “stored thought” to which new community members might refer.

The first step I’m taking in this direction is to initiate a group on Facebook, the social networking system that I use most often. The group is named after the site (Ouroboros: Research in the biology of aging), and is open to anyone with a Facebook account. You can join the group without “friending” me (which I would prefer. One thing I don’t like about Facebook is that it only acknowledges one kind of connection, “friend.” I’m trying to keep my friend list limited to people I actually know, but this group allows for a different kind of connection. Even better, the group is many-to-many rather than one-to-many, i.e., everyone in the group is equally well connected to each other). I just created it, with a few discussion topics (“What are you up to?” and “Hot topics“), and I’m eager to see how the community responds.

The idea here is to create a place where readers of this site can get together and discuss matters of interest to the current (and future) biologists of aging. If you’re interested in kicking around ideas, making connections with other biogerontologists, or simply learning more, please join.

P.S.: I’m probably going to branch out in other social-networking directions; the Nature Network will probably be next, just as soon as I figure out how it works.

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