Friday, August 26, 2005

Science blogs for intra-scientific community communication.

There's been some interesting chatter in the blogosphere about science blogging, or the addition of blog-like features to electronic scientific archives. We're not talking about scientists blogging to educate their students and/or the public (a topic ably discussed by Geeky Mom). Instead, the focus is on the potential of blogging (and allied communication tools) as a way for scientists to communicate with other scientists.

Last month, Clifford Johnson at Cosmic Variance considered the use of group blogs as a research tool. He pointed out some potentially valuable outcomes - a flow of information between scientists that has less to do with the professional status of the person writing and more to do with the content of the contribution, a setting where it is possible to bounce ideas off each other even if they are not fully baked, communications that are not bound by geography, speed (of course), and searchability. This last element is especially attractive for those of us who value the exchange of ideas at the water cooler (or at the hotel bar at the professional meeting) but have less-than-perfect recall. (I am usually the only one at the bar scribbling in my notebook.) The searchability of science blogs not only means that the great ideas can be recovered, but you can even figure out who came up with them (or contributed to them).

More recently, Sean Carroll, also blogging at Cosmic Variance, noted that arxiv, the electronic preprint repository for physicists, has joined the blogosphere by introducing trackbacks on abstracts in the arxiv. Quoth Carroll,

As blog readers know, an individual blog post can inform other blog posts that it is talking about them by leaving a “trackback” or “pingback” — basically, a way of saying “Hey, I’m talking about that stuff you said.” This helps people negotiate their way through the tangles of the blogosphere along threads of common interest. Now your blog post can send trackbacks to the abstracts of papers at the arxiv!

In other words, not only is the electronic preprint depository allowing lightning-quick sharing of information between scientists, but with trackbacks it is now letting scientists see who is reacting to these findings out there in the ether.

I'm a big fan of scientific communication. But there are some interesting dimensions of these developments in scientist-to-scientist communication. For instance, here's what Carroll says about versus the "traditional" scientific literature in physics:

Any time you write a paper, you send it to the arxiv, where its existence is beamed to the world the next day, and it is stored there in perpetuity. Along with the SPIRES service at SLAC, which keeps track of which papers have cited which other papers, physicists have a free, flexible, and easy-to-use web of literature that is instantly accessible to anyone. Most people these days post to the arxiv before they even send their paper to a journal, and some have stopped submitting to journals altogether. (I wish they all would, it would cut down on that annoying refereeing we all have to do.) And nobody actually reads the journals — they serve exclusively as ways to verify that your work has passed peer review.

So, it's not like you have to worry that keeping up with the blogs and electronic preprints is going to be a huge addition to your keeping-up-with-the-literature time, because scientists have pretty much given up on keeping up with the journals anyway. (I can't really criticize that. When I was in grad school, there was just one Journal of Physical Chemistry; now there are two and they come out weekly. Even if no one is reading the journals, it seems like the number of journals there are not to read keeps growing!)

But if the journals now function almost entirely as certifications of quality control (which, we all know, is connected to important real-life issues for the scientist like tenure, promotion, and funding), this points to a potential downside to the rapid communication blogospherical mode of scientific discourse: there may not be a great signal to noise ratio. Seriously, I've seen some preprints that are pretty crackpot. Mostly, they never make it past pre- to plain old print. But, if the idea is that electronic archives plus trackbacks plus blogs will make for scientific discourse where everyone gets a fair shake, we may end up with a whole lot of crap to wade through.

On the other hand, people in the blogosphere (especially scientists) don't seem to be shy about calling out crap when they see it. Indeed, if you're evaluating someone's crackpottery online, it seems, you're more likely to give a reasoned argument indicating wherein the crappiness lies than you might be, say, as an anonymous referee. After all, if someone thinks your diagnosis is crappy, they'll call you out for it. So, possibly the relative transparency of communication via the blogosphere will cure some of the problems of anonymous refereeing.

It's hard to know whether the pseudonymous (or semi-pseudonymous) blogging would serve to democratize scientific exchanges (since you don't always know who's senior and who's junior, who's at a prestigious institution and who's laboring in obscurity), or whether this would mostly enable people to give props to their own work (or to shiv their enemies without being called to account). I suppose, if this all catches on, that it's an empirical question ...


At 12:43 PM, Blogger JM said...

I'm going to have to come back to this one...and all your others.

please, with regards to your re-entry into the blogosphere, PACE YOURSELF. some of us can't keep up. :)

At 4:17 AM, Blogger daniel john said...

A great constructive article will help to understand the issue.
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