Friday, August 8, 2008

Scientific blogging - progressive or degenerative?

It has been a while since I posted on my blog on the very Pangea Day back in May. Come to think of it, the reason for my infrequent posting could be that I have been 'lazy', but more that I've been searching for an answer whether bloggers really contribute to making our world a better place, or they (including myself, since I'm blogging here) just say something what matters to them but are not really concerned about possible solutions to an issue that could bring about an action to make a difference.

Is blogging a vehicle for change, or just an internet phenomenon?

The answer could be both, depending on what one wants and how one may use blogging to achieve a certain goal, but which one is more of a current trend?

Clearly, blogging is a significant social phenomenon in the internet era, which has allowed people anywhere in the world to post what they think and other like-minded people - whether just close friends or someone whom we never met - will post comments and discuss. This sounds like an excellent niche for collaboration towards social improvement and change. However, what is a reality of blogging activities?

As a scientist, I tend to think about this issue in the context of research in biomedical sciences. Based on my personal analysis, one of the common posts and discussions in scientific blogging is the way how academic institutions tend to be reclusive when it comes to communication of research ideas and results, and that this kind of academia is 'dead' in the internet era. A great number of bloggers address this issue at different angles with some unique insights. However, most of postings do not seem to go any farther than discussions - which are normally classified as either 'I agree', 'I disagree' or 'I'm neutral'. So, most postings in scientific blogs tend to reflect a 'self-indulgent' way of raising an issue, which reminds me of Richard Feynman's quote: "Physics to is math what sex is to masturbation".

So can we do better?

We have to move beyond discussion. A current blogging platform is a product of Web 2.0 technologies that have given us a great start to gather people together on the net and raise important issues. To move forward, people have been recently developing analytical tools which allow people to immediately recognize the key issues raised by a number of bloggers in a given field, such as and by Jonathan Harris and his collaborators. Some of my ongoing projects (a part of the reason why I did not write in the blog for a while) also fit into this category and prototype development is in progress.

Analytical tools will effectively integrate and visualize important issues but will not be enough by themselves towards making a difference:

Blog posting -> Discussion -> Analysis -> important issues -> ?? -> making a difference

How can we fill in the blank? To me, blogging activities should not only accompany analyses of a current trend and more importantly, initiation of collaborative projects that will lead to products as answers to a given issue. While development of analytical tools may require some expertise in computer science, hence restricted within software/internet developers, collaborative projects can be developed by bloggers themselves. Especially for scientific bloggers, their expertise in science and internet technologies will allow them to develop an open scientific project which can be modeled from wikipedia or open-source software projects that have become a huge success.

This could be difficult at the moment since rarely scientific bloggers do have independent labs but usually work for someone. This follows that more people in academia or industry who have independent positions should be willing to open themselves to communicate and discuss on blogs.

Now this is important. In order to attract more people on the internet space, there should be an obvious incentive for them. Unfortunately, as long as blogging culture is only restricted to communicating ideas and discussions, people will not feel that they are benefited from blogging without any clear process and product for making a difference. To be honest, I feel this way sometimes whenever I think about posting or commenting on something - "So what?". To me, this is one of the important reasons why most people in academia/industry do not want to participate in blogs. This strengthens a rationale why blogging needs to accompany a framework for making a difference where people can develop collaborative projects and execute them towards products.

I will meet a number of scientific bloggers tomorrow in New York to raise this issue and see if anyone is interested in working together to develop a framework of blogging -> product and conduct a small project as an example to demonstrate this concept.

I will post more after I get back from the meeting.


nanog said...

very good post!
Definitely "bloggers really contribute to making our world a better place"
At least i can say for scientific bloggers.
There are many ways how to do it. Get together - discuss a problem - solve a problem - improve to world.

Many Sci-bloggers discuss about it. For example - I really like recent post -

Sci blogging is the special blogging, because young scientist prefer don't make it like a diary but discuss about many common and social problems and phenomenons. More of that Sci blogging is developed all the time with new web-apps, that make traditional blogging smarter and discussion more productive (examples: microblogging and FriendFeed).
Also Sci bloggers really like to meet for real and discuss not only about web, sci geekery stuff, but also about new technologies, innovations and finally how to make this world better (example: SciFoo, BioCamps...)

crackerj83 said...

Hey, thanks for your comment. It is great that you mentioned some examples of blog/discussion aggregating websites like FriendFeed. To me, the current issue to solve is a 'solving a problem' component of blogging - rarely I find examples of people who actually execute their ideas to actually solve a problem - it is not just about making ideas public, but also executing ideas into products - like publications, web applications, do-it-yourself instructions, etc...

Anonymous said...

There's quite a lot of people who do stuff not only talk about it (see work of Jean-Claude Bradley, Pierre Lindenbaum, Cameron Neylon, Attila Chordas, other people from The Biogang, The Life Scientsits room at FriendFeed, people attending recent BioBarCamp and so on and so forth). At the life scientists community (see FF room) we've discussed this "solving" component couple of times already. The key is a critical mass (minimal number of like-minded people) which we have gained only very recently.

Mary said...

I am going to paraphrase here what I sent you in my e-mail to get this idea out in the public domain.

Even though the responsibility in the end may have fallen on those interested in attending the event to keep checking the Facebook invite page for changes, anyone who was interested in going should have been MESSAGED about the change in venue. That such a small thing was overlooked (or perhaps neglected) tells me that blogging may very well fail at its own game--an attempt to improve communication. Per this event, it may just be an embarassing oversight but since such a small and what I feel logical gesture wasn't done may be a reflection of the place of professionalism in the blogging world.

This isn't putting down the entire blogging culture by any means, just illustrating my perceived missteps of one particular event. But it does further my skepticism as an overall vehicle for change--it's obvious that online "cliques" form as easily as cliques do in everyday life, so where are the progressive ideals in that?