In(s) and Out(s) of Academia

Bjoern Brembs is on a roll! Check all of these out:

Incentivizing open scientific discussion:

Apart from the question of whether the perfect scientist is the one who only spends his time writing papers and doing experiments, what incentives can one think of to provide for blogging, commenting, sharing? I think because all of science relies on creativity, information and debate, the overall value of blogging, commenting and sharing can hardly be overestimated, so what incentives can there be for the individual scientist?

Journals - the dinosaurs of scientific communication:

Today's system of scientific journals started as a way to effectively use a scarce resource, printed paper. Soon thereafter, the publishers realized there were big bucks to be made and increased the number of journals to today's approx. 24,000. Today, there is no technical reason any more why you couldn't have all the 2.5 million papers science puts out every year in a single database. It doesn't take an Einstein to realize that PLoS One is currently the only contender in the race for who will provide this database. For all the involved, it is equally clear what the many advantages of such a database would be. Consequently, traditional publishers are rightfully concerned that their customerbase is slowly dissappearing.

Post-publication paper assessment:

The more variables there are to game, the more difficult it becomes. Now we have one variable (IF) and we all know who is gaming it ad nauseum. In this thread we have 5 measures, add ratings and comments and you have 7. This should be impossible to game for anyone but the hacker who can get thousands to machines on the net to just hype this one paper.

All of these measures are relevant even long after publication. Some papers ignored by the media may later turn out to harbor the most important discovery of the century, while some of those tossed around everywhere turn out to be completely irreproducible. Having these measures in place, if nothing else, would allow us to quantify and study such events.

But again, no matter how many numbers you have, these measures cannot substitute for actually reading the papers! The numbers barely give you a rough idea of where a paper or a scientist can be placed with respect to others in the same field. Yet, these measures would be light-years ahead of any one-dimensional, irreproducible, obviously manipulated and corrupt measure such as the IF.

Building a scientific online reputation:

For me, this basically means that all the expertise and technical prerequisites are there to bring the scientific community into the 21st century. The advantages of the new system need to be succinctly summarized and widely publicized at the same time as the current system's disadvantages and idiosyncracies need to be pointed out and publicized along with the new proposal. And because criticizing is always easier than advertising, I'll start by summarizing why Thomson's Bibliographic Impact Factor (BIF) is dead.

Why Thomson's Bibliographic Impact Factor (BIF) is dead:

Despite the recent downpour of evidence against the use of Thomson's BIF, I still get comments from people such as "However, IFs are still the most used way of evaluating a researcher's career and value. Even if we find this ridiculous, it's just the way it is." or "in our institution, every researcher has to publish in journals whose BIF is at least 5.". In the light of the current state of affairs concerning the BIF, this is just embarrassing. So here are the top three reasons why the BIF is dead:

1. The BIF is negotiable and doesn't reflect actual citation counts (source)
2. The BIF cannot be reproduced, even if it reflected actual citations (source)
3. The BIF is not statistically sound, even if it were reproducible and reflected actual citations (source)

Now go and spread the information so I don't have to suffer from these ridiculous statements any more.

Then, on Nature Network blogs and Nature blogs, discussion about the "manners" in the science blogosphere:

Corie Lok: What is fair play in the blogo/commentosphere?:

Now, maybe it's a generational thing. Those of us who didn't 'grow up' with blogs might be more easily taken aback by what goes on in them. Those of us who did grow up with them perhaps have learned to take the bad with the good.

To which I commented:

A lot depends on one's prior experiences. If one comes to science blogging out of academia with its highly formalized and ritualized kabuki dance of language-use, extremely polite on the surface, yet often very vicious in the subtext, then one sees blogs as very uncourteous and unpleasant - the things that are supposed to be hidden between the lines and now said openly.

Many of the most popular science bloggers have a different history - many years of battling Creationist and other pseudoscience crusaders on Usenet groups in the early 1990s, people who, if they can use language at all, use it in a very vicious way, sometimes with threats of bodily harm. I spent the early 90s on Balkans usenet groups, battling heatedly nationalist Serbs, Croats and Bosnians who do not just voice empty threats but would, if they could find you, really kill you. Others cut their teeth on political blogs or feminist blogs, which are very blunt and heated. Just try not supporting Howard Dean in the 04 primaries or Obama in 08 - you get your fill of human nastiness. And that is nothing compared to what Republicans say once the general election starts!

My first blog was political - I wrote highly opinionated and strongly-worded posts. And of course, I got, let's put it diplomatically, some highly opinionated commenters. I never deleted. Sometimes I responded (politely at first - that is unusual and disarming - I turned some trolls into friendly and polite commenters that way), sometimes I ignored, sometimes my other commenters took care of trolls.

Then, after the move to Sb, I gradually reduced writing about politics and religion and my threads are now quite nice and polite most of the times. Various heated debates about "framing" or the latest "Nature vs. PLoS" kerffufle are sweet lullabies compared to most of the stuff I saw and suffered over the years online. One grows a thick skin, understands that people behave strangely online, laughs at the most egregious examples, and moves on.

There is no single definition of a "science blog". Blog is a piece of software. You do what you want with it. If you are a scientist with a blog, or if you write more-or-less regularly about science (or meta-stuff, e.g., life in the lab, women in academia, politics of science funding....), then you can claim that your blog is a science blog. And your blog is going to be different from all other science blogs out there, as it is what you want it to be, reflecting your own interests, goals and personality. Nobody can tell you how to do it. There is no, and there should be no "template" or "definition" of a science blog - that is the beauty of the beast.

Thus, some blogs are serious, others not. Some are nice, some are inflammatory. Some focus 100% on latest peer-reviewed research. Others are a smorgasbord of everything the blogger feels like posting at any given time (like my blog, for instance). There is no recipe, no straightjacket, no "one right way" to do it. And that is what makes the science blogosphere so exciting and vibrant - so many cool voices, interesting personalities! Who says that scientists are socially-inept or bad communicators?!

The discussion there continues:

Noah Gray: Getting into and out of character:

We seem to be at a critical juncture concerning the intersection of blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies with science. This is no time to poison the atmosphere and turn away the more "relaxed" or "casual" participants. Polarized communities refusing to tolerate rival positions, or unwilling to engage in a civil debate over any topic, from publication business models to the role of Ca2+-permeable AMPARs in LTP, will shut out many would-be contributors and stunt the growth or slow the adoption of blogs, commenting, and other web-based technologies dedicated to the pursuit of scientific collaboration. If such technologies are ever really going to work for science, it will be because of inclusivity, not exclusivity.

Maxine Clarke: Manners in the blogosphere:

The anonymity of cyberspace provides protection to both share honest opinions and participate in mud-slinging without repercussion, he notes. Yet interaction on the Internet is more personal. "So why should some choose to check their manners at the door before logging on?" He argues that intolerant online communities unwilling to engage in a civil debate -- whether on publication business models or the role of glutamate receptors in long-term potentiation of neurons -- will turn off would-be contributors and stunt the growth of online scientific collaboration. Web-based collaborative technologies will not work for science if they become dominated by exclusive, aggressive types. Gray isn't calling for "communal singing of Kum Ba Yah during scientific debates", but simply a certain level of restraint and professionalism online.

This is an interesting segue to Michael Nielsen's latest instalment of his future book about the future of science: Shirky's Law and why (most) social software fails:

Shirky's Law states that the social software most likely to succeed has "a brutally simple mental model ... that's shared by all users".

If you use social software like Flickr or Digg, you know what this means. You can give friends a simple and compelling explanation of these sites in seconds: "it's a website that lets you upload photos so your friends can also see them"; "it's a community website that lets you suggest interesting sites; the users vote on submissions to determine what's most interesting". Of course, for each Flickr or Digg there are hundreds of failed social sites. The great majority either fail to obey Shirky's Law, or else are knockoffs that do little not already done by an existing site.

To understand why Shirky's Law is important, let's look at a site where it's violated. The site is Nature Network, one of the dozens of social networking sites aspiring to be "Facebook for scientists". Like other social networks, Nature Network lets you connect to other users. When you make a connection, you're asked whether you would like to connect as a "friend" or a "colleague". Sometimes the choice is easy. But sometimes it's not so easy. Furthermore, if someone else connects to you, you're automatically asked to connect to them, but given no immediate clue whether they connected as a friend or as a colleague. The only thing shared in the users' mental model at this point is acute awkwardness, and possibly a desire to never connect to anyone on Nature Network again.

I don't mean to pick on Nature Network. It's the most useful of the social networks for scientists. But it and most other social websites (apart from the knockoffs) don't even come close to obeying Shirky's Law.

Why is Shirky's Law so hard for developers to obey? I'll give three reasons.

Interesting.... We here at Sb are often accused of being cliquish and insular. But if you look at our 70+ blogs and dig through the archives, you will see that we rarely comment on each other's blogs - most (99%?) of the comments come from outside readers. Also, most of our links point to outside of Sb. On the other hand, NN is specifically designed to be a community (not a platform for independent players) and almost all of the comments there are from each other. Thus, it is easy for them to maintain a high level of politeness there (this is not a bad thing - this is how they designed it on purpose). It is much harder to harness the hordes of pharyngulites that spill over to all of our blogs - and I do not mind them at all, I think they make the debate spirited and in a way more honest by bypassing superficial niceness and going straight to the point. This may also have something to do with NN bloggers mainly being in the academia, while a large proportion of SciBlings are ex-academia, journalists, artists, etc. with a different rhetoric. The rhetoric of academia is a very formalized kabuki dance, while the rhetoric of the blogosphere has shed all formalities and is much more reminiscient to the regular everyday oral conversation.

Moving on to other, related topics...

Jocalyn Clark: Is the NIH open access policy regressive?:

Panellists noted that the recent NIH public access policy emphasises free not open access. That is, the policy may lead to freely accessible publications (for which publishers or organisations may reap profits from charging authors a fee to deposit their manuscripts), but these will remain under restrictive licenses (thus limiting text-mining).

This, Cockerill argued, makes the NIH policy regressive.

NASA to launch OA image collection:

Nasa is to make its huge collection of historic photographs, film and video available to the public for the first time.

Rhea Miller: Vow to never become Jaded...:

But I do NOT understand why it is socially accepted to be a Jaded be completely negative about the research he/she does, to avoid showing up to journal clubs/seminars, or to never participate in scientific discussions. What does being burnt out do for you in becoming the best you can be?? How does it help your science, your field, or your coworkers??

I really only notice these attributes in young scientists, i.e. graduate students and post-docs. Does this mean that the Jaded ones eventually give-up, get use to it, change their prospectives, or do they hide that inner Jaded color as they progress?? Or maybe it's just that grad students/postdocs can't seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel until they get there??

Panthera studentessa: Letting fear take over:

As time goes on, I'm becoming more and more concerned that I don't have what it takes to hack it in graduate school. In every community, every blog, every forum that I read, people always talk about how stressful and all-consuming grad school is. To be perfectly honest, my mental health isn't exactly the best it's ever been. I just worry that I won't be able to handle the mental and physical stress.


I suppose there's always the option of just not going to graduate school, but that really throws a wrench in my career plans. I don't even know what kind of jobs a person can get with a bachelor's in zoology. And anyway, I don't want to let my fear determine what I do with my life. I just wish I knew how to begin to get over it.

Maddox2: Advice on Freelance Science Writing:

Caveat: I am writing this advice from the perspective of an editor who regularly works with freelance science writers. However, the market in which I work may not be the same as some of you out there work in, or want to work in. Therefore, I can guarantee that following the advice below will endear you to K-12 educational publishers (and to companies like mine who work for educational publishers). I can't speak to journals, newspapers, etc...but I can't imagine they'd mind if you follow this advice! And given that a lot of people here have expressed an interest in freelance writing, I thought I might be able to provide a bit of a different perspective on things.

Mad Hatter: Networking Nuts And Bolts:

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when networking is that your contacts are much more likely to help you if they like you. My personal philosophy on networking is this: when my networking contact turns on her computer and sees an email from me, I want her to click on the email thinking, "Hey, I remember Mad Hatter. I liked talking to her. I wonder what she's been up to?" What I don't want her to do is groan and think, "Oh,'s Mad Hatter again. What does she want now?" So with that in mind, here are some tips on networking that have worked for me.

John Hawks has posted first two of a 4-piece series on Blogging And Tenure: How to blog, get tenure and prosper: Starting the blog:

Last month, the University of Wisconsin officially granted me tenure. So, I can say without any doubt (if other examples had not been sufficient), it is absolutely possible to write a daily, high-profile blog and still be recognized by your colleagues as a scholar. In fact, it is possible to blog, do good research, and earn tenure at a Research I university.

That seems like progress, compared to the situation four years ago when I began blogging. A few high-profile tenure denials in late 2005, including physicist Sean Carroll and political scientist Daniel Drezner, made it seem like a blog might be the kiss of death for a research reputation. Inside Higher Education ran a story on the subject, as did Slate, with the melodramatic title, "Attack of the Career-killing Blogs". Since I was interviewed in that article, I suppose I should have been a little nervous (I wrote about it here).

Happily things have changed.

...and: Graduate students and blogging:

As far as I know, there are no data concerning blogging and career success -- or, for that matter, between any kind of public outreach and success in research careers (as opposed to teaching or industry careers that directly involve outreach). Anecdotally, there are some people who spend a lot of effort on outreach who have very well-respected research careers, and others who don't. I'd say it's up to the individual to chart her own course.


I'd like to advocate for a model of blogging that many graduate students might find useful. If I were starting out today, I'd blog my dissertation. Why not? Is there really anything so secret in your history and literature review that it couldn't be read by the few hundred people who will find your blog?


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