Meetings & Conferences Science Online

Far out: Speculations on science communication 50 years from now (Science Online London 2009)

John Gilbey

This session will discuss future models for online science communication – but on a timescale well beyond the usual technology horizon. To judge the role of science communication in possible futures, we need to assess how research itself will be carried out in the future. In many scenarios online communication becomes the core enabling force – rather than a useful adjunct – and we can speculate as to the form that communication might best take.

He will be discussing science communication “in the broadest sense”.

(Who is he? A science fiction author; a former research scientist. You may have seen his work in Nature, New Scientist, Times Higher Education, Guardian, Nature Physics. He is speaking only on behalf of himself, and not on behalf of any of his employers.)

If he could distill everything he’s learnt about the scientific process and create the fictional “University of Rural England (URE)”, where things are not always as they seem, and where students and faculty suffer the same weaknesses. Then he switches to a synopsis of the first Nature journal in 1869, where in the editorial TH Huxley said the people in 50 years would look at the back issues of Nature “not without a smile”. We’re in danger of losing that connection, he says.

Then he moves on to talking about Second Life, and speaks about physical representations of a virtual space being captured in a digital media and re-presented back in SL. 🙂 To his generation, internet/computers/etc are still the future, even though they’re here. To younger people, they are the present – this is a different way of thinking.

Three options for the future: 1) steady state 2) step change (significant developments) 3) surprise parties (major unexpected advances completely changing the game). So, back to URE, the fictional place where he has sci-fi story ideas: machine-enhanced clairvoyance for science quality auditors; network developments expose a temporal portal to allow historic (dead) research leaders to be employed on projects; digitally-supported thought control of higher mammals. Speculation 1: in 50 years’ time, the world political, economic and social structure will change radically. In that case, who will our sponsors be for research? How “free” will the science community be? Will science be encouraged to engage with the wider social environment? If it was your job on the line, would you lie or toe the party line?

Will you suffer for your integrity?

Speculation 2: Virtual reality in some form will become ubiquitous in society across the globe: location becomes irrelevant, scientists become nomadic, opportunities for citizen science increase, social involvement with science grows. Speculation 3: significant environment events will spur major increases in research activity: science profile is raised significantly, there is a greater need for communication of science. Speculation 4: Society crashes totally following an unrecoverable Internet failure.

Email him in the next week to vote as to which scenario you’d like to see the URE address, and he’ll do his best to get it into print! He’s at

(This was one of my favorite talks of today.)

Question: will our universities be around in 50 years’ time? JG: I think they will be, but in a radically-different form. “VR” classes, for one.

FriendFeed Discussion

And there was at least one other Science Online London attendee blogging this presentation – take a look!

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

Meetings & Conferences Science Online

Cat herding: The challenges and rewards… (Science Online London 2009)

…of managing online scientific communities

Arikia Millikan, Corie Lok, Ijad Madisch

This session will provide you with an inside look into how online science communities are built and maintained. We will discuss how to manage expectations, social/cultural issues, the role of moderation, differences between science communities and ‘other communities’, and how to encourage diversity/debate whilst maintaining some sort of order. You’ll come away with tips on how to successfully build community and maintain it throughout flame wars and other tribulations.

Arikia Millikan (scienceblogs):

Scienceblogs started as a network, and ended up as a community. It was a very successful project. To do things well, you need a diverse selection of bloggers, which makes the cat herding more difficult. To have a successful blogging community, you first need a solid technological foundation. Secondly, you need acknowledgement, accessibility and analytics (it can be a very good motivational tool to see who is looking at your site and how often). Higher up in the hierarchy, you need to allow identity and individuality for your bloggers. When all these aspects are present you have a good community, but if any of these components fail you start to have problems.

If needs aren’t met, a lot of the energy that normally gets sent to achieving science is made more destructive. This is when you get the dreaded flame wars, which has happened in the past at scienceblogs. This is where the community management skills come in. Something important to know about such situations is that they are not always bad – you can learn important lessons from them. There are also a lot of rewarding aspects working at scienceblogs: it’s never boring, and there’s lots of nice science, and it is emotionally rewarding (all the benefits of a strong community).

Corie Lok (Nature Network):

She described what she’s seen work in a community of bloggers. Bloggers in such a community need to remain online and engage with the commenters. Friends can help you do this. You have to find the right balance in the volume of your postings. The main thing that the bloggers struggle with is incentive: it’s hard to get payback from the mainstream community. Seeding the blogging community with people other scientists want to interact with has been very important in making the community successful. Having forums such as the Ask the Nature Editor forum, and on fluorescence imaging in the life sciences has been really useful.

There’s a new website for Parkinson’s set up by the Michael J Fox foundation that has been really successful, and is a really great model of how things could proceed.

Ijad Madisch (co-founder of ResearchGATE):

He’s originally a medical doctor and is also working in Computer Science. ResearchGATE helps researchers with targeted, rapid-response Q&A and provides efficient literature search and professional bookmarking. For institutional users, ResearchGATE offers a comprehensive communication platform and collaboration tools for promoting inter-disciplinary research.

The greatest challenges are to serve a variety of disciplines and to perform community management on a large scale. However, they’re proud of the global online community they’ve created, and the feedback they’ve received. There is a new API coming soon to enable scientists to add their own applications to the ResearchGATE platform.


Question: What percentage of your registered users are active? IM: 30-35% log in at least once per month in ResearchGATE. Similar numbers for Nature Network.

Question (Matt Brown): How do you guard against spam attacks, and what do you do about potentially libelous (or similar) comments, or other legal problems? CL: There is spam software in place. In terms of legal aspects, UK libel law puts publishers in a difficult position: publishers are better off not moderating content in a legal sense. So you have to find a balance. IM: They don’t have that many spam problems, but they have created a reporting system. ResearchGATE has one lawyer, working full time. AM: They’ve had some pretty bad spam problems in the past, but the community helps out a lot with this. Bloggers also moderate their own comments. Legally, there hasn’t been that many problems yet.

Question: Is there an optimum group size for a blogging or online research community? CL: She hasn’t seen any correlation between group size and activity. AM: There may be capacity issues – as the group gets larger, it’s harder to sustain the interpersonal aspects of it.

Question: What is the effect of networks like this on scientists’ productivity – it would be great if that information were published more? Are the networks ever acknowledged in the paper? CL: There have been fruitful collaborations that came out of Nature Network. IM: Collaborations at ResearchGATE have resulted in at least one paper. However, less tangible things such as discussions are harder to quantify.

Question (Cameron Neylon): It would be really nice to see some serious social anthropology happening with these communities, and even for the communities themselves to consider funding.

Question: There are a number of social networks available. How do you coordinate where and when to pull the information from? CL: Over time, we just see which ones survive. But it’s good to have choice. IM: They want to connect ResearchGATE to science-related comments on FF and Twitter. AM: It’s quite exciting right now to see what features and useability and tools will take off and be successful.

FriendFeed Discussion

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

Meetings & Conferences Science Online

Breakout 1: What is a scientific paper? (Science Online London 2009)

Lee-Ann Coleman, Katharine Barnes, Enrico Balli, Theo Bloom

Is the traditional paper format derived from the printed paper still appropriate today? How can new kinds of content such as audio, video, 3D structures, etc. be integrated into a research paper? Can a scientific paper contain just datasets or descriptions of a method? And how does free access to a paper change the way we use the information contained in a paper?

From Katharine Barnes (Nature Protocols):

Is the traditional paper format derived from the printed paper still appropriate today? How can new kinds of content such as audio, video, 3D structures, etc. be integrated into a research paper? Can a scientific paper contain just datasets or descriptions of a method? And how does free access to a paper change the way we use the information contained in a paper?

What is a scientific paper at Nature Protocols? Peer-reviewed and edited articles. Network Protocols are not papers, but are more like blogs in that they’re published and comments are invited. They believe movies about protocols are very important. Specifically, JOVE is a good resource.

Other innovations at NPG include: nature precedings, nature chemistry, and thinking of improvements to articles. For instance, the presentation of the article could be improved, stats about the article could be visible, etc. They maintain a traditional view of the basic unit of what constitutes a published paper (peer reviewed and edited). However, they are keen to enhance the basic paper as much as possible with additional material. Her question to us is how far can we go from the model of the traditional paper?

From Theo Bloom (PLoS Biology):

Science publishing has come a long way in the past 50 years, but the current definition of “paper” no longer really works in her opinion. She thinks it’s time for a radical overhaul. For instance, in the “Finishing the euchromatic sequence of the human chromosome”, Nature simply couldn’t fit all the authors on the first page. Also, sometimes the results are just too big for the traditional paper format, or indeed for any journal to host. Perhaps central databases could provide a snapshot of the data at the point in time associated with publishing of an article.

There’s also much that can be done for visualization of figures in papers and display of specialized media types. How best to match the data to the experiment? You need to datestamp and store results appropriately. In an era of machine-readable factoids, how and where does the author express a view? A Crick and Watson style 1-page view of the data? The time is ripe to integrate references with databases for real-time analysis. Specifically, look at what Shotton et al. did for a paper originally published in PLoS Tropical Diseases.

From Enrico Balli:

SISSA started publishing scientific content in 1991, and since then have had to consider reprints, archiving and more. In 1997 they started publishing journals, which was not the original intent (if I am interpreting the talk correctly). What they published was online-only journals, and since it is not physical, the type of content can be very different from what otherwise could be published.

They have normal proceedings, but they also publish posters. Is a poster a paper? Can it be reviewed? They also publish lectures (video and/or slides). They publish some in collaboration with the British Institute of Physics. Manuals are also published by them, which are not “papers”. How can you really review and edit manuals for software? Another instance of the author problem happened with the ATLAS research at the CERN Large Hadron Collider, where there were more than 5000 people working on the project. What does it mean to have such author lists?

They are thinking about a new project due out next year called “The Journal of Stuff”. All the details haven’t been worked out yet. It is a kind of “un-Journal”.


Creating enhanced content is more costly than just typing. So, who should be covering the burden of those costs? Should you attempt to preserve that information long-term? How do you future proof it? The people who fund the research should fund the dissemination of that research: this is the standard method for open-access journals (by TB). For some reason, some researchers find it very difficult to find the original data, which isn’t how it should be (by KB). Publishers are not obliged to provide digital libraries their information.

Audience: It can be very hard to organize the data in a way that others can understand, e.g. when there are petabytes of data. It also seems like what constitutes a paper in the biological field (as opposed to physics) is much more constrained.

Peter Murray-Rust: It’s good, but what’s happening is not nearly enough. He feels the scientific paper is appalling at communicating in the modern world: dense text, for example, is not very communicative. Universities cannot afford to innovate because they have to publish with conventional, high-impact journals. This means that publishers are actually holding back innovation.

Phil Lord: The idea that publishing the data in a way that is plausibly useful is cheap to do is wrong: it can be quite expensive. Of course, it’s completely worth it to publish the data to help both others and you in a couple of years. There’s this bifurcation of data: on the one hand a relatively content-free paper for the RAEs, and on the other hand the data in a database. We don’t really know how to link these two things together. At the moment, we still have to publish, as the RAEs and similar demand it.

(Didn’t catch the name): Agreed with Phil: the description of the research is a very important item to be archived. What really needs to be mentioned is corrections – corrections need to be logged and tracked. What we really need are clear, agreed, annotated databases for all these papers.

TB: Giving credit back to the source of information, e.g. the original paper describing a new knockout mouse, isn’t always done and should be. This often happens with journals that do not allow unlimited references.

Cameron Neylon: The problem isn’t with the paper (publishing a summary or discussion of some research), but with the journal. Filtering and peer review are useful, but the use of the “legacy” paper format is not useful.

Question: Will open source and open access come together in the publishing world? With PLoS, their publishing platform is open source, and they try to use open-source software where possible. Any software it published has to be open source (Answered by TB).

Question: What about redefining papers as open-source software? This would be a situation where the paper is constantly changing and undergoing version changes, as software is. TB: The versions MUST be date stamped.

FriendFeed Discussion

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

Meetings & Conferences Science Online

Blogging for impact (Science Online London 2009)

Mark Henderson, Dave Munger, Daniel MacArthur

MH (from the Times of London) blogs because it provides him a different voice and a different audience. When he’s blogging, he can focus on a lot more detail and aim at a more specialized audience. With the web and blogs, it can be easy to find authoritative sources of information. You can give your work a useful media profile to the world. It’s also very nice to have a legal department to turn to!

Next there was a presentation by Dave Munger from within Second Life. DM is speaking as an optimist, while DMA is is speaking as the realist. DM believes that blogging is a really important method of communication for scientists. It allows you to build connections, present yourself and also present a longer, more detailed study of things that are important for you.

DM’s blog (Cognitive Daily) was started 4 years ago by him and his wife. What impact did it have for them? People recognize DM at conferences, but no money 🙂 . He’s also started a column recently on His wife made full professor two years ago, and people at her institution really appreciated what she was doing.

What are the benefits of blogging for scientists?

  1. You can use it as a research or writing tool. You get the opportunity at a dry run for papers, for instance.
  2. You can tell a much longer story, and you can really engage with your readers and start building a dialogue with them.
  3. You can control your own message – no-one is telling you what you have to write or how you have to write it.
  4. Build stronger connections with colleagues.

What is DM’s vision of science online? First, scientists write about science they’re interested on the blog. Then that work (i.e. just the science-based posts) is collected on sites such as and useful metadata is added. Then, at they regularly select notable posts from each field of study. Through this winnowing, they hope that the mainstream media will pick up on the research that science bloggers have posted. is starting to forge relationships with companies such as pubget, which provides links from the journal article itself directly to the appropriate posts at

Finally, DM says blogging doesn’t have to take over your life. What you get out of it depends on what your goals are. Some things are out of your control, and and similar help you control those forces as much as possible.

DMA, who works at Sanger, spoke next, and is speaking more as a realist. He focused on how to balance your blogging with your career and how it can hurt you. He also blogs at science blogs as Genetic Future. The first aspect to talk about is time: there’s never enough time, and time spent blogging is time not spent doing experiments, coding, other writing etc. Microblogging and choosing topics close to your area of research helps. The danger of microblogging is that it can make your information stream more superficial.

DMA also has found it challenging to deal with criticism from his work colleagues about his blog posts. On the one hand, controversy sells, but on the other hand inaccurate and even perfectly valid criticism can damage careers. You need to balance the desire for open, interesting reviews with career protection. There are uneasy interactions with the commercial world, including litigation risks – he’s taken a fairly conservative route.

Finally, DMA discussed the identity crisis facing science bloggers. It is difficult to sustain multiple identities, and it is easy for your online persona to diverge (with time) from your professional identity. You have to tread carefully when you are discussing science with colleagues that you don’t then end up as a reporter for a bit of research you shouldn’t be reporting. Finally there are some interesting relationships between you and your research institutes: as a blogger, you’re not going through “official” channels.

That’s the end of the presentation: now on to the discussion.

  • (from Duncan Hull) Does the Sanger Institute have an official blogging policy? Not yet, though people are talking about it.
  • (from Ed Yong) to MH: How do you stop the blog from becoming the “B” role of what doesn’t make it into the paper? We try hard not to separate it like that. Firstly, they have a rule that they do not just post stories they’ve written that do not make the cut. Secondly, the way material is selected and written is completely different in the two cases.
  • Do you notice a difference in the style of online conference between the online newspaper and the blog? MH: You get generally a much much higher quality of comment on the blog. There is also more of a community feel on the blog wrt the commenting.
  • DMA: Do you think the current situation wrt academia and its relationship with blogging is transitional, and that in a few years all academics will be blogging? The benefits in terms of engagement are great, and there is already an increase in blogs. However, there will probably always be branches of academia where blogging isn’t suitable or doesn’t take off. There is still very much a sense in academia that blogging is a waste of time and that time could be better spent elsewhere.
  • There’s a lot of pressure on people to run personal blogs as PR for themselves or their institutions. How do we resolve this? Do you suffer from such pressure? He’s careful not to have the two worlds meet.
  • (From Cameron Neylon) Could DM expand on the story about your wife’s support by her institution for blogging?  You can have a blog that might or might not be acceptable to your institution. In her case, their institution is relatively news-oriented anyway and so it worked well.
  • Could DMA elaborate on your CSHL situation? CSHL only recently allowed reporters to attend. There was some discussion about why DMA was allowed to blog the conference without permission when the journalists were required to get that permission (more information on DMA’s website).
  • In 2005 there was an article by someone who said that they’d never hire someone who blogs. Has that changed since then? DMA certainly thinks the situation has changed, though it isn’t uniformly improved.

FriendFeed Discussion

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!