Home » Blog

Bursty science depends on openness

13 April 2008 4 Comments

An example of a social network diagram.Image via Wikipedia

There have been a number of interesting discussions going on in the blogosphere recently about radically different ways of practising science. Pawel Szczesny has blogged about his plans for freelancing science as a way of moving out of the rigid career structure that drives conventional academic science. Deepak Singh has blogged a number of times about ‘bursty science‘, the idea that projects can be rapidly executed by distributing them amongst a number of people, each with the capacity to undertake a small part of the project.

I have been interested in this from the perspective of identifying collaborators to help ‘finish off’ a few pieces of work or for providing tools that we don’t have access to or don’t have the expertise to use. I’ve had two shots at this on blogs and forums, once here and once at Nature Networks but not had any real success.

Last week I tried a different tack and posted the following on Friendfeed;

Request for assistance:

I’m trying to build a model of the calcium gated potassium channel MthK using the PDB files 1lnq and 2fy8. MthK has a gating domain (rck domain) and a transmembrane domain and works as a tetramer of full length proteins with a tetramer of just rck domain[… full request and responses here]

This is a problem I could probably solve eventually, but I figured that amongst the people who follow me or my friends on Friendfeed there would be someone who could do it a lot better and faster. I finished the request with “Authorship on papers a given – can’t offer any money”, to be clear about what was on offer.

Very quickly Pawel chimed in with an offer of help and we quickly discussed (in a completely public forum) what could or couldn’t be done and on what timeframes. I don’t want to get into the details of the science here but I wanted to pull a few details out of this.

One important point is that Friendfeed generates a much more rapid conversation than blog posts generally do. It is has very low barriers to getting into discussions. The whole exchange between myself and Pawel took a couple of hours. It also encourages public and group discussions and while no-one else pitched in others provided encouragement along the way. The low barrier is crucial, both to people asking for help, and for people to offer or get some more information. If this becomes widespread then it will be important to be able to engage more deeply only when it has been identified that there is a definite potential for a productive interaction.

I only follow a small number of people on Friendfeed which makes it almost manageable. The points where potential collaborations could be identified here mainly come out of odd comments of frustration with one thing or another. For this to expand to a point where people large numbers of people can find the help they need a brokerage system of some type is going to be required. Half workstream, half e-bay, and half social networking site. Such a thing will only work if many people are using it either directly, or more probably via the aggregation of many different types of workstream or lifestream.

But it can also only work if these people are preapred to be open about the day to day frsutrations, the little things that aren’t working, or that could be better done by someone else, or that someone else has a better tool for. Generating the feeds that will expose these problems or inefficiencies, or just points of common interest is do-able with the tools we have, but we need many more people generating these feeds. The benefits can only be seen when someone else comes at your problem from an unexpected angle. That will only happen in you are open about what you are doing and what the problems are.

It is natural to worry when thinking about this as to how such requests can actually be resourced, but I don’t think that is the problem. I think the problem lies in generating a sufficient number and diversity of requests that we can create a market for people to fulfil them. I don’t know how we can generate this critical mass. Without it, we’ll only make small scale progress, and only where there are people like Pawel with the right expertise and the willingness to help. But I think we can probably work out the supply side, as long as people get a return on their effort in the form of papers, and perhaps money. The demand side is where the problem is going to lie. I don’t think scientists are very good at asking for help.


  • It goes back also to a something you mentioned before achieving critical mass. We can’t really be connected to everyone’s feeds in order to be able to request collaborations it would be just too overwhelming. We need something in the middle with some knowledge of what each person is capable of, the amount of time we can spare and the rewards we expect. In turn we need simple ways to declare a collaboration requirement that can be transmitted to the right people. Some kind of collaboration exchange. Two possible mechanisms for this would be either a social network like Nature Network of a more distributed system like an aggregator. Formulating a blog post in a defined manner would be collected as collaboration request the same way for example Postgenomic is tracking blog posts about papers. Then each person would be free to subscribe to the feed of interest. The second way seems more flexible but the first more likely to work since it would be more passive.

  • It goes back also to a something you mentioned before achieving critical mass. We can’t really be connected to everyone’s feeds in order to be able to request collaborations it would be just too overwhelming. We need something in the middle with some knowledge of what each person is capable of, the amount of time we can spare and the rewards we expect. In turn we need simple ways to declare a collaboration requirement that can be transmitted to the right people. Some kind of collaboration exchange. Two possible mechanisms for this would be either a social network like Nature Network of a more distributed system like an aggregator. Formulating a blog post in a defined manner would be collected as collaboration request the same way for example Postgenomic is tracking blog posts about papers. Then each person would be free to subscribe to the feed of interest. The second way seems more flexible but the first more likely to work since it would be more passive.

  • Yeh, I’ve been thinking of something like the bastard offspring of ebay and facebook. But perhaps a better comparator is something like freecycle. The problem remains, how do you get people to provide the feeds that enable discovery of people you might be able to work with. I almost think the discovery part itself will be easy to implement if we can get sufficient critical mass.

  • Yeh, I’ve been thinking of something like the bastard offspring of ebay and facebook. But perhaps a better comparator is something like freecycle. The problem remains, how do you get people to provide the feeds that enable discovery of people you might be able to work with. I almost think the discovery part itself will be easy to implement if we can get sufficient critical mass.