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Telling stories…

30 July 2009 No Comment

On Tuesday I was able to sit in on a conversation that is regularly held within the Computer Science department at University of Toronto that focuses broadly on what can computer science bring as a discipline and a skill set to the sciences more generally. The conversation is lead by Steve Easterbrook so there is a focus on climate science but we also roamed much more widely than that.

A key question that was raised, one which many of us have been struggling with for some time, is how to describe and publish descriptions of the progress of research projects in a way that provides a route in for non-specialists. Blogs provide a great way to do this, either as a generic journal with more or less detail, or as an overlay over a more detailed open notebook. Jean-Claude Bradley’s UsefulChem blog is a great example of the latter, and the blogs of Rosis Redfield’s group an example of the former.

The conversation was interesting for me in that it pinned down the idea and necessity of creating a narrative. This contrasts with the kind of (largely incomprehensible) detail found in a notebook which is usually fragmented and often distributed. One of the things that researchers are quite poor at in my experience is actually recording the why of an experiment; the question of how it fits into the wider context. Again blogs are a great format for doing this but where is the motivation? Writing that narrative in any form is hard work, a classic example of work that “takes me away from the bench” so how can it be justified?

One reason is that it raises the profile of the research, always an important issue in today’s research environment. But this is more important to some people than to others. Another very valid reason is to take personal notes, to create a personal narrative of what you are doing and have done that you can return to and use as an index to your own work. In a later discussion with Alicia Grubb she mentioned that her supervisors insisted on her blogging about literature that she collected. Equally taking notes in a bookmarking service could provide the same functionality. But understanding the context in which you bookmarked something is valuable. Brent Mombourquette, an undergraduate student also demonstrated a nice Firefox plugin that he had developed which captures and displays browsing history as a directed graph which is an interesting tool to think about in this context. I’ll write more about some of the fabulous student demos I saw later.

For me though, the biggest benefit of making your research accessible, is that it provides an entry route for new people to come in and help. The story of Galaxy Zoo shows how by placing a question within an understandable narrative you can enable people to come in and help out. No-one is going to come in from the outside and comment on my lab notebook unless they are already a specialist with a specific question. I’ve often thought I should start another blog to discuss more generally what is happening in my “real” research. Maybe this is the time to do that.

But you can also take this one step further. There was a debate in the comments on the RealClimate blog a few months ago about making the details of data and analysis publicly available. One real and valid concern was that denialists would dig into the detail and mis-represent problems or mistakes to advance their own agenda. Dealing with this kind of thing takes up valuable time, time the average researcher, particularly if they are committed to taking time to engage with a wider community, doesn’t have. My question was whether you could configure that public release of data and process in such a way that even those who are working against you are helping you. If people are searching your code for bugs then surely there must be a way of taking advantage of that?

The argument that releasing data costs you time sounds compelling when it comes from a researcher. But equally the same argument sounds dangerous when it is made by, for example, a government. As Steve said tongue in cheek, perhaps channeling some recently removed political leaders, “clearly we’re not going to release this data because it would take us time to deal with public complaints, and that will costs taxpayer. In fact, we’re not even going to run the consultation because that would cost money. It’s much cheaper and more effective use of your tax dollars if you just trust us to do the right thing.” The situations clearly aren’t exact parallels and resources for communication are much more limited in a research setting but it would be interesting to think about parallel cases in different domains, such as government and research, and how the domain effects the credibility of the argument. If you believe in the value of sunshine as disinfectant for government data then you need a strong case to argue the same doesn’t apply to research data.

But if you decide that you want to make that narrative public, or even better the narrative along with the underlying data, it does take work to make it comprehensible. As I’ve discovered recently such posts don’t translate easily into papers so making the argument that you can re-use the text doesn’t really work, at least for me. To make this worthwhile you either have to be required to do it: JISC in the UK basically requires that all funded projects have blogs; or you have to believe and work towards the benefits it can bring you. In a sense this is actually just recapturing the idea of the research notebook that many historical scientists kept, and which make such rich pickings for modern historians of science. Somewhere along the line we lost that. There are lots of tools around that can help you create that narrative, from clickstreams, records, environmental capture, but these remain only an aide memoire. Making the story is something that will probably remain a purely human activity. It is something that we seem highly evolved to do and it remains the most effective means of human to human communication. The computers can help, and they can provide the detail to dig down into if desired, but the story itself will remain ours alone for a while yet I think.

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