What are the services we really want for recording science online?
There is an interesting meta-discussion going on in a variety of places at the moment which touch very strongly on my post and talk (slides, screencast) from last week about “web native” lab notebooks. Over at Depth First, Rich Apodaca has a post with the following little gem of a soundbite:
Web-Centric Science offers a set of features orthoginal to those of paper-centric science. Creating the new system in the image of the old one misses the point, and the opportunity, entirely.
Meanwhile a discussion on The Realm of Organic Synthesis blog was sparked off by a post about the need for a Wikipedia inspired chemistry resource (thanks again to Rich and Tony Williams for pointing the post and discussion out respectively). The initial idea here was something along the lines of;
I envision a hybrid of Doug Taber’s Organic Chemistry Portal, Wikipedia and a condensed version of SciFinder. I’ll gladly contribute! How do we get the ball rolling?
This in turn has led into a discussion of whether Chemspider and ChemMantis partly fill this role already. The key point being made here is the problem of actually finding and aggregating the relevant information. Tony Williams makes the point in the comments that Chemspider is not about being a central repository in the way that J proposes in the original TROS blog post but that if there are resources out there they can be aggregated into Chemspider. There are two problems here, capturing the knowledge into one “place” and then aggregating.
Finally there is an ongoing discussion in the margins of a post at RealClimate. The argument here is over the level of “working” that should be shown when doing analyses of data, something very close to my heart. In this case both the data and the MatLab routines used to process the data have been made available. What I believe is missing is the detailed record, or log, of how those routines were used to process the data. The argument rages over the value of providing this, the amount of work involved, and whether it could actually have a chilling effect on people doing independent validation of the results. In this case there is also the political issue of providing more material for antagonistic climate change skeptics to pore over and look for minor mistakes that they will then trumpet as holes. It will come as no suprise that I think the benefits of making the log available outweigh the problems. But that we need the tools to do it. This is beautifully summed up in one comment by Tobias Martin at number 64:
So there are really two main questions: if this [making the full record available - CN] is hard work for the scientist, for heaven’s sake, why is it hard work? (And the corrolary: how are you confident that your results are correct?)
And the answer – it is hard work because we still think in terms of a paper notebook paradigm, which isn’t well matched to the data analysis being done within MatLab. When people actually do data analysis using computational systems they very rarely keep a systematic log of the process. It is actually a rather difficult thing to do – even though in principle the system could (and in some cases does) keep that entire record for you.
My point is that if we completely re-imagine the shape and functionality of the laboratory record, in the way Rich and I, and others, have suggested; if the tools are built to capture what happens and then provide that to the outside world in a useful form (when the researcher chooses), then not only will this record exist but it will provide the detailed “clickstream” records that Richard Akerman refers to in answer to a Twitter proposal from Michael Barton:
Michael Barton: Website idea: Rank scientific articles by relevance to your research; get uptakes on them via citations and pubmed “related articles”
Richard Akerman: This is a problem of data, not of technology. Amazon has millions of people with a clear clickstream through a website. We’ve got people with PDFs on their desktops.
Exchange “data files” and “Matlab scripts” for PDFs and you have a statement of the same problem that they guys at RealClimate face. Yes it is there somewhere, but it is a pain in the backside to get it out and give it to someone.
If that “clickstream” and “file use stream” and “relationship” stream was automatically captured then we get closer to the thing that I think many of us a yearning for (and have been for some time). The Amazon recommendation tool for science.