Embracing blogs and other tools of the information age

I was struck between the parity between the ongoing discussion on this blog about the usage of blogs in academia and Sunday’s New York Times article on how the intelligence community is using blogs and wikis for information synthesis, and a recent post at evolgen asking if there were any ecologists in the blogosphere. Taken together, I think they raise some interesting questions, comments, and ideas about whether we are currently engaging in discussion, debate, and synthesis of knowledge as a scientific community.

While having peer reviewed journals as the ultimate arbiter of scientific advance is certainly necessary – there has to be some adjudicated system of quality control of new work – is this really the only way that ideas can take shape and grow within the scientific community? Furthermore, with the flood of literature out there (and let’s be frank for a moment, who out there reads every new article that comes across their desk – not just the title or abstract, but the whole thing), how can we as scientists make the best usage of the tools of the information age to advance our knowledge and allow our creativity to confront the emerging environmental problems of our age? I’d like to explore two avenues that are discussed in the Times article that could be particularly useful to the scientific community, and explore not only their implications, but also lay out some ideas for their implementation. In the end, it’s going to take some willing individuals out there to take up the challenge, but I think it’s more than possible, and is already happening in some quarters.

The world’s largest review paper

The Times presents a compelling image of rapid assimilation and analysis of knowledge using two types of tools. The first is the wiki. We have all come to be familiar with wikipedia, either using it as a resource or seeing its penetration into the lives of undergraduates. The purpose of wikipedia and other similar endeavors revolves around the involvement of an interested community in collecting and collating knowledge. The power of the wiki model, however, is that anyone can insert what they feel is important into an entry. Within the context of a scientific community, this means that as information is made available through the primary literature, at conferences, and more, one can easily insert this into an article with the proper citation. As more users read and edit, this information may become discarded, if it is viewed as irrelevant or lacking in merit. It may become clarified as others contribute their thoughts. As new fields of inquiry open up, it is a simple matter to add them into the knowledge repository, linking back semantically to their proper antecedents.In essence, within the context of science a wiki has the potential to become the most comprehensive review paper ever – one which not only acts as a repository of knowledge, but effortlessly lays bare the intellectual underpinnings of ideas and discoveries (even perhaps going so far as to have entries on the major figures within the field). Not only that, but is has the potential to be massively peer reviewed – re-reviewed, even, as new information becomes available. Similarly, having a constantly updated wiki provides an easily one-stop resource for those outside of the discipline to get readily accessible information on the current state of a particular issue which is relevant to, say, policy or management.Wikipedia has provided this to some extent. There are even graduate student classes at various universities that have assignments revolving around creating or completely overhauling various articles. The problem, however, is that wikipedia is itself a general reference. While more esoteric databases have been created, they are generally closed (e.g. the variety of invasive species databases out there) and not readily user editable. However, they stand as a wonderful first foray into the usage of modern information technology to collect scientific information.

Sharing ideas

However, while collection of knowledge is important, and particularly helpful in the age of the literature explosion, that does not necessarily facilitate rapid communication and development of ideas between colleagues. Here is where the current information age model of data distribution of information and thought comes into conflict with the traditional model of how science is done. Namely, blogs.

Traditionally, scientists toil away, communicating only with close colleagues, mentors, and labmates. Ideas are regarded as precious commodities, in quickly developing fields individuals in different places (sometimes even within the same lab) attempt to race ahead, making sure they are the first to publish in order to get the credit. The question we must ask, however, is how much does science benefit from this endless race of egos? This is particularly of import for Ecology, a science that deals directly with incredibly important and pressing environmental problems that need solutions NOW.

True, this traditional model may at one point have been necessary and beneficial when the community was smaller, and separating the wheat from the chafe was done by relatively few people. It may even still be necessary in certain fields of endeavor, as for some the challenge of competition can actually stimulate innovation. But given the sheer number of incredibly intelligent and creative minds in our field, and the increasingly collaborative nature of ecological science, one must ask whether there is a better way.

The Times article discusses the usage of blogs as a means of doing two things. First, they are a method of rapidly disseminating original thoughts. These may not be accurate, well written, complete, and they may not even seem interesting on the face of it. As scientists, these postings may be project ideas, comments on how a certain experiment is going, a little gleaned piece of statistical knowledge, links to articles in the popular press, an early draft of a paper, perhaps even bits and pieces of grant proposals. As more and more postings by more and more scientists accumulate, however, patterns may begin to emerge. In the first place, by putting one’s entire process out there as a matter of public record, researchers with similar questions working in similar systems are afforded a valuable insight into the natural and experimental history of their study system. It helps to minimize the re-inventing of the wheel. More powerful, however, is what happens as one glances through postings popping up from multiple different scientists. Tools such as RSS”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_aggregator”>RSS aggregators make it easy to see all of that information coming in, helping one glance up and see what the intellectual community seems to be thinking about on any given day.

Aggregators make it easy to see all of that information coming in, helping one glance up and see what the intellectual community seems to be thinking about on any given day. aggregators make it easy to see all of that information coming in, helping one glance up and see what the intellectual community seems to be thinking about on any given day. aggregators make it easy to see all of that information coming in, helping one glance up and see what the intellectual community seems to be thinking about on any given day. aggregators make it easy to see all of that information coming in, helping one glance up and see what the intellectual community seems to be thinking about on any given day. aggregators make it easy to see all of that information coming in, helping one glance up and see what the intellectual community seems to be thinking about on any given day. Perhaps more interesting is the dialogue that can then occur once ideas have been posted out in the ether. Blogs are by their nature interactive. They allow comments. And they encourage linking back and forth to one another – all of which can be seen though trackbacks. Much like a massive peer review process, certain ideas that gain acceptance will be more commonly linked back to and references, and pieces of information that otherwise might seem trivial may end up become part of a much larger puzzle. Similarly, pieces of information that are irrelevant, misinformed, or just plain wrong will tend fade away, or be critiqued and set right. Not only that, but linking to articles, in both the academic and mainstream press, provides yet another way to facilitate the flow and synthesis of available information. As links grow, and search engines such as google begin to comb through blogs and wikis, we freely gain additional ways of searching the depth of scientific knowledge that makes itself publicly available. This is largely how the Times describes the process for intelligence analysis. There is some precedent for this in science. There are a wide variety of efforts out on the web to share data. It is the sharing of ideas that is new, and some disciplines are beginning to embrace it. Statisticians such as Andrew Gelman and others have been blogging about some pretty cutting edge ideas. Similarly, some organizations like scienceblogs.comchave taken to collating a number of science blogs for easy access and reading. Science graduate students have even taken to creating their own online communities for kvetching and kvelling as much as soliciting help, advice, and sharing ideas (http://community.livejournal.com/_scientists).

Gelman and others have been blogging about some pretty cutting edge ideas. Similarly, some organizations have taken to a number of science blogs for easy access and reading. Science graduate students have even taken to their own online communities for kvetching and kvelling as much as soliciting help, advice, and sharing ideas. Even ecologists already use ESA’s mailing list Ecolog-l as a means of soliciting advice and spurring discussions. But solicitation is only one side of the equation. Putting new, often untested, ideas and information out in the public sphere is hard. Ecolog-l has been great for getting some wide ranging discussions going on regarding both purely scientific questions and how science and policy interact, as well as just how academia itself functions (e.g. the recent discussions on gender and the professional academic life). But a mailing list contains a deluge of information, and encourages a very different kind of conversation than what can occur on blogs. That ESA has created this blog indicates to me that the realization of the power of the tools of Web 2.0 in the information age is beginning to dawn in the minds of many scientists out there. It’s rather exciting. I believe that the combination of public knowledge bases through tools such as wikis and an open freewheeling scientific community bound together by tools such as blogs is not only compelling, but a logical next step in the evolution of the modern scientific process. Combining that with other new tools (http://www.techcrunch.com/2006/12/05/swivel-to-launch-this-week-communitize-your-data) that are emerging on the web, there is much to be gained.

How to make it work

But what now? Can this happen? What is needed to make sure the effort does not stagnate in its infancy, as would be so easy. Perhaps the easiest step would be the sharing of ideas. Blogging software from moveabletype, WordPress, or others is freely available and fairly easy to setup on one’s university server. Or, even easier, use free publically available blog hosting from WordPress, blogger.com, or others. It takes literally minutes to setup one of these with a wide range of tools ready and waiting to be used (although of course one can customize to their hearts delight as well).

Make this blog a part of your work week – just a few minutes, even once a week, to write about what you’re doing, current thoughts, what you thought of that journal article you just read (linking to the article even). Perhaps make it a lab blog, with everyone responsible for one post per week – not only would it foster within-lab communication, but it would give those in the outside world a snapshot of what is going on within a certain group. Working groups blogs could come and go as different projects and collaborations were spawned – perhaps even with long distance collaborations across continents happening entirely out in the open.

If somewhere such as ESA or other organizations begins collecting links to these blogs as a starting point, people can use aggregatos such as Google reader, bloglines, shrook or others to keep tabs and sift through what they might be interested in reading. ESA or other organizations can even setup their own RSS aggregators – The Thoughts of Great Minds in Ecology or somesuch. While this can be done independently, perhaps it is time for someone to issue a challenge, and get, say 20 or 30 ecologists to commit to this, just to see what would happen. I would guess that as more scientists and graduate students read these, they would get the bug to become part of the online community themselves, creating a snowball effect.

The second step is creating repositories of knowledge. This is something that would need to be facilitated by an organization. An Ecology Wiki, an Evolution Wiki, or others using freely available standard wiki software would need to be maintained by some central entity. To kick it off, they would need to solicit the help of a small group of dedicated individuals to begin populating the wiki. Once the initial investment is made, however, and the community as a whole knows of the existence and mission of the site and is behind it, then the growth can really begin.

I think the reason I find all of this so powerful and interesting is that it does not require any new skills, any massive changes to existing institutions, or any real structural shakeup of the academy. I would also stress that this is not a substitution for the peer reviewed primary literature process. Instead, it is merely an opening up of the community, the sharing if ideas and information, and a different way of facilitating the advancement of knowledge. Yes, I’ve probably overhyped some of the promise of these technologies. With so many other disciplines (even the US intelligence agencies) starting to embrace this type of model for the rapid advancement of knowledge, however, and the dire need to bring all of the knowledge we have to bear on incredibly pressing ecological crises, perhaps it is time that we embrace tools of the information age not just to share data, but to share ideas.

Contributed by Jarrett Byrnes, University of California, Davis

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  1. Interesting thoughts! A couple of things:

    1. There already is an evowiki:
    perhaps the ESA could start organising an ecowiki?

    2. I’m a regular reader of Andrew Gelman’s blog, and it’s very much for statisticians (and obviously reflects his own approach to statistics. Quite frankly, I don’t care any more what’s wrong with Connecticut!). Something similar, but with a wider range of contributors could work well for ecology, as long as it doesn’t become too big and sprawling. This blog would presumably be the place to host something like this: I guess it needs someone to be more aggressive in soliciting contributions (e.g. asking people on ecolog-l to write something), and then advertising them.

    3. Be warned: I have a hankering to write a screed on how ecologists are clueless about effect sizes….


  2. Bob,

    Thanks for the evowiki link. You’re right about Gelman. I found it myself in the process of learning more about Bayesian statistics and looking at his site to find some R code. That’s when I fell down the Rabbit hole, as it were. I still find it useful for little tidbits and nuggets to enhance my own understanding of the current state of the art. It would be fantastic to see more from “our side” as it were – including your “screed”. I think group bogs versus the blogs of individual scientists might be an fascinating half-way house between journals and the thoughts of one lone voice out in the wilderness, as it were. A meta-lab / salon, as it were, where one person submits a piece, and everyone edits and/or can accept/reject it.

    Now that sounds like an interesting collaborative project to start up…

  3. The Evowiki linked above is geared more toward the creationist/evolution debates (or lack thereof). The wikipedia entries pertaining to evolutionary biology (found within the biology portal) contain much better information on the biology of evolution. I would assume the same would be true of the ecology entries in wikipedia.

    Perhaps it would make sense to seed an ecology and/or evolution wiki with the information from wikipedia in order to create a wiki specializing in those topics and edited by only experts. This would resemble citizendium.

  4. Jarrett,

    Kudos on a thoughtful article.

    Lately, my postdoc advisor and I have been working/reading up on similar ideas, mostly in the realm of “reproducible research” (see the Bioconductor Project and the Stanford Exploration Project for some info). I agree that ecology and environmental science are in need of newer ways of conducting business.

    One problem that must be overcome is that the system we all operate in relies on that fact that our thoughts and ideas get counted (i.e. publish or perish). Since it seems unlikely that the institutional reliance on this notion will change, a better option is to provide innovative (and legitimate) ways to get our citations. A combination of blogs,wikis, reproducible research, etc. is a good way to do that. A moderated wiki or blog that accepts submissions of ideas, early research results, etc and has an initial much less onerous peer-review process for quickly posting these submissions (e.g. within mere weeks of submission) could be a way to stimulate generation and discussion of new ideas that also provide a citable bean.

    Anyway, just some of my thoughts and again kudos.


  1. [ I'm a chordata, urochordata! ] - manifesto about ecologists using the web and more... Well, the Ecological Society of America has seen fit to publish my thoughts …

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