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What should social software for science look like?

9 December 2009 16 Comments

Nat Torkington, picking up on my post over the weekend about the CRU emails takes a slant which has helped me figure out how to write this post which I was struggling with. He says:

[from my post...my concern is that in a kneejerk response to suddenly make things available no-one will think to put in place the social and technical infrastructure that we need to support positive engagement, and to protect active researchers, both professional and amateur from time-wasters.] Sounds like an open science call for social software, though I’m not convinced it’s that easy. Humans can’t distinguish revolutionaries from terrorists, it’s unclear why we think computers should be able to.

As I responded over at Radar, yes I am absolutely calling for social software for scientists, but I didn’t mean to say that we could expect it to help us find the visionaries amongst the simply wrong. But this raises a very helpful question. What is it that we would hope Social Software for Science would do? And is that realistic?

Over the past twelve months I seem to have got something of a reputation for being a grumpy old man about these things, because I am deeply sceptical of most of the offerings out there. Partly because most of these services don’t actually know what it is they are trying to do, or how it maps on to the success stories of the social web. So prompted by Nat I would like to propose a list of what effective Social Software for Science (SS4S) will do and what it can’t.

  1.  SS4S will promote engagement with online scientific objects and through this encourage and provide paths to those with enthusiasm but insufficient expertise to gain sufficient expertise to contribute effectively (see e.g. Galaxy Zoo). This includes but is certainly not limited to collaborations between professional scientists. These are merely a special case of the general.
  2. SS4S will measure and reward positive contributions, including constructive criticism and disagreement (Stack overflow vs YouTube comments). Ideally such measures will value quality of contribution rather than opinion, allowing disagreement to be both supported when required and resolved when appropriate.
  3. SS4S will provide single click through access to available online scientific objects and make it easy to bring references to those objects into the user’s personal space or stream (see e.g. Friendfeed “Like” button)
  4. SS4S should provide zero effort upload paths to make scientific objects available online while simultaneously assuring users that this upload and the objects are always under their control. This will mean in many cases that what is being pushed to the SS4S system is a reference not the object itself, but will sometimes be the object to provide ease of use. The distinction will ideally be invisible to the user in practice barring some initial setup (see e.g. use of Posterous as a marshalling yard).
  5. SS4S will make it easy for users to connect with other users and build networks based on a shared interest in specific research objects (Friendfeed again).
  6. SS4S will help the user exploit that network to collaboratively filter objects of interest to them and of importance to their work. These objects might be results, datasets, ideas, or people.
  7. SS4S will integrate with the user’s existing tools and workflow and enable them to gradually adopt more effective or efficient tools without requiring any severe breaks (see Mendeley/Citeulike/Zotero/Papers and DropBox)
  8. SS4S will work reliably and stably with high performance and low latency.
  9. SS4S will come to where the researcher is working both with respect to new software and also unusual locations and situations requiring mobile, location sensitive, and overlay technologies (Layar, Greasemonkey, voice/gesture recognition – the latter largely prompted by a conversation I had with Peter Murray-Rust some months ago).
  10. SS4S will be trusted and reliable with a strong community belief in its long term stability. No single organization holds or probably even can hold this trust so solutions will almost certainly need to be federated, open source, and supported by an active development community.

What SS4S won’t do is recognize geniuses when they are out in the wilderness amongst a population of the just plain wrong. It won’t solve the cost problems of scientific publication and it won’t turn researchers into agreeable, supportive, and collaborative human beings. Some things are beyond even the power of Web 2.0

I was originally intending to write this post from a largely negative perspective, ranting as I have in the past about how current services won’t work. I think now there is a much more positive approach. Lets go out there and look at what has been done, what is being done, and how well it is working in this space. I’ve set up a project on my new wiki (don’t look too closely, I haven’t finished the decorating) and if you are interested in helping out with a survey of what’s out there I would appreciate the help. You should be able to log in with an OpenID as long as you provide an email address. Check out this Friendfeed thread for some context.

My belief is that we are near to position where we could build a useful requirements document for such a beast with references to what has worked and what hasn’t. We may not have the resources to build it and maybe the NIH projects currently funded will head in that direction. But what is valuable is to pull the knowledge together to figure out the most effective path forward.


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  • Ivo Jimenez

    What do you think about Mendeley?

  • Ivo Jimenez

    What do you think about Mendeley?

  • I don’t follow, what exactly is SS4S?

    I hear the buzz word ‘social’ it makes me think of facebook, twitter, myspace, youtube, etc.. which are certainly centrally located

    Point 10 states that the long term success of social software will be independent of a central location, what sort of trust issue is at stake that would be fixed if the software were to be federated?

  • I don’t follow, what exactly is SS4S?

    I hear the buzz word ‘social’ it makes me think of facebook, twitter, myspace, youtube, etc.. which are certainly centrally located

    Point 10 states that the long term success of social software will be independent of a central location, what sort of trust issue is at stake that would be fixed if the software were to be federated?

  • Sean, SS4S was just short-hand for social software four scientists, which was deliberately vague and less pejorative than “Facebooks for science”. By social I mean pretty much in the web2 sphere that encompasses read-write web, commenting, network building, social filtering etc.

    All the social services you describe are indeed centralised but other ones like identi.ca, openID (alright that’s probably a reach as a social service), any P2P system show that these systems don’t need to be centralised and there are good structural reasons for suggesting that federated systems are more robust. The web itself, and the internet underlying it, probably being the best examples.

    The problem with centralised services is three-fold. Firstly business models may take them in directions that aren’t useful for the scientific community (e.g. Friendfeed). They may simply fold, leaving the users behind with no-where to go (pick your recent failure).

    But in the science space the political issues are intense. I am unsure there is any organization that I can think of that would have enough trust across wide enough set of communities to get decent support. We can’t trust the commercial publishers, the US won’t trust a European site, Europe won’t trust the US, and no-one will trust the Chinese. The physicists won’t want something run by biologists and the biologists won’t want something run by chemists.

    Federation means that communties and organisations can both exist in their own space, with their own business models, but with a confidence that data is portable enough that it can be moved or replicated and with communications protocols that push things in and out of other services. This is the way the social web is going anyway – with services like Posterous being used as central marshalling yards to push things to different places using (partly) standardised communications protocols.

  • Sean, SS4S was just short-hand for social software four scientists, which was deliberately vague and less pejorative than “Facebooks for science”. By social I mean pretty much in the web2 sphere that encompasses read-write web, commenting, network building, social filtering etc.

    All the social services you describe are indeed centralised but other ones like identi.ca, openID (alright that’s probably a reach as a social service), any P2P system show that these systems don’t need to be centralised and there are good structural reasons for suggesting that federated systems are more robust. The web itself, and the internet underlying it, probably being the best examples.

    The problem with centralised services is three-fold. Firstly business models may take them in directions that aren’t useful for the scientific community (e.g. Friendfeed). They may simply fold, leaving the users behind with no-where to go (pick your recent failure).

    But in the science space the political issues are intense. I am unsure there is any organization that I can think of that would have enough trust across wide enough set of communities to get decent support. We can’t trust the commercial publishers, the US won’t trust a European site, Europe won’t trust the US, and no-one will trust the Chinese. The physicists won’t want something run by biologists and the biologists won’t want something run by chemists.

    Federation means that communties and organisations can both exist in their own space, with their own business models, but with a confidence that data is portable enough that it can be moved or replicated and with communications protocols that push things in and out of other services. This is the way the social web is going anyway – with services like Posterous being used as central marshalling yards to push things to different places using (partly) standardised communications protocols.

  • Ivo, I very much like the conceptual basis behind Mendeley as a way of bringing people into a social app. It does the job of solving a specific problem that a lot of users recognise without requiring them to “be social” or have an existing network in place. I also think they get the federation and pushing of information backwards and forwards.

    That said I could wish them to take a more open-source approach with a lot of their code, which I believe would speed up the development process, and to have an API and more flexible feeds that enable the user to push information around in more ways.

    My impression is that the guys at Mendeley get it, but they are a bit constrained by the need to protect potential revenue streams by their funders. On the other hand, their funders also get it so hopefully once revenue streams are shown they can start to free some of this up.

  • Ivo, I very much like the conceptual basis behind Mendeley as a way of bringing people into a social app. It does the job of solving a specific problem that a lot of users recognise without requiring them to “be social” or have an existing network in place. I also think they get the federation and pushing of information backwards and forwards.

    That said I could wish them to take a more open-source approach with a lot of their code, which I believe would speed up the development process, and to have an API and more flexible feeds that enable the user to push information around in more ways.

    My impression is that the guys at Mendeley get it, but they are a bit constrained by the need to protect potential revenue streams by their funders. On the other hand, their funders also get it so hopefully once revenue streams are shown they can start to free some of this up.

  • Alessandro

    I’ve been thinking for a long time about a SS4S. Where can I write my ideas? Am I allowed to edit the Discussion page on the project wiki?

  • Alessandro

    I’ve been thinking for a long time about a SS4S. Where can I write my ideas? Am I allowed to edit the Discussion page on the project wiki?

  • The wiki is there for open working so feel free to use the discussion page. Same access requirements as described above.

  • The wiki is there for open working so feel free to use the discussion page. Same access requirements as described above.