Friday, December 7, 2012

If EOL Started All Over Today, What Would be the Best Approach?

Today I participated in a very engaging conversation with a group of systematists and ecologists who are intensely interested in cataloguing the diversity of life in their neck of the woods. They immediately recognized that such a compilation should contain authoritative content, it should contain links to relevant resources so as not to repeat efforts elsewhere, and it most definitely should be online. In my (perhaps naive) interpretation, it sounded much like the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), albeit at a smaller, more focused scale.

But has EOL taken a winning approach? Has it sustained the interest it once had? Is it duplicating effort? Is it financially sustainable? Are remarkable, value-added products being built off its infrastructure that would not otherwise be possible? These aren't rhetorical questions. I just don't know. Shouldn't I know by now? Part of the answer will certainly depend on which metric you wish to use. And, these metrics will invariably draw upon the engagement of one audience or another.

Here's an interesting thought experiment:

If EOL had taken a radically different approach at the outset by becoming a taxonomically intelligent index (e.g. a Google-like product, but specifically tuned using a graph such as may be the eventual underpinnings of the Open Tree of Life) instead of serving species pages aggregated from elsewhere, where would it be today? What could have been built from such a "product"?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Conference Tweets in the Age of Information Overconsumption

Having been a remote Twitter participant in what from all accounts was a successful conference hosted by the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of Alberta, I have the luxury of now stepping back with a nice glass of red wine and thinking more deeply about the experience and its implications on the health of science. Dezene Huber has also taken a breath after he participated in person and provided valuable Tweet streams of his own.

The Saturday prior to the conference, I had a "wouldn't be cool if" moment and put my fingers to action on a toy that could listen in on the Tweet streams being generated by conference goers as they prepared for the event, as they were in transit, as they sat in the audience, as they chatted over coffee, and as they celebrated their winnings during the banquet.

My roughshod little experiment was to encourage participants to include scientific names in their streams. After all, names are a very important part of how biology is communicated. I grabbed their Tweets in real-time, fed them into three web services, and stored the results in a relational database. Two of these web services were developed by me and Dmitry Mozzherin at the Marine Biological Laboratory under the NSF-funded Global Names project led by David Patterson. These gave me the tools necessary to answer the questions, "Is this a name?" and "Where is this name in a classification?" The other web service I used was one recently assembled by some brilliant developers at CrossRef that figured out a way to execute rapid searches against their massive database of citations in the primary literature, assembled off the backs of researchers and publishers.

So, while "Ento-Tweeps" tapped a name, I immediately caught it, placed it in a hierarchy, and threw it to CrossRef. Within a split second after a Tweet appeared, I had links to the primary literature and I had some context. These were often amazingly accurate. Here's one that the prolific Morgan Jackson tweeted during Nikolai Tatarnic's paper entitled, "Sexual mimicry and paragenital divergence between sympatric species of traumatically inseminating plant bug":

Now that's useful!


There were occasions where this wasn't so useful. These were examples of what some have called, "Information Overload". But that's a misnomer. We're beginning to understand what this really is. A better term for this (if one were to become dependent and fixated on streams like this) is "Information Overconsumption".

 So, how do we responsibly integrate the power of social media in scientific conferences?

First, draft a light-hearted code of ethics - the same as we've become accustomed to with mobile phones at such events. Turn off the beeps and squawks! Turn off the unnecessary keypress chirps.

Second, as tempting as it may be, DO NOT COMMERCIALIZE THIS! The corporate sector has already found its way into the conference arena, the last pure outlet for the exchange of science. A social media outlet could be a new channel for communication that will be instantly switched off if it were behind a paywall.

Last, treat the messages not as news, but as products. Though the messages are instant, much like a stream of news, they are written by you, the one who has spent years honing your skills and learning your science.

My only hope is that "toys" like mine and the web services upon which they depend improve with time. They MUST help sell your products in a way that does not lead to Information Overconsumption and they MUST add value to the messages you wish to convey. How? That's up to you.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Science is a Product in the Wrong Marketplace

Instead of mindlessly watching a movie tonight, I browsed through Google Tech Talks and stumbled upon a spectacularly argued, wonderfully cadenced, and orchestrated Sept 2011 presentation by Kristen Marhaver entitled, "Organizing the world's information by date and author is making Mother Earth Sick".

Her thesis is that science is a product, not a news stream. And, because science is communicated in a self-serving, pay-wall-laden marketplace, its products to outsiders (those who stand to benefit from this knowledge) are paradoxically valueless. Kristen argues that the first steps toward cracking into this marketplace could be to expose the inherently social dimension of science by using modern day social gadgetry. Google+, Twitter and star ratings could reside around the periphery of online PDF reprint viewers. Unfortunately Kristen, this is still the wrong marketplace.

The one place where the social dimension of science is abundantly obvious is the largely unchallenged scientific conference. There are ways for this energetic, youthful, exploratory dialogue to spill out onto the distant screens of those who could benefit. YouTube, Twitter, Google+ could all be used with religion at conferences because for the most part, papers delivered are free from the publisher's grasp. Google Tech Talks and TED talks are spectacularly popular for very good reason. The medium is accessible. Plus, there is ample opportunity to make conferences more accessible and engaging to registrants themselves. How many times have you heard someone deliver a paper who feels the need to introduce his/her co-authors who could not be present or to shamelessly advertise the upcoming paper/poster presentations of their graduate students? The moment someone walks up to the podium, I want all that pushed onto my iPad along with links to their reprints. I'd rather they just get on with it. If their presentation were recorded and later put on YouTube, I'd want the same experience. Sure, links to their reprints would likely throw me up against a brick pay-wall, but I'd already know and appreciate the context.

To take this even further, why not really expose the scientific conference by advertising the downtime? On how many occasions have you gone to a conference, only to share a beer or two in the evening(s) WITH THE COLLEAGUES YOU ALREADY WORK WITH!? Instead, I want a post-conference un-drink. That is, I'd like to advertise my desire to have a drink by posting what I'd like to talk about and then blast the venue into the Twittersphere for members of the public to join me if they felt so inclined. If it's a bust, I'll swallow my pride and go join another one...and I'll bring copies of my reprints.