Open Laboratory - old Prefaces and Introductions

One difference between reading Open Laboratory anthologies and reading the original posts included in them is that the printed versions are slightly edited and polished. Another difference is that the Prefaces and Introductions can be found only in the books. They have never been placed online.

But now that four books are out and we are halfway through collecting entries for the fifth one, when only the 2009 book is still selling, I think it is perfectly OK to place Prefaces and Introductions that I wrote myself online. I wrote Prefaces for the 2006, 2007 and 2008 book, as well as the Introduction for the 2006 one. The introductions for the subsequent editions were written by the year's guest editor, i.e., Reed Cartwright in 2007, Jennifer Rohn in 2008, and SciCurious in 2009.

So, under the fold are my three Prefaces and one Introduction. See how the world (and my understanding of it) of the online science communication has changed over the last few years:

Preface to the Open Laboratory 2006

The idea to publish a collection of science-related blogposts came recently from the publisher of this book, The timing of the publication of this book, the first of its kind, is designed to coincide with the first Science Blogging Conference in January 2007 in Chapel Hill, NC. This left less than a month for the entire process of building this anthology from start to finish.

There are hundreds of science blogs and hundreds of medical blogs our there on the Internet. Many have been publishing for several years. Thus, there are hundreds of thousands of posts to choose from and pick the best fifty ever written. How does one compile an anthology at such short notice? For a blogger, the solution is obvious: a democratic method. I posted a call for nominations on my own blog and e-mailed several dozen science bloggers about this endeavor. That was on Christmas Eve, when most people are spending time with their families instead of surfing the Web, so the online traffic is very small. Yet, the idea was received with a considerable enthusiasm and within just a couple of days I had received (and, of course, posted links to) 218 nominations to pick from.

Then, I recruited twelve of my blog-friends to help me choose the best 50 posts. They certainly came through, on short notice, with detailed evaluations of all submitted posts. So, this is the place where I should profusely thank Jennifer Ouellette, Janet Stemwedel, John McKay, Carl Feagans, John Beetham, Alun Salt, Moheb Costandi, Heinrich Gompf, Leo Lincourt, Bill Hooker, Karmen Lee Franklin and Jennifer Wong for their willingness to spend a considerable amount of time and effort during the holidays to help with this project, as well as Alun Salt for designing the cover and Anton Zuiker for helping with the techincal aspects of putting together a book. Without them, this book would have been impossible to finish on time.

In assembling this collection, I was looking for the quality of writing as well as the diversity of topics and styles. It is not easy to move the work produced in one medium into another medium. Blog posts are dynamic. Books are static. How does one place hyperlinks on paper? Hyperlinks are the currency of the blogging world. Frequent updates and the comments posted by readers are what gives blogs their life. As a result, the posts included in this collection are, in a sense, the ones least typical for the online environment - those that are capable of standing alone, almost autistic in their resemblance to the essays of the hardcopy-printed world. This is no judgment on their quality, of course, as these are the best essays around, only a reminder that much that goes on online is much more conversational than the material presented here. Thus, I urge you to go to the nearest computer and look at science blogs in their natural medium.

Many of the posts collected in this anthology have garnered numerous - sometimes hundreds - of readers' comments that are worth checking out. See what hyperlinks are embedded in these posts. See some of the color images that had to be omitted for publication in a book. Then look around these blogs, see what else they have written over months and years of their existence and check out what other blogs they link to. Finally, join in the conversation yourself - post a comment or start your own blog!

This is the dawn of a new age of communication. In the beginning there were grunts, tom-tom drums, smoke signals, and the guy on the horse riding from village to village reading the latest King's Edict. Then came Gutenberg, ushering in the beginnings of the Media. That was the first time in history when literacy started spreading from clergy to all the others: professional classes, ruling classes, and beyond. It took a couple of more centuries, and the Industrial Revolution, before the invention of the daily newspaper. Another century passed before radio was invented, followed by television another half-century later.

Right now, we are in the middle of another Media revolution - the Internet is taking over. And for he first time, the Media is not a top-down production, a few with the loudspeaker talking down to the silent masses that are unable to respond and be heard. Today, the Media is a many-to-many communication. Unlike traditional journalists who are jacks of all trades, many of the participants in the new media are the true experts on the topics they communicate about. This includes scientists and physicians whose work is showcased in this anthology. Blogs, podcasts, video-files and social software are the way of the future. Don't allow yourself to be left behind!

January 11th, 2007
Chapel Hill, NC

Introduction to the Open Laboratory 2006

Science is one of those areas of life (sex being another) where nationality does not really matter. Let me be perfectly clear here that I am not talking about technology, engineering, or most of the applied science - those can be quite well kept within the borders of one country (and strictly enforced by patent and property laws, or kept secret within the confines of the DOD). I am talking about the pure, basic science driven by curiosity about the way world works.

The global nature of science is, of course, an ideal not quite yet supported by reality. There are rich and poor countries, countries with rich scientific traditions and those with none, countries in which science is highly regarded and those in which it is frowned upon. This means that different kinds of science are done in different parts of the world.

When I published my first scientific papers a few years ago, I received only very few requests for reprints from bigwigs at big US Universities. Most requests were from people working at small colleges and, surprisingly for me at the time, from people working in places like Argentina, Algeria and Poland. I was wondering why. Well, it is obvious, big Universities in the States have money to subscribe to many scientific journals. Small colleges and foreign schools cannot afford such a luxury.

Over the past five years or so, Internet has dramatically changed this picture. Almost nobody sends requests for reprints any more. People at big schools log into their online libraries and download PDF files. People from smaller places and abroad send e-mails asking for the PDF to be sent as an attachment. Search engines like ISI Web of Science and Medline bring to one's fingertips almost everything published in science practically as soon as it is published. Google Scholar is allowing people not affiliated with big Universities to find literature online. More and more journals are starting their online editions. Even big rich schools, like Harvard, are dropping expensive subscriptions for hardcopy versions of top scientific journals. Online journals, like PLoS, are fast becoming as respected as any print journals in the field.

Until about WWII the global centers of science were in Europe. Since about the 1950s, the USA had an absolute primacy in the world of science. We are experiencing another shift right now. The number of foreigners coming to the USA to study has about halved in the last couple of years. There are a number of reasons for this. The Patriot Act certainly makes it more difficult for people, especially from some countries, to get visas to study here. The anti-scientific atmosphere in the country is certainly a repellent. Creationist actions in Dover, PA, Cobb Co. GA, and Kansas are certainly not great PR for the state of our science (and science education). Slashing of funding for science (except for defense-related research and the crazy Moon/Mars project) does not look promising for a potential foreign student. Outright ban on some types of research (e.g., stem cell research) has even lured some American-born scientists to move to Singapore and similar places abroad.

But it is not just a repellent effect of today's America that is keeping all those smartest foreigners from coming here. They are also attracted to the new possibilities for success at home. Fall of communism, unification of Europe, lightning-fast economic development of a number of Asian nations, all these factors contribute to a new sense of optimism in so many parts of the world. One can, these days, actually do good science in many countries in which it was impossible a decade earlier. Universities and Institutes are being built, money is coming in, the old ways of doing science business are being rethought and reformed in many places, thus luring many young people to choose countries other than the scary USA for their professional development.

These kinds of concerns have been voiced repeatedly here in the States, and science has been quite politicized lately. Many articles in mainstream media, as well as posts on blogs, have been written lamenting these recent developments. Organizations have been formed (e.g., the Union of Concerned Scientists), and some blogs are almost entirely devoted to this problem (e.g., Chris Mooney's The Intersection). However, the scientists themselves are feeling more conflicted. On one hand, being good Americans, they would like to see the US retain its leading role in the world of science. They want to continue being able to do good science in this country. On the other hand, being good scientists, they feel that the globalization of science is a good thing. While most other human endeavors are parochial, science is universal, and the latest trends promise an internationalization of science never before seen in history. The increased communication and collaboration between scientists in many countries, coming from different scientific traditions, will lead to creative cross-pollination that can be only good for the progress of science.

So, what is the role of blogs going to be in the future of science? I believe the blogs are going to speed up the internationalization of science, with positive effects for both American and foreign scientists. What expert science bloggers are doing right now and will do even more in the future is take expensive information and make it free. People with access to expensive journal subscriptions will link, excerpt, and comment on technical papers as soon as they are published, thus making them available to scientists in small schools, in foreign countries, and, importantly, to amateur scientists.

Science teachers in elementary, middle and high schools will have the information at their fingertips and so will their students, resulting in a better communication and a kind of learning that is more fun. With online book publishing, textbooks will probably become a little less than ten years out of date at the time of publication. Journalists will know where to go to find correct information about a topic that requires scientific explanations. Random blogsurfers will pop in and see some really cool science-stuff with who knows what consequences - perhaps piquing an interest in science in a kid? The best science bloggers are able to also write well, translating difficult scientese into ordinary language, thus removing some of the mystique that keeps people afraid of science, as well as demostrating how science works and how controversies and food-fights are the best generators of new ideas and cool findings.

At the same time, the openness of the Internet is changing the way scientific findings are published. Open-access online journals and public peer-review are becoming more and more favoured over the traditional journals by the scientists themselves. It was recently shown that papers published in online journals are more frequently cited than those published in traditional journals (especially if the traditional journal does not post papers online at all, or hides them behind a subscription wall). Some scientists are starting to publish data and even day-to-day lab notebooks on their blogs. The new ways of publishing science are slowly changing the way science is done. And when the way science is done and published changes, this will change the way science is funded, taught and appreciated by the wider society.

Preface and Introduction were partially based on the following blog posts:

Preface to the Open Laboratory 2007

Open Laboratory 2007, the book you are holding in your hands right now, is the second science blogging anthology. The first one, the 2006 edition, was a complete surprise in every way. The idea itself, seemingly preposterous, was a surprise. The immediate, overwhelmingly positive response by science bloggers was a surprise. The number of posts submitted for consideration (over 200) was a surprise, particularly considering that the entire process was happening during the Christmas holidays, when many people go offline to travel and spend time with their family and friends. The dedication of a dozen colleagues from the scientific blogosphere who spent their holidays reading and evaluating all the submissions was a surprise. The speed at which the entire process ran was a surprise: it took less than a month from the first mention of the idea till the first copy of the book was sold. The overwhelmingly positive reviews of the book in the media and on blogs was a surprise.

At the time the first anthology was in preparation, there were a little over 700 science blogs written in English or other 'Western' languages. I had a list of all of them and visited them on a regular basis. All of those bloggers I consider to be my personal friends, even if we have never met in the physical world. Related blogs, e.g., those focusing on healthcare, medicine and nursing, also had similar numbers. There were probably about the same number of nature end environmental blogs at the time as well.

Since then, the field exploded with the number of science blogs, at least doubling over the course of the year. It is now impossible to track and list all of them, let alone read them all regularly. Due to a number of factors - and I like to think that the Science Blogging Conference and the first anthology had some impact - science blogging has hit the mainstream in 2007. Almost every major science journal and magazine published an article on science blogging during this year and most of them started their own blogs. The two oldest and largest science blogging communities that were formed the previous year, (hosted by the Seed Media Group) and Nature Blog Network (hosted by the journal Nature), became online centers of scientific blogging and are both very well represented in the second anthology.

All of those trends were already apparent early in the year, just after the first book was published. Many took it for granted that publication would become an annual event. It quickly became obvious that the challenge of editing the second anthology would be too big for just one person's labor of love and a few weeks of work during the holidays. I needed to start the process early and I needed some help. The solution I came up with is to ask a prominent science blogger, each year a different person, to serve as the Editor of the anthology, while I would provide continuity and consistency by acting as a series editor.

Thus, for the 2007 edition, I asked Dr. Reed Cartwright, a genetics postdoc at North Carolina State University and the power behind two excellent blogs (The Panda's Thumb and De Rerum Natura), to serve as the Editor. This volume is the product of a year of his hard and dedicated work. He set up an automated submission system and several other online tools used to collect and evaluate the submitted posts, to communicate with the judges and authors, and to edit and prepare the manuscript. All of those tools made the job possible and will certainly be used again next year. He guided the evaluation process, made some tough decisions, put the manuscript together and made the book look beautiful! And not just that Reed did the perfect job, but he was also a pleasure to collaborate with throughout the year.

This year's response of the blogosphere was overwhelming - almost 500 of the best science posts of the year were submitted for consideration - quite a lot to read and evaluate. So, this is the place where we should thank Anna Kushnir, Karen Davis, Tiffany Cartwright, Karen James, Anne-Marie Hodge, Michelle Kiyota, Tara Smith, Jennifer Forman Orth, David Kroll, John Dupuis, Blake Stacey, Greg Laden, Michael Rathbun, Egon Willighagen, Martin Rundkvist, Arunn Narasimhan, Mike Dunford, Steve Matheson, Brian Switek, Kevin Zelnio, John Wilkins, Jeremy Bruno, Mike Bergin, Anton Zuiker, Ian Musgrave, Peter McGrath, Alex Palazzo and Dave Bacon for their willingness to spend a considerable amount of time and effort during the holidays to help with this project, as well as Alun Salt for designing the cover. Without them, this book would have been impossible to finish on time.

In assembling this collection, as was the case last year, we were looking for the quality of writing as well as the diversity of topics, forms, voices and styles. As it is not easy to move the work produced in one medium into another medium, the posts included in this collection are probably the least typical for the online environment. We had to choose posts that are capable of standing alone on the printed page without the dynamics introduced by hyperlinks, trackbacks and readers' comments. Thus, after you finish reading this collection, I hope you will venture online and take a look at science blogs in their natural medium and get the feel for the dynamic, ongoing conversation that goes on in the scientific blogosphere.

Some people are good research scientists. Some people are excellent writers. Science bloggers are both, combining their scientific expertise with the ability to turn it into a riveting story. I hope you enjoy this selection of their best essays.

Bora Zivkovic
January 13th, 2008
Chapel Hill, NC

Preface to the Open Laboratory 2008:

Printing presses, reams of paper, barrels of ink and distribution trucks are expensive. The price of printing limits how much can be distributed to the readers and who gets to write for print. The quality control is performed by a set of experts we call editors. Editors, using their best knowledge and experience, choose, among a myriad of submissions, exactly what pieces of text will see the light of day in a publication -- be it a daily newspaper, a glossy magazine or a scientific journal.

The World Wide Web is changing this in a dramatic way. The expense of writing something and publishing it online is miniscule. Thus, everyone is able to put their thoughts and ideas online, very fast, and practically for free. The quality control comes after publication and is communal -- the best, in theory, will rise to the top. Even the best of editors cannot come close to the combined expertise of millions. New measures, like online traffic, the number of incoming links, and the "Google juice" propel to the top the writings of those considered the best by the greatest number of other people. Of course, small groups of people peddling disnformation are capable of gaming the system and temporarily gaining online prominence, but over time, the larger groups tend to prevail and ensure that true quality wins the day.

Science is not immune to these changes either, but it has its own idiosyncratic challenges to deal with. Communication of research results among scientists still requires a pre-publication quality control -- the peer reviewers. And, for the research to be considered valid, it needs to be published in a proper scientific journal, which requires peer review and the decision-making by editors. Even as scientific journals move entirely online, and thus enabling inexpensive publication of vast numbers of scientific papers, the editorial process remains intact.

But communication among scientists is only one part of the ecosystem -- communicating science to the public is just as important. And it is here that the Web and the new technologies are eliciting the greatest changes. The online scientific papers are only at the center of an expanding circle of scientific discourse. Websites, library repositories, pre-publication sites (like arXiv and Nature Precedings), wikis, blogs, social networks (like Facebook) and microblogging platforms (like Twitter and FriendFeed) are all now parts of the ecosystem of scientific communication, all intertwined with each other and with the peer-reviewed papers.

Blogs are probably the most prominent venue of this new world of online communication. In science, blogs can be used in various ways. For instance, some blogs are a means for communication within members of a research group who may be geographically separated from each other. Other blogs are classroom tools in science education. Yet others are a part of marketing outreach by scientific organizations.

Still, the science blogs that are both the most popular and the most novel addition to this ecosystem are those written by individuals who write because of a personal passion for science and a wish to impart this passion to the lay audience. Most of those bloggers are themselves scientists, or on their way to becoming so; thus, their expertise on the topic vastly exceeds that of a science beat reporter for a local newspaper or that reporter's editor. They bring authority to their writing that most journalists in the mainstream media, outside of specialized scientific magazines, do not have. For this reason, they are quickly becoming the voices of authority on scientific topics online and increasingly the "go-to" places for a lay audience wanting their science-related news fix.

In addition, these popular bloggers also reveal their humanity every day. Aside from science, the popular science bloggers often write about other topics they feel strongly about, from politics and religion, and the trials and tribulations of life in the laboratory, to the hottest high-heeled shoes they just bought. They use humor. They use funny pictures and videos in their posts. They use regular, even colloquial language to write their posts. They are putting a human face on science, showing that science is inhabited by interesting, colorful characters far different from the popular stereotypes of insular, socially inept geeks. Their lay audience, often initially attracted to the blog by non-scientific topics, then gets to see how cool science is and how exciting it is to be a scientist.

This book, the third annual anthology of science blogging, is an attempt to showcase the best writing on science blogs to an audience not yet familiar with the science blogosphere. But a book is a print medium. It requires presses, paper, ink and trucks, which are expensive. A book severely limits what gets published and whose words are made available to the readers. How does one choose exactly which, out of millions of blogs posts, to include in such an anthology?

The solution is a combination of a traditional editorial system and the new community-based quality control. More than 520 blog posts have been submitted for consideration over the past year. Many of those were submitted by the readers because those blogs are already popular and considered to be the best by the community. Then, a panel of judges, most of them bloggers themselves, carefully read all of the entries and made suggestions to this year's editor, Jennifer Rohn, as to which blog posts most deserve to be included in this volume. Jennifer and her team took it from there and made the final decision and helped the authors polish their essays and modify them as needed for the move from the Web to print.

The result is The Open Laboratory 2008, containing 50 blog posts, one poem and one cartoon, each on a different topic, each written in a different form, each with a different voice. I hope you enjoy the quality and diversity of writing on science blogs presented in the book and I hope, even more, that reading the book will whet your appetite for more so that you seek out and start reading science blogs online in the future.

Bora Zivkovic
Chapel Hill
January 20th, 2009


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