What should social software for science look like?
[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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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)
- SS4S will work reliably and stably with high performance and low latency.
- 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).
- 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.