May 10 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science

I have some brilliant and enthusiastic friends in the science blogosphere who are putting substantial effort into building on-line venues where working scientists will create scholarly communities to engage in vibrant scientific discussion and commentary, as well as disseminate novel scientific information. As appealing as this may sound---and it does sound appealing in some respects---it is currently doomed to failure, at least in the case of the biomedical sciences.

These sorts of venues will be participated in only by very small numbers of actual working professional scientists, and dominated by hobbyists, bloggers, and other science enthusiasts. This is because of the way that scientific credit is allocated.
As things currently stand, scientists do not get any professional credit whatsoever for participating in this kind of activity, but they do get credit for publishing peer-reviewed research papers and lierature reviews and commentary, attending real scientific conferences where they present and discuss science with their peers who allocate credit, and traveling to other institutions to present their work in seminars.
This creates an extremely powerful incentive to not devote time and effort to on-line and real-world OpenConFooBlogSciWeb ELEVENTY POINT BAJILLION type activities.
There is a huge amount of inertia in the institutional structures of science that allocate credit in this way: grant review panels, hiring committees, promotion and tenure committees, award committees, etc. Regardless whether you think any of this is a Good Thing, there is no reason to think that it is going to change any time soon.

8 responses so far

  • I agree with some of your points. The fact is that many of us on the tenure-track in biomedical institutions do this as a hobby and don't expect any credit for sci/med blogging in our professional dossiers. If you think otherwise, you be in a whole heap-a-trouble.
    However, I would argue that all of the lip-service given to the public accountability of our taxpayer-supported research supported might someday mean that interaction with the community at large about our research (via blogs or some other interactive platform) might be deemed of some value, at least by our funding agencies. Harvard's Walter Willett is a great example of a guy who takes his public education activities quite seriously and has remarked on several occasions that he *owes* it to the public. I don't mean, of course, to conflate your criticism of blogger gatherings with public education - you are obviously very serious about academic and public engagement via both of your blogs.
    But here's another thought: if your academic duties extended beyond the grant/publish-do-or-die world, being part of the meatspace gatherings of the online community can be quite valuable. My academic extension into medical journalism, for example, has been enhanced greatly by this bloggy thing and several job offers and job inquiries have come about as a result, including one query for participation in a NIH-supported science communication project. Indeed, it wouldn't help me get tenure but it gives me personal satisfaction to be part of the larger university community and be able to contribute to educational efforts outside of the med center.
    In fact, I very much look forward to meeting your cranky, scholarly ass at one of these SciMedBloggerFooCamps someday.

  • Seazoria says:

    The true pre historic sea dragons have been discovered. When are you scientific heavyweight going to jump on a jetplane and come out here to Utah and evaluate the greatest biological discovery in history.
    The Hallettestoneion Seazoria dragons are the largest, oldest, and most advanced for of life ever discoverd. You want to gain a first hand understanding of how compounded evolution works. Look into the Hallettestoneion Seazoria dragons. They are thousands of genoration more evolved than the land dinosuars. Tripple the age and 10 times more spectacular. 130 to 300 ft depending on the individual species. Teeth average 27 inches extreemly precision instruments (biologial structures) right and lefts.
    View the skull matrix excavation of Hillfieldion Seazoria. a 300 foot Hallettestoneion Seazoria dragon mostly intact with a 7500 pound, 123 inch skull with fullsize teeth averaging just over 30 inches.
    And if think this is not a true pre historic biological discovery step up to the plate and attempt to explain away the complex repeating biological structures that come in exacting right and left handed configuations only. (teeth and body spikes) Not a single person on this planet could successfully disprove the discovery of the Hallettestoneion Seazoria dragons. Biology is the only explanation that can correctly explain the complex burial matrix configuations.
    skull, teeth, facial spikes, body spikes, neck spikes, body spikes, all these componant have the exact same internal substrucure Hense the right and lefts only rule. The exception is the skull and it has equell right and left sides.
    Their are multiple graveyards located in Plesant veiw and North ogden Utah that contain mostly intact examples of Hallettestoneion Seazoria dragons. frozen alive, extinct 540 million years ago.
    Your looking for the greatest scientific frontier of the 21 century here it is the discovery, excavations, and reconstructions of Hallettestoneion Seazoria dragons. The true sea dragons that have been missing from our text books are scientific fact and are located in Utah
    Contact the Hallettestoneion scientific Research Project.

  • PhysioProf says:

    In fact, I very much look forward to meeting your cranky, scholarly ass at one of these SciMedBloggerFooCamps someday.

    PhysioProf is not cranky. PhysioProf is cheerful!

  • bsci says:

    The exception to this is if a community is a place where a scientist can easily share data processing code from published papers and council others'. This boosts name recognition (including of people on review committees), # of citations, and possibly co-authorships. These are all of serious value. I don't know many of these communities that are currently working well, but some do exist.

  • Euan says:

    I'd agree that most current efforts are doomed to failure but then arguably so are most scientific efforts in general. 😉 We learn from what doesn't work as well as what does.
    > there is no reason to think that it is going to change any time soon
    That depends on your field, I think. We may well start seeing micro-attribution - credit for database deposits, annotations etc. - in genetics papers over the next few years. The synthetic biology peeps have made a conscious decision to use of tools like OpenWetWare.
    In the shorter term there are other rewards for participating in scientific discussion online - meeting collaborators or just new, interesting people?

  • PhysioProf says:

    In the shorter term there are other rewards for participating in scientific discussion online - meeting collaborators or just new, interesting people?

    Absolutely! I have made many very, very close friends in exactly this way!
    While this is a powerful incentive for those of us who are social junkies, it is not sufficient to muster wide participation among professional scientists.

  • bill says:

    Didn't we already have this argument? Let me try a different tack: aren't you all about the idea that science is a human activity, so human foibles are a big part of it? I'm thinking, for instance, of your ideas about giving talks, dominating your audience and so on. I still think the dominance stuff is crap, but the human-activity-human-foibles part is real enough. So aren't you overlooking at least the networking aspect of OpenConFooblahblah? F'rinstance, I assume you're including SciFoo in your "doomed to failure" basket, but while I have my reservations about the invitation-only thing it looks to me like a damn good way to meet peers and other career-related decision-makers. I know you've written about the influence of both presentations and hallway/bar conversations at conferences. What's so different about SciFoo, or even online events/venues?
    Come to think of it, you're missing something else. All of the Open Whatever efforts I know of are, in the end, about one thing, the same thing that you agree is the bottom line for a career in science: more papers. That is, these efforts are all aimed at increasing the efficiency of the scientific infrastructure, so that we can get hold of more data and share it more rapidly. You seem to view the whole thing as a kum-ba-yah fantasy, but the communitarian/feel-good stuff is decidedly not the point. OpenConFooBlogSciWeb enthusiasts are a much harder-headed bunch than you seem to think. Take a look around Science Commons, Open Knowledge Foundation, OpenWetWare and Nature Precedings. These are not efforts aimed at getting the tenure committee to hold hands around a campfire and recognize blog entries as valid contributions to the knowledge base -- they are aimed at making it easier to get more science done.

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    yeah, 90+% of the efforts are doomed to failure, but 100% will be doomed to failure if we don't do anything. If you're not ready to spend time contributing content to something that won't count toward your tenure or grant review, how about working on a way to get these things counted? I can personally justify the use of a couple services, Connotea being one, and I've been asked to be interviewed for a young investigator spotlight kind of thing for another, so, that can't be a bad thing, either, can it?

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