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My past two editorials addressed challenges and opportunities that new Web technologies present to scientific publishing. In the second part, I discussed why putting papers online using traditional journal approaches wasn't a panacea for academic communication. Instead, it's a barrier to the creation of scientific communities that could solve the hard, interdisciplinary problems facing our world. I suggested opportunities via overlay journals and similar mechanisms but still focused on traditional, peer-reviewed papers accepted by reputable publications, whether they're online or print, open-access or paid.
In this last part of my editorial trilogy, I discuss something that's becoming more and more important to academic communication—online scientific interaction outside the traditional journal space.
We must change our focus from scientific disciplines to scientific "contexts." When looking at the most successful Web technologies, especially in what's known as Web 2.0, we see that many of the most exciting sites exploit a community or context focus. (My colleague Jennifer Golbeck and I have explored this phenomenon; our paper "Metcalfe's Law, Web 2.0, and the Semantic Web" will appear in the Journal of Web Semantics. A preprint is available at www.cs.umd.edu/~golbeck/downloads/Web20-SW-JWS-webVersion.pdf.) Essentially, many of these technologies work because the social context helps define terms.
For example, consider the Flickr photo-sharing site ( www.flickr.com). If you search on "James," you'll get over 750,000 hits. Yet why in the world would this be of use? How often do you say, "I wonder if I can find a picture of someone named James?"
The key, of course, is that you'd rarely look for this in such a general search. Rather, Flickr lets you look at pictures that a particular person or group has entered. So, if I know I'm looking at your Flickr photos and I know you have a brother named James, suddenly this tag becomes very meaningful. In other contexts, I might know the tag refers to someone's advisor, significant other, reigning monarch, favorite secret agent, or whatever. In each case, I'll be identifying a different person; the tag works because of the context.
In science, I would argue that a similar phenomenon causes many of the problems with jargon. When we use a particular term from a particular field, we're usually in a context—whether it's a conference presentation or a journal paper—that defines that term's use. In fact, one problem scientists often face when we try to explain what we do to the general public is that they don't have these contexts. So, the words we use revert to their more generic meanings, leading to misunderstandings and confusion. Similar misunderstandings and confusion happen when scientists communicate across boundaries, and that's where much of the problem arises in interdisciplinary scientific discourse.
Social websites for particular communities of scientists offer a way to, essentially, embedding the context into the site. A good example of this is myExperiment.org, a social-networking site for experimental scientists. The site lets users share experimental workflows and develop communities around specific activities. A network of scientists can form, for example, around certain proteins' role in causing disease. These scientists can share methodologies and specialized techniques and discuss how to get better results in a relatively informal and blog-like way, while still being able to share the important work products that help them be more effective. While these scientists might still compete with respect to the data they're using and their published results, they can cooperate in developing and refining experimental methodologies. This crucial sharing of knowledge typically isn't publishable in traditional journals.
A more generalized version of this idea, and one I'm coming to rely on in my own work, is the Twine system, developed by radarnetworks.com. (I'm an advisor to this company but have no current financial interest.) Twine is a social-networking site that focuses not on its members' activities per se but on sharing information products in user-created contexts. So, a group interested in a particular topic can create a "twine" where they share pointers to articles, blog entries, websites, or pretty much anything else with a URI. The context is defined by group membership and what's shared. Members can attach notes and discussions to the entries, and the site maintains the entries so that members joining later can see what has been already saved.
In part 2 of this editorial trilogy I talked about overlay journals and how they could be used for sharing information across an emerging discipline. A problem is that if the group wanting to communicate is relatively small, setting up such a site involves a prohibitive amount of time and resources. Using something like Twine, we can create sort of an ad hoc overlay journal on our specific topic of interest. Twine wasn't created with scientific communication in mind, but something like this is obviously applicable to scientific discourse. The twine forms the context, and the members choose what to share as they create their own shared vocabulary. Unlike email, newsgroups, and even wikis, the open and dynamic nature of building the discourse in the social-networking context could greatly improve such information sharing.
I'm excited by the emerging technologies for scientific interaction; these new technologies that expand on blog- and wiki-like ideas to create context mechanisms will become increasingly important to scientific discourse. However, whether change in online scientific communication comes specifically through technologies such as these or through new Web technologies just starting to be explored, I'm certain of one thing: this change is inevitable.
The other day, I was reading a blog entry by my friend and coauthor Dean Allemang ( http://dallemang.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/12/what-will-2008.html). He says that when he suggests to people in management that their enterprise could use something such as a blog, wiki, or other self-organizing information space, they reply, "You just don't understand. Our engineers/researchers/analysts will never do that. It just won't happen!" I know this phenomenon well; I've heard it myself when I make similar suggestions to my academic colleagues about the use of technologies such as myExperiment or Twine.
Dean goes on to say, however, that there's a "new generation of people entering the workforce who have a different relationship with Wikipedia than their elders. These are the people who used Wikipedia to cheat on their homework in high school." He points out that the first Wikipedia generation is now graduating from college and entering the workforce, and that they don't know of a life without wikis, blogs, social networks, and so on. They share information as a natural part of their lives; why in the world wouldn't they do the same in their work contexts?
He makes a good point, one that's also true in academia. These same Wikipedia college students are becoming our graduate students and tomorrow's scientists. Just as a previous generation of students created the scientific websites that have become crucial to our daily work, this new generation is using emerging technologies to create mechanisms for sharing their interests. I hope those of us who hold more senior positions will find ways to encourage and endorse this work and reward their efforts. But even if we don't, the change will come. Frankly, I think that's a great thing.
P.S. Strangely, I set down the path of creating this set of editorials to explore the role of magazines such as this one in the changing scientific discourse. Somehow, the Web scientist in me took over from the editor in chief, and I never got to that topic. I'd welcome your comments on that topic; it's an important area, and one with which my successor will need your help in working out.