Christina's LIS Rant

This is the third in a series of test essays I’m doing to prepare for
my comprehensive exams.  The questions for these essays come
from 3 places: ones I’ve made up based on my readings, ones assigned to
previous doctoral students, and ones my advisor makes up based on my
readings.  I’m assuming the advisor ones will be closest, but
I don’t want to knock them all out in a row – it almost seems like a
waste when part of this is getting the timing right, practicing
writing, and test-taking.  

Rules of the road are as follows: closed book, closed internet, all you
have is the question, a computer with a word processing software, pen
and paper.  You have two hours alone in a little room.
  In this case, I set my timer for 2 hours, but I had
to move around the house because one neighbor started mowing his lawn
and someone else was using a chain saw, I also had to ignore the phone
ringing and a cat trying to climb onto my keyboard – which,
incidentally, I’m currently fighting, too – back, Diana, back. It’s
amazingly difficult to have 2 hours uninterrupted in my house so after
a few more of these, I’ll get a study room at the local public library
or I’ll go to my office in College Park.

This question came from my advisor, and it’s for a minor-area, Computer
Supported Communication (which is a melange of CMC, CSCW, social
software, online communities, etc).  The essay is copied
below, with a few very minor edits: main > maintain, a couple of
typos, and additions between [ ]. In the cases of the additions, I
started a sentence and never finished it.  Oops!  The
citations are not complete – they are just as I remembered
them. I ran out of time for this essay, so I didn’t actually
get to revise and edit.  The typical practice is to spend 20
minutes taking notes and organizing your thoughts, 80 writing, and 20
revising.

Test essay 3, DS’s CSC 1

Wikis, Blogs and Microblogs are playing an increasing role in
scientific communication. Define each of these technologies and
discuss: (i) the benefits, and (ii) the threats that they bring for
scientific discourse.

0. Introduction

Social computing technologies (SCT) such as wikis, blogs, and
microblogs are being used by many scientists for scientific
communication. This essay discusses how these SCTs are used and how
their use benefits scientific discourse as well as how their use might
post a threat to scientific discourse. The essay starts by defining and
reviewing the literature on scientific communication. The essay
continues by defining wikis, blogs, and microblogs and providing
examples of how they are used in scientific communication. The essay
ends by discussing the benefits and threats these SCT pose to
scientific communication.



1. Scientific
Communication

Before discussing the role of SCTs in and their impact on scientific
communication, it is important to review the literature on scientific
communication and to establish the state of scientific communication
prior to the introduction or widespread adoption of SCTs. Scientific
communication is a broad concept that encompasses both public
communication of science and scholarly communication.

Public communication is communication about scientific topics with
people outside of the particular research community. This may be done
by professional science communicators such as lab public relations
staff members, teachers, and outreach educators or by scientists. The
intended audiences may be groups of scientists who are not in the
immediate research area (see Kyvik and Weigold), policymakers, or
adults or children of varying interest levels in and education in
science.

Scholarly communication in science takes place between scientists. It
includes the communication within collaborations for the purposes of
completing the scientific work, as well as reporting completed work
outside of the collaboration. For reporting the scientific work, the
standard model is the Garvey in Griffith model. This model divides
scholarly communication into informal and formal. Traditionally the
first reports of completed work were given to symposia, colloquia, and
conferences and these were called informal scholarly communication.
Informal scholarly communication also includes hallway discussions at
conferences. The features that identify informal scholarly
communication include that it is not archived, it is not accessible to
a larger group, and it may be of work that is not complete.

The gold standard for formal scholarly communication is the
peer-reviewed journal article, but it also includes some peer-reviewed
conference papers as well as monographs and textbooks. Formal
communication is archived, and findable. It is written for a broader
audience and provides fewer details of how the work was completed.



2. Definitions

This section defines each of the SCTs, discusses the general literature
on how they are used, and provides examples of how they are used in
scientific communication.

2.1 Wikis

The original conceptions of the web envision it as being a
“read/write” medium in which everyone could
participate and communicate. Most web sites were developed to be
read-only, like electronic versions of newspapers. Ward Cunningham
created wikis to be a web site in which visitors could edit the content
of the site itself, not just leave comments. Wikis are defined as
websites where “anyone” can edit the content. In
practice, there are usually registration requirements and some wiki
pages are locked from editing, but there are still some common
features. First, the pages can be edited without having access to the
server and generally without knowing html or complex coding languages.
Second, wikis maintain a history of edits with time and date stamps and
a record of which user made the edit. Wiki pages can typically be
rolled back to previous versions using this history. Third, there may
be discussion pages around the page that is being edited for authors to
develop their ideas and to discuss what should go on the main page.

Most of the research done on how people contribute to wikis has been
done on Wikipedia which is by far the most famous wiki. Wikipedia is an
encyclopedia that covers all areas of knowledge, in many languages.
Forte and Bruckman (sp?) and others have discussed the formation of
norms in the editing of Wikipedia, the evolution of roles, and the
cycle of credit (Latour and Woolgar). Wikipedia has evolved like many
open source software projects. Participants start by being just readers
or users of the system, but gradually start making edits, then creating
new pages, and finally by discussing policies. The Wikipedia community
has developed clear policies on things like discussing living persons,
reporting original work, and citing references. Individual
contributions to articles are not credited, however, new participants
get credit by participating in discussion pages that go with the page
being edited and by listing the edits they have made on their user
page.

The two most prominent uses of wikis by scientists are Jean-Claude
Bradley’s Open Notebook Science (ONS) and Open Wetware, but
scientists also contribute to the chemistry pages and other science
pages on Wikipedia and similar collaboratively edited encyclopedia-type
sites. ONS is a broader concept than just a wiki, but wiki software
performs an important function. In both of these cases wiki software is
used as a laboratory notebook. The lab notebooks are publicly
available, and time-date stamped. In Bradley’s case, he can
comment on his students’ work and also verify that they
completed their work by the deadline. Wikis are also used because they
can link to other work easily, can include multimedia such as pictures
of the lab set-up and videos of procedures, and can easily be shared in
real-time.

Wikis as lab notebooks are scholarly communication, but many
scientists, particularly chemists, put a great deal of effort into
editing science pages on Wikipedia. This is a form of public
communication.

2.2 Blogs

Blogs are generally defined by their format – they are
reverse chronologically arranged collections of discrete posts
(Mortensen and _, 2002). Each post is a self-contained unit, that has a
time-date stamp, a fixed URL, is signed (for blogs with more than one
writer), and usually allows comments. Posts might also be assigned
keyword categories to enable retrieval by general subject. Blogs often
provide RSS feeds so that readers can be notified when new content is
available and can reuse or redisplay content in a personal information
management tool called a feed aggregator.

Community forms in blogs by linking and commenting. Unlike wikis, where
anonymous contributions are merged into a central web page, blog posts
are authored by a single person, but comments can be made at the post.
Depending on the community, there may be a rich interchange of comments
on each other’s posts, or few to no comments. Another form of
community is through linking within posts to other blogs –
commenting on posts on your own blog instead of the blog in which the
post originally appears. Likewise, there are “social
aggregators” like FriendFeed in which communities comment on
blog posts, social bookmarks, shared photographs, and other RSS feeds,
and not at the content source itself.

Many scientists maintain blogs and read other scientists’
blogs. In my qualitative study of how chemists and physicists use
blogs, a few of the scientists reported that their originally intention
when they started their blog was to communicate with the public either
to report and explain their work or to explain scientific concepts in a
clear way. Sessions at Science Blogging conferences have dealt with how
scientist bloggers can make their content more useful and usable to
science educators at the k-12 level. However, in practice the
participants in my study found that their audience consisted primarily
of other scientists and well-educated, highly interested members of the
public and not necessarily the audience they intended.

Other scientists use their blogs to keep track of ideas that are too
small or not well-enough developed for journal articles. They also use
their blogs in lieu of letters to the editor to respond to articles in
the journal literature.

A very successful recent use of a blog was a project led by Tim Gowers
to experiment with “massively collaborative”
mathematics. His proposal was that mathematicians are often stopped
when working out proofs by needing to take side trips to solve problems
that are not central to their proof and that may require two
weeks’ worth of research to overcome. Other mathematicians
may be able to quickly resolve these problems but there is no easy way
to just get that bit of help so mathematicians go and learn this sub
area before continuing. He posted a proof to his blog and over the
course of six weeks, mathematicians from all over the globe contributed
comments, brainstormed ideas, and helped solve the proof. The work has
resulted in papers posted to ArXiv and submitted to journals.

2.3 Microblogs

Microblogs are the newest of the three types of SCT included in this
essay. The primary example of this is Twitter. Twitter allows users to
input 140 characters and this can be shared by following other users or
by subscribing to the RSS feed either in a general aggregator or in a
“social aggregator” such as FriendFeed. Twitter
asks the question “what are you doing now?” but
many users do not answer that question, but instead use the 140
characters to capture conference talks, comment on readings, to
announce new blog posts, and to share content with other users. Over
time, new [ways of using twitter] have been added including re-tweeting
information – re-posting someone’s tweet, tweeting
“at” someone (@username) to have a conversation,
marking posts with hashtags (#subject) to allow conference posts or
subject posts to be retrieved together, appending geographic positions
to tweets to allow local search, and appending pictures to posts.
Lots of scientists use twitter, but I know of no formal published study
describing how they do so. Computer and information scientists whom I
follow frequently tweet conference sessions. Other scientists point to
their blog posts, comment on news stories and noteworthy events, and
point to interesting new scientific articles.

3. Benefits

Scientists use of these SCTs provide many benefits to their work and to
science in general.

3.1 Immediacy

First, letters to the editor and discussion papers might not appear in
journals for months to years after the original article appeared.
Commenting on a journal article in a blog or microblog can be done when
the article first appears as a pre-print on the author’s page
or in an institutional or disciplinary repository (like ArXiv). This
rapid turnaround time enables faster growth of scientific knowledge
while at the same time performing a filtering function. Scientists can
be made aware of interesting new work through tweets and blog posts,
and can make decisions to read or not to read based on recommendations
from their trusted friends.

3.2 Expertise Location

Posting on a blog or being recognized as a valued contributor on a wiki
makes a scientist’s work findable in a web search. Searching
the scholarly literature or attending conferences are typical ways to
find potential collaborators, but [using a few co-authored articles is
not as informative as seeing that scientist’s work progress].



3.3
Findability/Archiving

As discussed by Bohlin and Borgman, a feature of informal scholarly
communication was that it was to a limited audience, was not archived,
and could not be retrieved. However, blog posts and wiki posts are
easily findable with many web tools. Additionally, blog posts are
archived and wiki pages are archived and are available long after they
were written. This a great benefit to forming collaborations, and to
finding expertise as mentioned above.

3.4 Collaboration
There are many papers describing how co-authoring is done (see for
example Noel). Some ways include dividing up the task and each author
working on a section independently or passing the document around for
each author to add to the various sections. Wikis enable greater
collaboration and easier co-authorship of scholarly articles.
Contributors can edit at the same time and form a cohesive document.
Edits are saved, time stamped, and are attributable to their author.



3.5 Personal Information
Management (PIM)

In my study, the scientists reported that it was much better to take
notes on their blog, because that information could be found using a
standard web search whereas LaTeX files on their desktop and print
files could not be found. We know from the PIM literature that people
retrieve personal information by date or time either by associating the
contents creation or saving with a date or event or in sequence with
other activities. Blogs, tweets, and friendfeed all arrange content in
reverse chronological order. In particular, blogs archive posts by
date, allowing for the easy retrieval of old posts by month or year.

4. Threats

There are benefits to scientists’ use of SCTs but there are
also threats. Many of these come from the fact that they are new and
not integrated into the scholarly system.



4.1 Promotion, Tenure,
Credit, and Attribution

First, as described in Polanyi, Price, and elsewhere, citations are the
currency of science. That is, promotion, tenure, grants, and other
benefits accrue to scientists based on their publications, the venues
in which the publications appeared, and the citations their
publications received. Contributions to wikis or blogs are not credited
in promotion decisions, either when done as service by communicating
with the public, or when done as scholarly communication. Several
famous scholarly bloggers have not gotten tenure, and the case has been
made that their blogs were at fault. New ways of providing credit for
other forms of scholarly communication are required.



4.2 Authority

In information literacy training, there are usually heuristics to judge
the authority of a piece of information. Blogs, in particular
pseudonymous blogs written by women scientists, would probably fail
many of these steps. Scientists assess the authority of scientific work
by looking at the content – the citations, the method, the
discussion – but also by looking at the author (their
previous work, their institution), and the reputation of the
publication venue. In blogs, the authority is built over time.
Likewise, there may be pseudoscience or denialists who edit wiki pages,
mock up blogs, or comment on blogs to further their political aims, but
do not further science or indeed, take scientists’ attention
from doing new science, to argue about autism, climate change, or
evolution.

4.3 Intellectual Property
By posting work in progress on a blog, the scientist is making it
impossible to patent, which may conflict with his
organization’s goals. There is also the concern that
information posted can be “stolen” and the author
can be scooped by another author who then gets the credit.



5. Conclusion

This essay briefly described scientific communication, defined several
types of SCTs, provided examples of how these SCTs are used by
scientists, and then discussed the benefits and the threats.
Communication is central to science, and these SCTs by democratizing
and facilitating communication on the web, greatly increase the
immediacy, findability, and usability of scientific information.
However, until the promotion and intellectual property systems catch
up, this scientific communication cannot reach its potential.
Furthermore, information literacy teaching must advance to enable
potential users of this information to better gage its value for it to
have the greatest benefit.

[yeah, so now I see all these links to papers on microblogging, thanks... :) oh, and no I guess I never talked about benefits/threats for public communication]

Comments

  1. #1 Jean-Claude Bradley
    May 28, 2009

    Christina – this is a nice summary that should be helpful to brief people trying to learn about new forms of scientific communication.

  2. #2 brenda
    May 2, 2010

    I donot like the way the formal communication was found. The individual contribution was not credited.