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Why are scientists so HARD to move!?

The unmovable movers! Or so says Bill Hooker:

For instance: I use Open Office in preference to Word because I’m willing to put up with a short learning curve and a few inconveniences, having (as they say here in the US) drunk the Open Kool-Aid. But I’m something of an exception. Faced with a single difficulty, one single function that doesn’t work exactly like it did in Word, the vast majority of researchers will throw a tantrum and give up on the new application. After all, the Department pays the Word license, so it’s there to be used, so who cares about monopolies and stifling free culture and all that hippy kum-ba-yah crap when I’ve got a paper to write that will make me the most famous and important scientist in all the world?

———-snip————-

Researchers have their set ways of doing things, and they are very, very resistant to change — I think this might be partly due to the kind of personality that ends up in research, but it’s also a response to the pressure to produce. In science, only one kind of productivity counts — that is, keeps you in a job, brings in funding, wins your peers’ respect — and that’s published papers. The resulting pressure makes whatever leads to published papers urgent and limits everything else to — at best — important; and urgent trumps important every time. Remember the old story about the guy struggling to cut down a tree with a blunt saw? To suggestions that his work would go faster if he sharpened the saw, he replies that he doesn’t have time to sit around sharpening tools, he’s got a tree to cut down!

————snip————

I think that’s true, but like the guy with the saw, scientists are caught up in short-term thinking. Put the case to most of them, and they’ll agree about the advantages of Open over closed — for instance, I’ve yet to meet anyone who disagreed on principle that Open Access could dramatically improve the efficiency of knowledge dissemination, that is, the efficiency of the entire scientific endeavour. I’ve also yet to meet more than a handful of people willing to commit to sending their own papers only to OA journals, or even to avoiding journals that won’t let them self-archive! “I have a job to keep”, they say, “I’m not going to sacrifice my livelihood to the greater good”; or “that’s great, but first I need to get this grant funded”; or my personal favourite, “once I have tenure I’ll start doing all that good stuff”. (Sure you will. But I digress.)

—————snip————-

When it comes to scientists, you don’t just have to hand them a sharper saw, you have to force them to stop sawing long enough to change to the new tool. All they know is that the damn tree has to come down on time and they will be in terrible trouble (/fail to be recognized for their genius) if it doesn’t.

A vigorous discussion ensued. What do you think? Is it true that for scientists to adopt any new way of doing things, Carrots don’t work, only Big Sticks?

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    March 13, 2009

    It has generally been the case that scientists have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the political arena. When there are people explicitly involved in political action who are scientists (including the Open Source movement, or [in the past] AG climate change, or [still somewhat true] education and the creationism issue) those scientists are a) not rewarded institutionally and b) shunned or harassed by their colleagues.

    When scientists do engage in political discourse and action, they are often bad at it. Embarrassingly bad.

    I think this is not a universal and time transgressive pattern, but it rather comes in big giant historical chunks. German and Austrian scientists in the 1930s, American scientist in the 1990s, and so on, have dropped the ball in a big way in most areas, though we are seeing more progress today.

    Carrots and big sticks are all equally ineffective. All that is needed is a tipping point. Then, the scientists will become an unstoppable force.

    The trick is getting to the tipping point.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    March 13, 2009

    Bill’s comment thingie is borked, so I put my comment on my blog.

  3. #3 george.w
    March 13, 2009

    I don’t know about scientists, but for technology users in general (especially if they have PhD’s) only a stick will work. It does not help that campus culture is that you’re some kind of Communist if you use anything but MS Office. It’s our “standard”, as if Microsoft paid any attention to standards.

  4. #4 David Crotty
    March 13, 2009

    Why should scientists be any different than the rest of humanity? What percentage of people in general have switched to Open Office?

    In particular, his story about the sharpened saw is misleading. If using Open Office gave an immediate benefit along the lines of a sharp saw vs. a blunt saw, then many would switch to it. But given that as a tool, at best, it’s the equivalent of Office, and for the power user, it entails a new learning curve and the discarding of already learned knowledge and shortcuts, that immediate and obvious increase in usability is not there. So what you’re left with is a rant that not enough scientists care about a particular philosophical agenda, at least not enough to invest much energy in it when that energy could instead be used to furthering one’s own career. Shocking news, scientists care more about advancing research and building a career than they do about particular philosophical agendas. Film at 11.

    Scientists are hardly laggards at picking up new technologies. E-mail caught on like wildfire, at least among the scientists in my circle. Ditto online journals instead of print versions. But those both had immediate practical advantages and were not driven by religious/political/philosophical motivations. So in my opinion, carrots do work, but they have to be real, tangible carrots, rather than vague promises of a better world to come.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    March 13, 2009

    CERN gave you the fucking World Wide Web. Remember that.

    [/if-Physioprof-were-Physicistprof-mode]

    More seriously:

    Faced with a single difficulty, one single function that doesn’t work exactly like it did in Word, the vast majority of researchers will throw a tantrum and give up on the new application.

    This isn’t a peculiarity of scientists. User-interface-design people have a name for the principle, which I forget at the moment (I read about it in an entry a few years old from some designer’s blog…). Why are Windows users so frequently pissed off when they have to use a Mac? It’s not because the interface is necessarily worse or less capable. Most likely, they’re just aggravated by a continual stream of small frustrations: clicking the upper-left corner of a window doesn’t do what they expect, key combinations no longer work in the familiar way, and so forth.

    If a new application isn’t just a low-price knockoff of an existing tool — what they used to call a “Chinese copy” — the psychological factors at work are different. The move from Word to OpenOffice is not necessarily perceived the same way as the move from Word to LaTeX. In the former case, the only differences people see are the minute mutations, the different menu which appears when you right-click or whatever. With the latter, the user might see a new set of capabilities, geared to different ends, even though both programs are nominally geared to putting words on a page.

    (TeX and its close kin are also a great success story for what we today would basically call Open Source.)

    David Crotty said:

    Scientists are hardly laggards at picking up new technologies. E-mail caught on like wildfire, at least among the scientists in my circle. Ditto online journals instead of print versions. But those both had immediate practical advantages and were not driven by religious/political/philosophical motivations. So in my opinion, carrots do work, but they have to be real, tangible carrots, rather than vague promises of a better world to come.

    And I agree completely. We physics folk adopted the arXiv with astonishing rapidity: it went from being an experiment in 1993 to being a standard part of the peer-review cycle a few years later. And nothing was really doing the arXiv’s job before. People circulated preprints by mimeograph and by e-mail, but a dedicated place in which such preprints could be found in consistent locations indefinitely? That, not so much.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    March 13, 2009

    Also:

    In science, only one kind of productivity counts — that is, keeps you in a job, brings in funding, wins your peers’ respect — and that’s published papers. The resulting pressure makes whatever leads to published papers urgent and limits everything else to — at best — important; and urgent trumps important every time.

    This would imply that scientists never procrastinate. Never ever ever. I guess this is a habit which is invariably broken upon receipt of a PhD.

  7. #7 perceval
    March 13, 2009

    yup, interfaces should facilitate recall and be consistent. i hope openoffice will get more adepts once word peeps have encountered the shock to the system that is word 2007.

    of course, if you want to do

  8. #8 perceval
    March 13, 2009

    yup, interfaces should facilitate recall and be consistent. i hope openoffice will get more adepts once word peeps have encountered the shock to the system that is word 2007.

    personally, I use word because I don’t have the correct fonts on my system, so all the formatting is ever so slightly out of whack. For whipping .doc and .docx into proper shape, I therefore use the original, grudgingly.

    of course, if you want to do REAL typesetting and produce good-looking documents that are easy to reformat and maintain, you use LaTeX. I am greatly saddened at and confused by the prevalence of Word in many branches of science.

  9. #9 Monado in Toronto
    March 15, 2009

    Blake, you are so right: we like what we’re used to. All our learned reflexes are geared to it.

    But does anyone take a course in using MS Word efficiently? Do they set up a template that picks up the title, section headings, date, author, page n of nn? Automatically chooses reasonable page breaks or paragraph spacing? Updates tables of contents? Inserts footnotes and numbers them? Moves images neatly? Do they insert a page break or twenty carriage returns? All those things could speed them up–or not.

    Thanks for the pointer to arXiv.

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