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We still have a way to go folks…

13 April 2008 12 Comments

The mainstream media has a lot of negative things to say about blogs and user based content on the web. Most of them can be discounted but there is one that I think does need to be taken seriously. The ability of communities to form and to some extent to close around themselves and to simply reinforce their own predjudices is a serious problem and one that we need to work against. This week I had two salutary lessons that reminded me that while the open research community is growing and gaining greater recognition, we remain a pretty marginal fringe group.

The first was an exchange on Jenny Rohn’s Nature Network blog, Mind the Gap. I am taking Jenny’s comments out of context and you should read the post and the (very long) full set of comments. This was in response to Neil Saunders mentioning the open notebook concept;

Thanks Neil. I look forward to diving into those links! (But open lab notebooks? You’ve got to be kidding. These guys have obviously never been scooped. This would never, in a million zillion years, work in any cutthroat field.) […]

Now you should read the post and the rest of the comments for what became a good extended conversation about benefits and risks. But the message I wanted to take from this was not that people ‘out there’ have the same set of fears that we know many people do, but that the ‘open approach’ in general was not just an alien concept it was an entirely new concept to many people there. Message; that we need to go out to the wider research community and show how open practice is embedded in what we do, that it is simply a good way of doing science. I committed to showing the Open Notebook Science concept every time I give a talk. If more people can do this then I think it will help.

The somewhat more amusing lesson came in the respone to a submission we made to the International Conference on e-Social Science. The submission we made for a ‘short paper’ can be seen at Google Docs and I am still aiming to get it onto Nature Precedings but want to get it properly referenced first. I found the referee’s comments on this quite funny for a variety of reasons. First, there was the clear fact that they were expecting something entirely different to what we submitted, something much closer to what I would consider to be a short paper, not an abstract. The submission was refereed by four people! A classic case of the perceptions of people from different fields clashing. Secondly there was an element of simply not getting the point, probably at least partially because I presented it the wrong way. I present a few quotations (again out of context);

[…]I was rather less convinced about the value of the approach in gathering collaborators or in submitting a proposal; firstly because this account glosses a lot of the work involved in getting collaborators interested and on board or in resolving the various issues that typically arise in proposal writing; and secondly because I wasn’t convinced that the tool is much better than those currently emplyed like email and the telephone [CN-my emphasis]

[…]I am afraid, I do not quite see the potential for e-Social Science (or e-Science). But the paper is well written and the case presented clearly – but not very innovative or appropriate for the call.

After all, all we are doing is undermining the entire existing reporting structure for science, probably not very significant really :)

However there was a positive comment that goes to the heart of why I thought it worth submitting in the first place.

What I am missing here are:

1) the data is available, as said in the text, for social scientists to analyse; a generous offer, but why not liaising with social scientists in the first place for this paper?[…]

So someone thought there was something worth doing. My aim in going was to try and identify social scientists who might find this interesting and want to work with us. I don’t really even have a clue as to what field of social science is relevant (ethnography? anthropology? psychology?) so the aim was to try and find out. We have been invited to have a poster so perhaps I can both publicise the concept, and find the right people to talk to (although we have since then made some other progress in this direction).

I think there are a couple of points to take from both these stories. One is that we are often talking at cross purposes with people because what we are proposing is totally alien to their experience. We need to take care in how we describe things and also to take care to not appear to be attacking people’s ethics (although sometimes challenging them can be productive). And finally that the talking will be worthwhile. Once we can get over the language barrier.


  • Anna

    I think I forgot to mention to you the today programme on Friday morning – there was a quote from one of the ministers which was very much “the best science is open science” – I can’t remember the exact phraseology though, but I do remember thinking – ahha, someone we can use :)

  • Anna

    I think I forgot to mention to you the today programme on Friday morning – there was a quote from one of the ministers which was very much “the best science is open science” – I can’t remember the exact phraseology though, but I do remember thinking – ahha, someone we can use :)

  • Anna

    Bah! can’t find it now. I _think_ it was the low copy number stuff (but it might be another quote buried in news), since their main problem was that all the companies involved refused to validate, since it meant releasing information to their competitors. As a result, the process was suspended and there were some high-profile appeals. In the second interview listed, one of the Professors does say that “all the data needs to be available” … but I’m sure there was more.

  • Anna

    Bah! can’t find it now. I _think_ it was the low copy number stuff (but it might be another quote buried in news), since their main problem was that all the companies involved refused to validate, since it meant releasing information to their competitors. As a result, the process was suspended and there were some high-profile appeals. In the second interview listed, one of the Professors does say that “all the data needs to be available” … but I’m sure there was more.

  • It is good to remind ourselves that what we consider quite normal and commonplace is not even in the consciousness of many other researchers!

    I had a similar experience recently when dealing with a review. I had suggested that people wishing to use my software for more than basic applications could contact me directly with their research ideas. A reviewer snorted that “people cannot be expected to contact authors directly with their problems”, or words to that effect.

    Which I thought was weird because (1) they can, (2) they have and (3) I would.

  • It is good to remind ourselves that what we consider quite normal and commonplace is not even in the consciousness of many other researchers!

    I had a similar experience recently when dealing with a review. I had suggested that people wishing to use my software for more than basic applications could contact me directly with their research ideas. A reviewer snorted that “people cannot be expected to contact authors directly with their problems”, or words to that effect.

    Which I thought was weird because (1) they can, (2) they have and (3) I would.

  • Anna

    re: social scientists – do you want the sort that look at facebook and networking? I presume there are some articles through the BBC to appropriate research groups …

  • Anna

    re: social scientists – do you want the sort that look at facebook and networking? I presume there are some articles through the BBC to appropriate research groups …

  • Anna, I think I heard the same thing but was half asleep at the time. Will need to track it down again. In terms of social scientists we’ve got some good contacts now at Oxford and I am hoping we will be able to take that forward. That and doing the poster at the e-social science meeting I hope.

  • Anna, I think I heard the same thing but was half asleep at the time. Will need to track it down again. In terms of social scientists we’ve got some good contacts now at Oxford and I am hoping we will be able to take that forward. That and doing the poster at the e-social science meeting I hope.

  • On Low template DNA analysis. Forensic science regulator Andrew Rennison: encouraged analysis firms to make it clear to public what works and what doesn’t “…secret science is not good science…” quoted in the first few minutes of the Today programme 11/04/08

  • On Low template DNA analysis. Forensic science regulator Andrew Rennison: encouraged analysis firms to make it clear to public what works and what doesn’t “…secret science is not good science…” quoted in the first few minutes of the Today programme 11/04/08