A Blog Around The Clock

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.

Today, I asked Bjoern Brembs to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you?What is your (scientific) background?

i-bb673a83cde1d39b20f8e7459cd3e8c4-Bjoern Brembs pic.jpg

As a boy, I was always out and about chasing and catching animals. I’ve been fascinated by watching animals behave and at the time the best way to do this seemed to catch them: frogs, toads, snakes, mice, insects – whatever seemed exciting at the moment was caught, put in a terrarium or other suitable container and observed, only to be released again after some time.

Later, I started reading Konrad Lorenz and other ethologists. I liked their books so much that I started reading other scientists’ books, other biologists like Richard Dawkins, John Eccles or Rupert Riedl, but also physicists like Steven Weinberg or philosophers like Karl Popper or Paul Feyerabend.

I had so much fun with science that it was clear I wanted to study science, in particular biology. Initially, I was fascinated by developmental biology. How can a uniform egg develop into something a lot more complex? Then I attended a lecture by Martin Heisenberg (the youngest son of the uncertainty principle discoverer) on the brain and I was hooked. Heisenberg became also my PhD advisor. Because it makes no sense to try and study behavior without understanding the context in which it is used, I also
specialized in evolution and ecology and have published in both fields before I went into neuroscience full time.

The brain is what makes us who we are. Its main function is to chose from all the different options which behavior to produce next, and nobody knows how it does that. In fact, we know so little about brains that we don’t even know how the brain of a fruit fly works. More astonishing still, we’ve had the ‘connectome’ (all the synaptic connections between all neurons) of the nematode worm C. elegans for over 20 years and still we don’t know what it is that makes a brain out of these 302 neurons and their connections.

When we understand these simpler brains, we’ll have the tools and principles at hand to start and try to understand more
complex brains.

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

People grow up? I’m not growing up, it’s only that my body doesn’t seem to agree with me. :-)

One of my life’s goals is to still be doing giant swings on high-bar when I’m over 70, just like my club-mate and multiple German National Champion in his age class Ernst-J├╝rgen Bever.

What is your Real Life job?

As you may have guessed from my bio, I’m a neurobiologist. As I find the brains of vertebrates to be too complex and daunting for the level of understanding I aim for, I study the brains of invertebrates, which also offer a much richer toolbox for biological study.

My specialization is in learning (and memory), in particular the kind of learning that takes place when animals learn from the consequences of their behavior, i.e. operant learning.

I’ve written a short summary of my most recent research at The Naked Scientists.

My website contains more details about my work than you would ever want to know:

In January, you co-moderated two sessions: one was the introduction to Open Access, and the other imagining a world after Impact Factor. How are the two – growth of Open Access and demise of Impact Factor – related to each other? What has to happen first?

Newly founded OA journals cannot compete with established journals because they don’t have an IF. Scientists are reluctant to publish in journals without the prestige that a high IF brings. In these terms, the IF needs to go before OA journals can strive.

In what aspects can the web change science communication?

The way scientists communicate their findings today is fundamentally broken and I sometimes have the impression it even is FUBAR.

Who or what broke the system? We, the scientists. We multiplied and multiplied until the present day where we publish between one and two million peer-reviewed papers every year in about 25,000 scholarly journals. It is my understanding, even though I haven’t been around at the time, that this became an issue already in the 1960s: the journals had multiplied with the researchers and so had subscription costs – the IF was invented to be able to rank the journals. Libraries, among others, used this rank to help decide which journals to subscribe to. This journal rank has been in place until now, with the added complication that now scientists themselves use the IF to rank other scientists. Today, high IF means prestige, so scientists will often tend to try and publish their best results in journals with a high IF – a self-stabilizing system.

Poof! In comes the internet and all of a sudden one could in principle place all the scholarly articles that have ever been published on a single computer for everybody to read, text-mine, whatever. No more need for journals. Yet, because of the self-stabilization, we’re still essentially stuck with a publication system that we had apparently already outgrown by the 1960s! Given the growth rate of the modern, data-intensive scientific enterprise, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that a heavily patched-up communication system that was already outdated 50 years ago isn’t really the most effective way to do business. Thus, the advent of the web questioned our entire way of doing science – it doesn’t get any more fundamental than that.

It’s always easy to criticize – what solutions does the web offer for science communication?

I could paraphrase an infamous politician and say that you don’t communicate in the system you want but in the system you have – but that’s what politicians and publishers say. I have several dreams for how the web can improve scientific communication.

One of my favorite ones at the moment doesn’t have any journals at all in it. It only needs a federated standard for multi-level peer-review. The first level is among cooperating or competing colleagues in the same field. As data is being collected, it is made public to an ever wider audience: first other graduate students, post-docs in the lab, then lab-head, then cooperating colleagues, then other scientists, still within the same field. This is similar to lab meetings and conferences, but online and all the time. Scientists have always self-organized themselves into societies, clubs and other groups, this is the same principle. These interactions make sure that whatever is submitted for formal peer-review has already passed informal peer-review (and there would be a record of it).

Once the data form a large enough body to be communicated with scientists who are not in this field (or the public), a ‘paper’ will be drafted and submitted for formal peer-review. Reviewers will be both experts in the field but also outsiders, to ensure general readability. These ‘papers’ are then ‘published’ in a distributed database, hosted by the institutions’ libraries, according to the
abovementioned federated standard, linking to the record of data collection and peer-review established in the process of the research.

This is only one of many potential ways in which the web could revolutionize scientific communication while ensuring track records, allowing open access to text, data and methods, providing a reputation system for each contribution of each scientist. There are many more, some closer to the current system, some even more utopian than the one I just outlined. The important thing is that as many people as possible realize how good the system could be: then they will be more likely to abandon the current system and support necessary change.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

Wasn’t blogging invented for opinionated extroverts like me? :-)

My blog is a way for me to vent, influence others, toy around with ideas, highlight results from colleagues (positively and negatively) and make myself be heard outside the usual circle of physically close colleagues. Science is all about communication – if you have a unique insight and never tell anybody, does it exist?

Friendfeed is of particular value for me, as I both get new ideas, results and information from there but can also influence the topics and discussions. It’s two-way science communication that you usually only get at conferences. At Friendfeed you’re basically at a science conference without a special topic 24/7 – exactly my kind of fix!

When and how did you discover science blogs?

Hmm, I don’t really know. I remember I started mine in 2003 because I thought everybody and their grandmother had one…

What are some of your favourite science blogs?

I don’t really read blogs per se. Most of the people with interesting things to say are on Firendfeed – and if they’re not, someone will link their blog posts there. With Friendfeed there’s hardly a need to read blogs. I would read blogs of colleagues I know personally and/or are in my field, but as of now I don’t know of any who blog but are not already on Friendfeed.

There’s one blog I visit regularly, though. Pharyngula – it’s just so entertaining. Thanks PZ!

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

John Wilbanks‘ presentation on the semantic web was an eye-opener! The potential of this technology is huge and in part because of his presentation I’ve written a grant proposal to develop a web-based science communication system (think informal peer-review above) using semantic web technology – wish me luck!

It was so nice to see see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

Thanks for having me there, I had a great time. I would like to come again next year, but I haven’t decided, yet.

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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.