Last week (or thereabouts), I had a chat with Rosie Redfield, an evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia. She had come over to visit because I noticed that every member of her lab (predominantly postdocs) had their own blog, and I was curious to see what was up with that.
Anyway, it turns out that Rosie makes it a requirement for her lab members to maintain a blog. This was primarily to act as an appendum lab book, and a place to reflect on the experiments carried out recently.
Chatting with her, she was quite excited by the prospect of such a thing becoming common practice. She noted a number of side benefits to the process:
1. It allows her, as a supervisor, to remotely keep track on what's going on. Think of it as preface material before the lab meeting, or the one on ones.
2. She's convinced that with the public facade to the posting, folks in her lab tend to conceptualize more fully what the experiments and data could signify. In doing so, there's a great opportunity for blogging to help clarify the experiments necessary to move the research projects forward.
3. Scientists are not necessarily noted for their writing skills. Which is too bad, because that ability tends to come in very handy in the fine art of preparing grants. Here, you have a platform where you can work the "practice makes perfect" angle.
4. Depending on the tact of the blogger, you may inadvertently end up with a significant amount of draft material for that thesis or paper you going to have to write later.
Then, of course, Rosie got into the whole issue of open access. In that, her efforts to promote science blogging in her lab, could possibly be thought of as a powerful exercise in scientific communication. Imagine a scenario where facets of the standard "lab book" are offered for public viewing.
This means that things like negative data, serendipity findings (things that don't normally get published) have a chance to be publicly aired, which only adds to the body of scientific knowledge. And what about unpublished data? How open is that? For instance, Rosie herself has no qualms in presenting her grant proposals, even before competition deadlines.
Mind you, her lab happens to focus on a research area that is not too competitive, so the relative merits of what her lab's blogging is obviously subjected to this important nuance.
Still, it's interesting to imagine a scenario where what Rosie's lab does is common practice. i.e. what if NIH, NSERC, NSF, CIHR made it explicit in their funding structure.
Anyway, I've got two questions to throw at readers:
1. Is this a rare occurrence? I heard that boinformaticians might do this sort of thing, although it would still be primarily in the context of a private set-up.
2. What do you think? Is it a good idea, and if so, do you think you could convince your whole lab to follow suit?
Sounds like a great idea, but to play devil's advocate for a second, isn't there a massive chance of one of her lab members getting scooped to a paper because they aired unpublished results to the world?
My sentiments exactly Ed. If you were planning on starting a career in academia, the way the academy is currently set up punishes "open source research".
I know of researchers who leave out salient details or obfuscate some key step writing up an algorithm to protect themselves from other people reverse-implementing their work from the papers they publish. But the standard is supposed to be that a publication should be clear enough so that anyone from that field should be able to re-create the work.
I think open research would be a good thing, but I think a lot of people are afraid of losing their "one big idea" to someone else, and are therefore afraid.
I think older advisors would also be afraid of students mixing too much person blogging with work writing; there may be a potential for "too much information".
You should check out Useful Chemistry to see this in a chemistry setting. The Experiments link at the top takes you to all the details of every experiment.
I've just posted on "Why take the risk of writing a research blog?" at RRResearch.
I'm a fan of Rosie's research, and will be checking out these blogs. I support the sharing of research informally via the web, although I don't think I'd go as far as posting grant proposals or detailed results until submitting/publishing!
I do, however, think it's a great idea to share theoretical ideas, methodologies and interesting data that probably won't be published.
DrZZ - thanks for mentioning UsefulChem. My students are required to keep their complete laboratory notebook (including links to all raw data) on our public wiki at http://usefulchem.wikispaces.com
I currently don't require them to blog in addition to that but I can see the advantage of how Rosie has her postdocs and students discuss ideas on their blogs.
...isn't there a massive chance of one of her lab members getting scooped...
As Rosie says, people (especially grad students and postdocs) have an exaggerated sense of the risk of getting scooped. The reality is that everyone has plenty of their own work to do, and most of it frankly isn't of all that much interest to anyone else. Unless you're in some cutthroat subfield, I wouldn't sweat it.
My response to "Won't we get scooped" is generally "Don't flatter yourself."
While it's an open question whether you or your competitors will proceed faster if you both can benefit from each other's negative data, theres no question that the science will proceed faster.
About the term "getting scooped", people use that term to mean different things. The more negative connotation is that someone will "steal" your results and claim them as their own. I think that is pretty unlikely - at least as unlikely as someone trying to do that from an obscure publication. Blogs and wikis are generally well indexed by search engines so demonstrating that someone copied your work would be easiest to discover on these very public vehicles.
The other meaning of "scooped" is that a competitor already working in your area will be first to publish a similar finding. In this respect I agree with Cameron Neylon that keeping a public laboratory notebook can actually serve a protective function in proving who was first:
In terms of getting scooped. If everyone had an open blog/notebook then it would be easy to see who was doing what first. The problem arises when some labs have open notebooks and others do not. In that scenario where there is also competition then the lab with the open notebook would be a disadvantage. Knowing what doesn't work can be a big leg up. Resources can be saved including the all important human self-esteem. The lab I was in for graduate school before I got there had a post-doc that was telling his/her previous lab exactly what our lab was doing and what was working and what wasn't. This allowed the other lab to put a couple of post-docs on a project for short period of time, scooping the single grad student working in our lab because the two post-docs knew exactly what to do could work faster than the single grad student who had been laboring to determine what worked and what didn't.
In a completely open system this would be clearly visible. In a partially open system there is a risk for those who choose to be open. Of course there is a reward. Reward though is spread over the entire society. The sub-field I was in was highly competitive. The risk would not be worth the rewards. The labs who were open would be at a competitive disadvantage as compared to those that are not. Incentive has to be created to entice labs in the situation to be open. Especially in a system that requires grad students to come up with an original research thesis and a publication or two. Why should a grad student risk being scooped for the greater good? Living on a grad student stipend isn't exactly high living.
> "Is this a rare occurrence?"
I know at least about the European research program "nano2hybrids" where scientists do have blogs. On such a controversial topic (at least in Europe), nanotechnologies, the tool is obviously meant for external "communication". But since participants work at different labs in different countries, these blogs also become a way to communicate internally and to link participants (check the comments for instance!)...