Saturday, February 12, 2011

Social Media Week 2011: When Research Goes Social: Community and Engagement

I'm really excited that there have been panels on science and research at Social Media Week this year. It's as if another communication silo has been breached. As Chris Wiggins aptly noted, our current era of science has always been social. However, it has been for the most part largely socially insular. Wiggins, an associate professor of mathematics at Columbia University, was a speaker at Research Gone Social: Leveraging the Web to Advance Scientific Discovery (#smwresearch), a session designed to help introduce scientists to social elements on the web. Wiggins maintained that the nature of science dating from the 17th-century has not changed: it continues to rely heavily on peer review and collaboration. This assessment is certainly accurate, and in keeping with one school of thought present at the social media panels this week: a reminder that social is not new—that human nature is inherently social—and what we are largely responding to is the greater visibility of social channels.

However, though the scientific model may remain unchanged, and peer review is a long standing important part of that process, the expectations surrounding scientific communication and collaboration are changing. And that is too important of a point to overlook.

At Research Gone Social, Jan Reichelt, co-founder and president of Mendeley, was on hand to discuss the merits of the free reference manager, and hint at the data possibilities that usage could reveal. (Disclosure: The panel was also hosted by Mendeley.) Mendeley helps researchers organize papers into a digital library that remains accessible from virtually anywhere. However, Mendeley offers an opportunity for feedback on published work as users can comment and share notes on papers, which is a process that is far more more expedited than the traditional peer review. That is not to say that Mendeley replaces the peer review process, but that it offers the opportunity for additional feedback that could encourage further research far more quickly as subsequent questions are raised in a contained forum.

NYU librarian Margaret Smith acknowledged this expedited exchange of information, noting that as scholarly communication has moved online, it has encouraged more of a response. With the speed of search, preview, publication and indexing, there are just more opportunities to join the scientific foray as a researcher—which produces more things to respond to. However, these discussions by Wiggins and Smith still largely concerned connecting members of the scientific community to other members of that community. If science has always been a social process, then these sorts of connections will continue to occur, with or without social and digital media. The real possibilities waiting to be explored involve understanding the opportunities for scientific discovery that are possible when the public is engaged in the scientific conversation.

Gabriel Willow of The WildLab was on hand to demonstrate the ways technology enables non-specialists to provide meaningful data with the WildLab App, which allows birders to upload sightings, geotag, and track birds. Bird watching is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the US, according to Willow. The WildLab App not only helps connect a community of bird watchers, but also represents a huge repository of information that scientists would not be able to collect on their own. The WildLab also has apps for turtles and horseshoe crabs. Why? Because there are communities of non-traditional scientists—regular folks—who have an interest in that data, and are willing to help compile it, and have an interest in using it. This is a point that came up in the Open Government (#smwnyc #nycgov) panel as well: Seth Pinsky of the New York City Economic Development Committee made mention of an app that connects citizens with data from a tree census. "Who would want that data?," he asked. Lots of people do because it opens the doors for exploration and understanding in new and interesting ways. For example, the Trees Near You App provides taxonomic information, but also will tell you how much shade each tree provides, how much money it helps residents and businesses save, how much water runoff it prevents, and how much CO2 it prevents from entering the atmosphere.  It's an important lesson that data can be used in interesting ways.

A fantastic example of the ways citizen participants can be valuable assets to research was evident at Socializing History With Maps (#smwnypl1) presented by the New York Public Library which is working to digitize thousands of New York City maps. It is a project that relies on the interested public to help tag the old maps and align them with maps from today. But there are broader implications for citizen participation: one of the goals of the project is to connect the digitized maps with Google Earth and other applications, such as FourSquare, and provide users with real-world grounding and discovery. Imagine standing on a city block and being able to understand the social and political, as well as geographical lay of the land, all from a map on your smart phone. It helps bring history alive, but it also connects individuals with their local history, makng that history a part of their story. It creates a personal interaction with the spaces that figure in our lives.  Our landscapes are constantly shifting—it would be amazing to be able to place ourselves in that context.

Many members of the scientific community are already taking steps to participate in public discussions. Scientific blogging communities such as Nature, PLoS blogs, ScienceBlogs, Scientopia, Discover, LabSpaces, Deep Sea News, and others, as well as a number of independent science bloggers, are already engaged in building scientific communities online that welcomes citizen scientist discussions. The New York Public Library's map initiative, and apps like the WildLab App and Trees Near You, as well as the countless science communities and feeds that have sprung up on the web, and the rise of open source publishing (i.e., PLoS) all indicate that the expectations concerning science communication and collaboration are shifting. The recent "aflocalypse" made quite a few headlines, and the public was certainly talking. It turned out that the massive bird deaths had a mundane answer, but the public response indicates that there is a huge pool of interested citizen scientists who would like to participate in the scientific discussion. Science is no longer bound to the lab. The public wants to participate. And it would be foolish to ignore an interested public.

To review thoughts on these panels, you can either review archived streams or visit the following hashtags to review the live tweets and responses: #smwresearch, #smwnyc #nycgov, and #smwnypl1.

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