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Convergent evolution of scientist behaviour on Web 2.0 sites?

27 September 2008 12 Comments

A thought sparked off by a comment from Maxine Clarke at Nature Networks where she posted a link to a post by David Crotty. The thing that got me thinking was Maxine’ statement:

I would add that in my opinion Cameron’s points about FriendFeed apply also to Nature Network. I’ve seen lots of examples of highly specific questions being answered on NN in the way Cameron describes for FF…But NN and FF aren’t the same: they both have the same nice feature of discussion of a partiular question or “article at a URL somewhere”, but they differ in other ways,…[CN- my emphasis]

Alright, in isolation this doesn’t look like much, read through both David’s post and the comments, and then come back to Maxine’s,  but what struck me was that on many of these sites many different communities seem to be using very different functionality to do very similar things. In Maxine’s words ‘…discussion of a…paricular URL somewhere…’ And that leads me to wonder the extent to which all of these sites are failing to do what it is that we actually want them to do. And the obvious follow on question: What is it we want them to do?

There seem to be two parts to this. One, as I wrote in my response to David, is that a lot of this is about the coffee room conversation, a process of building and maintaining a social network. It happens that this network is online, which makes it tough to drop into each others office, but these conversational tools are the next best thing. In fact they can be better because they let you choose when someone can drop into your office, a choice you often don’t have in the physical world. Many services; Friendfeed, Twitter, Nature Networks, Faceboo, or a combination can do this quite well – indeed the conversation spreads across many services helping the social network (which bear in mind probably actually has less than 500 total members) to grow, form, and strengthen the connections between people.

Great. So the social bit, the bit we have in common with the general populace, is sorted. What about the science?

I think what we want as scientists is two things. Firstly we want the right URL delivered at the right time to our inbox (I am assuming anything important is a resource on the web – this may not be true now but give it 18 months and it will be) . Secondly we want a rapid and accurate assessment of this item, its validity, its relevance, and its importance to us judged by people we trust and respect. Traditionally this was managed by going to the library and reading the journals – and then going to the appropriate conference and talking to peopl. We know that the volume of material and the speed at which we need to deal with this is way too fast. Nothing new there.

My current thinking is that we are failing in building the right tools because we keep thinking of these two steps as separate when actually combining them into one integrated process would actual provide efficiency gains for both phases. I need to sleep on this to get it straight in my head, there are issues of resource discovery, timeframes, and social network maintenance that are not falling into place for me at the moment, so that will be the subject of another post.

However, whether I am right or wrong in that particular line of thought, if it is true that we are reasonably consistent in what we want then it is not suprising that we try to bend the full range of services available into achieving those goals. The interesting question is whether we can discern what the killer app would be by looking at the details of what people do to different services and where they are failing. In a sense, if there is a single killer app for science then it should be discernable what it would do based on what scientists try to do with different services…


  • The other issue with these kinds of “Web 2.0″ applications is that they all require the input of their users, which are scholars in this case.

    So even if there is an application that can cover those two points (which I completely agree with concerning what scholars want) we still need to give users and contributors a reason to have them spend their time and (intellectual) effort on it.

    I have seen plenty of tools that allow scholars to provide valuable feedback on scholarly material. But those tools always run into the same wall of death. And that wall of death is made up of a lack of time, a lack of accountability (and therefore a lack of quality) and a lack of incentives/accreditation.

    Scholarly contributors care about the time and incentives/accreditation, and users care about the accountability (and therefore the lack of quality).

    A killer application indeed involves easy access to validated resources, has a set of internal controls that can guarantee accountability and a minimum degree of quality (e.g. certification always carried out by peers). Finally, it needs to be able to provide these contributors specific rewards independently, or something that they can use outside of that killer application’s environment and in the “normal” scholarly environment: e.g. with publishers, universities, conferences, funding institutions.

  • The other issue with these kinds of “Web 2.0″ applications is that they all require the input of their users, which are scholars in this case.

    So even if there is an application that can cover those two points (which I completely agree with concerning what scholars want) we still need to give users and contributors a reason to have them spend their time and (intellectual) effort on it.

    I have seen plenty of tools that allow scholars to provide valuable feedback on scholarly material. But those tools always run into the same wall of death. And that wall of death is made up of a lack of time, a lack of accountability (and therefore a lack of quality) and a lack of incentives/accreditation.

    Scholarly contributors care about the time and incentives/accreditation, and users care about the accountability (and therefore the lack of quality).

    A killer application indeed involves easy access to validated resources, has a set of internal controls that can guarantee accountability and a minimum degree of quality (e.g. certification always carried out by peers). Finally, it needs to be able to provide these contributors specific rewards independently, or something that they can use outside of that killer application’s environment and in the “normal” scholarly environment: e.g. with publishers, universities, conferences, funding institutions.

  • There are different kinds of information that I look for as a scientist. For bringing new interesting content I do look to trusted and respected sources. But for data about an experiment I only care about the supporting information – reputation is irrelevant.

  • There are different kinds of information that I look for as a scientist. For bringing new interesting content I do look to trusted and respected sources. But for data about an experiment I only care about the supporting information – reputation is irrelevant.

  • I think you’re exactly right here, and personally, I think a lot of the problem is that too much of what’s being offered hasn’t been created with scientists in mind. Instead, we’re being asked to shoehorn our culture into tools that were created for other cultures, “Myspace for scientists” as it were.

  • I think you’re exactly right here, and personally, I think a lot of the problem is that too much of what’s being offered hasn’t been created with scientists in mind. Instead, we’re being asked to shoehorn our culture into tools that were created for other cultures, “Myspace for scientists” as it were.

  • jo Badge

    interesting stuff Cameron, but I think it is about the quality of the network (i.e. the people) not the tool you use. I have an excellent network on twitter – colleagues (at least half them who I have never met) who offer advice, support and encouragement on my work. This is because there is a body of elearning technologists and academics interesting in teaching and learning online in the twittersphere.

    Perhaps you are just too far ahead of the crowd and dont have the right community to talk to yet?

  • jo Badge

    interesting stuff Cameron, but I think it is about the quality of the network (i.e. the people) not the tool you use. I have an excellent network on twitter – colleagues (at least half them who I have never met) who offer advice, support and encouragement on my work. This is because there is a body of elearning technologists and academics interesting in teaching and learning online in the twittersphere.

    Perhaps you are just too far ahead of the crowd and dont have the right community to talk to yet?

  • Why do people go to conferences? For very junior researchers, it’s to listen to the presentations. That soon changes into two other reasons: to present their work to others, and for the informal chat in the bars and corridors. The latter is the original social networking. That’s what Twitter, Friendfeed, etc, offer. Sure, there’s information there, but the most importing reason we go there is for the craic.

  • Why do people go to conferences? For very junior researchers, it’s to listen to the presentations. That soon changes into two other reasons: to present their work to others, and for the informal chat in the bars and corridors. The latter is the original social networking. That’s what Twitter, Friendfeed, etc, offer. Sure, there’s information there, but the most importing reason we go there is for the craic.

  • Jo, you’ll get no argument from me on the importance of networks. And in some discipline areas I have absolutely the best community in the world to talk to and discuss things with. Also all of the above doesn’t avoid the problem of needing to build communities.

    What I was trying to get at here was a specific thing that I have noticed on many different services – that scientists seem to be using very different funcionality to do one specific thing – point at a URL and then aggregate a discussion about that. So you see the same thing happen on Twitter, Friendfeed, Nature Network, Science Blogs etc, often about the same item. I was wondering whether, as David Crotty has said many times that we are somehow missing the point about what precisely it is that we are trying to do.

  • Jo, you’ll get no argument from me on the importance of networks. And in some discipline areas I have absolutely the best community in the world to talk to and discuss things with. Also all of the above doesn’t avoid the problem of needing to build communities.

    What I was trying to get at here was a specific thing that I have noticed on many different services – that scientists seem to be using very different funcionality to do one specific thing – point at a URL and then aggregate a discussion about that. So you see the same thing happen on Twitter, Friendfeed, Nature Network, Science Blogs etc, often about the same item. I was wondering whether, as David Crotty has said many times that we are somehow missing the point about what precisely it is that we are trying to do.