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Science 2.0 – introduction and perspectives for Poland

This is more-or-less transcript of Science 2.0 based on a presentation I gave on conference on open science organized in Warsaw earlier this month. Please remember that it’s not meant to be a general introduction to S2.0 – it was prepared for mixed audience and focused on perspectives for Poland.

Science 2.0 is a concept describing new forms of communication between scientists. Communication has been the essence of science; research become meaningful only after confronting results with the scientific community. So far it was thought that peer-reviewed publication is the best communication channel we had so far. New internet technologies had changed this picture – not by replacing the “best” channel, but by showing that the concept of “the best” covers only small part of a communication spectrum. We knew that already, but we keep forgetting: people didn’t stop calling each other after email had appeared – these two services complement each other. And in the same way many of new communication channels complement peer-reviewed publication.

Collaboration, exchanging information and confronting research results in 2.0 era have two important attributes in which they differ from traditional models: openness and communication time. Exploration towards increased openness and shorter communication time happens already in publishing industry (via Open Access movement and experiments with alternative/shorter ways of peer-review). However I wanted to say few words about experiments that go little or quite a lot beyond publication.

I have chosen My Experiment as an example of an important step towards openness because it’s probably the least radical idea you can find in modern Science 2.0 world. This service provides a virtual research environment in which the main focus is put on sharing scientific workflows. One of the use cases may be sharing a precise diagram of the “methods” sections from experimental (including bioinformatics analyses) publications. Small step towards openness towards other scientists – we can make it easier for others to understand what we did in a particular paper.

And while we can open towards other scientists we can also open towards non-experts. FoldIt is a game in which people from all over the world compete in improving structural models of proteins. There’s no deep knowledge required – a brief tutorial contains essential introduction to the topic and exercises testing if user understands some basic concepts. Playing the game does not contribute directly to the science, but helps in improving protein structure prediction software and in understanding protein folding. Two other examples of non-expert participation in science are Annotathon and Spectral Game. These are servers that combine “required” and “useful”, that is combine teaching and data annotation. Both servers aim at enhancing learning process and at the same time use crowdsourcing approach to curate data – metagenome sequences in first case and chemistry spectra in the second.

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What about shorter communication time? The image above combines various data visualization techniques based on the Second Life platform. While Second Life was first sold to scientists as a conference platform, it turned out it’s not very useful for such purpose – but scientists stayed for SL’s very good visualization capabilities. How many times instead of explaining via email/phone some concept to a colleague, you said “come here, I’ll show you”? SL allows to prepare interactive visualizations of chemical structures, genomes, proteins or multidimensional data and as such, to communicate some difficult concepts faster than via other channels.

Last year’s ISMB conference became a major step towards new approaches in conference reporting. A few scientists that happened to be bloggers and users of a life streaming service called FriendFeed decided to report in real time from the conference. Their effort was followed by a number of people, including even the ones that were already on the conference. I’ve seen my colleagues creating an account on FriendFeed (which they sadly abandoned shortly after) only to follow this report. It is still available in permanent, searchable archive over at FriendFeed and resulted in an interesting publication. Life streaming service wasn’t designed strictly for conference reporting and similarly, virtual world platform wasn’t designed strictly for data visualization. But it obviously doesn’t matter to us, as long as it works. slajd13

But you may ask: where is “science” in “science 2.0”, as these examples are not necessarily about doing research. And while I could provide some examples of using new communication channels in day-to-day work, I think it’s more important to tell you about people who test boundary conditions of communication spectrum in their research. In 2006 Jean-Claude Bradley coined a phrase “open notebook science” which means conducting research using publicly available, immediately updated laboratory notebook. Despite obvious disadvantages of such approach (competition, scooping etc.) he is quite successful in terms of getting grants, publishing his results and so on. A number of people followed his approach with smaller or bigger modifications and it is argued that ONS enables more effective collaboration and more effective (no repeated experiments) science. Is that true? Quite probably, but it’s important to recognize that Science 2.0 is not only about better communication. As Jean-Claude mentions is his talks, all these experiments are parts of a bigger process, a change in a way science is done. The outcome of Science 2.0 is not going to be limited to complementary channels to peer-reviewed publications – the more important part will be rules, formats and standards for communication between machines, not scientists. Those who think that removing scientists from scientific process is not going to happen all that soon, I would like to point to a recent publication in Nature presenting Adam, a robot that independently discovers scientific knowledge. While Adam seems to be an equivalent of a junior lab assistant (or a postdoc as some say) and is definitely too expensive to consider as your cheap lab workforce replacement, it’s a quite significant step towards automatising of many elements of scientific process.

There’s another aspect of Science 2.0 that is usually skipped in many articles. A screenshot I’ve shown you contains my conversation with Cameron Neylon over at FriendFeed in April 2008 and was presented in many talks on open science since then. The reason was clear – FriendFeed wasn’t designed to start scientific collaborations and this was the first example of such kind. However what is usually not said is the fact that I wouldn’t answer anonymous request. The reason I did a model for Cameron’s grant was that I subscribed to his feed before so I actually could see the request. However, I didn’t subscribe to Cameron because I knew his professional profile – I didn’t even know his affiliation then (and barely remember today). The reason I subscribed to Cameron was that I somehow “knew” him, this is I read his blog, I commented on it and he commented on mine, etc.

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An important part of Science 2.0 is the fact that it has human face. In other words, through participation in online communities we become living persons, instead of anonymous scientists hiding behind publication list.

Why does it matter? Looking at Science 2.0 from perspective of a young scientists working in Poland, this aspect of Science 2.0 becomes a game changer. Poland has ca. 30 times less money in available grants than UK (according to calculation of the UK research budget by Duncan Hull). In biology, which is a very expensive field, it simply means that we have a hard time competing with other countries. And while that fact matters less on the country scale, it matters a lot at a level of individual researchers, because it closes many career opportunities.slajd20

This is not an example, this is a comparison of two real people I know, that finished their PhDs about the same time. The first was from a major Polish institute, the second from a major European one. And while impact factor is a poor measure of their research outcome, it’s exactly what a head of a lab both would apply to will see: few publications, not that impressive vs lots of publications, all in good journals. With research budget Poland has it’s hard to compete with Western Europe and even the EU money will not change that situation in a matter of days, because we also lack experience in spending money. While the system slowly transforms, young Polish scientists have already a way to fill this gap – by Science 2.0, or more precisely by participation in online scientific conversations. There’s no currently easier way to show that poor publication record does not equal poor skills.

And the last aspect of Science 2.0 I want to talk about today comes from the fact that I’ve just became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw. There’s another gap we must fill, this is between current research and lectures we give today. It is a hard task as the amount of knowledge doubles faster and faster. To adopt to such speed the structure of the university courses must change – or instead, we let the students to take care of the gaps. They can easily follow current research and decide what is important to learn by having an access to real-time scientific conversation, by participation in Science 2.0. It’s not an easy road, but at least it will allow them to learn important concepts long before we come up with an idea to teach these concepts.

Consider such example: a group of students from Department of Biology of University of Warsaw participated in 2008 in IGEM, International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. This is a part of a new field, called synthetic biology. This field is fresh and somehow still controversial and these are not the only reasons why not all universities in world have synthetic biology courses. University of Warsaw doesn’t have it either – but it didn’t stop these students, and they plan to participate in IGEM again this year. However, synthetic biology, as many emerging fields today, is done in the open. Scientific conversations are open. Ideas and thoughts are open. And students can learn from it before we organize these thoughts into textbooks.

The last slide shows a community of life scientists I’m a part of. These are not only scientists – there are librarians, science communicators, editors from scientific journals, people working in biotech industry or even people without direct connection to science. These people with diverse skills and background create a 24h a day, all year long online conference. Ability to interact with them and to learn from them was among biggest privileges I had in recent years. And even if this is the least visible aspect of Science 2.0, it’s the most important one and the main reason for my participation in online communities. Thank you.

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Posted by on May 18, 2009 in Community

 

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How far one can push online collaboration in research?

History comparison reports highlight the chang...Image via Wikipedia

A week or so ago I’ve asked on the FriendFeed if there’s an interest in writing a cyclic publication on the status of Science 2.0. I thought that summarizing every year advancements in openness of science would be a good idea. During discussion it turned out that there’s a need to write a first major publication on Science 2.0 concepts because there isn’t one published in the life sciences field. The final conclusion of interested people was to meet face to face on the upcoming conference and discuss things in detail.

And this made me think.

I started to wonder why people who live, breathe and do research online still need to meet in person to plan and discuss some stuff. The very obvious explanation is that the conference was only two weeks ahead, so there was nothing more than that, but some patterns (brainstorm online, then meet in person, then finish online) repeat so often that I started to believe an online collaboration can only go to a certain point.

The excuse is not in the tools, especially given how fast the new ones appear.  As an examples may serve recently launched Adobe Acrobat site, which contains online editor and live collaboration suite (contains screen sharing, notes, chat, audio, video) or its analog for programmers: Assembla (svn, git, trac, wiki, milestones).

My feeling is that what makes a difference is not a quality of interaction while working on a certain project, but the possibility of discussing things not directly related to this project. Online collaboration is usually very focused. When editing a document online it’s usually hard to side-track it, so at the end it’s about something else than it was planned. Calls or videoconferences have usually a schedule. No place for non-related stuff. No place for a beer/coffee/glass of water and a chat about how life was good in old times. No place for discussions on random things and coming to the main project from a different angle and with completely new ideas.

I’ve been trying for quite a long to work online with other people on some projects from my home office (which is in the middle of nowhere). As you can guess, it works to a certain point and majority of them were improved upon meeting face to face. And this left me wondering how far can I push online collaborations. It isn’t usually an issue in IT field, but so far it doesn’t look very promising in research.

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Posted by on August 27, 2008 in Comments, Community, Research

 

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