11 thoughts on “Five Researchers”

  1. What’s interesting to me about your list is that each of the activities mentioned is more about helping others than it is about boosting one’s own career. They all seem to be about having other people find stimulating papers for their own work, or having other people get their questions answered. If you went to each of the individuals you mention and asked them about their priorities, how high would these activities fall on their lists? Is the troubleshooter really interested in troubleshooting experiments for other people rather than doing his own experiments? Would the technical expert prefer to take and publish his own images, or teach someone else to use the microscope?

    And that’s why Web 2.0 is such a hard sell for most scientists. You’re asking them to put in time-consuming effort that’s more for the benefit of others than it is for themselves. Science does have a reputation economy, but it’s based more on your experimental results than it is on how well you teach others. And of course what really matters to earning a living is your funding and publication records. So while it’s nice to be well-thought of, it’s not a very high priority for most scientists. There are a lot of selfish jerks in science–it’s not something selected against. As long as they produce, they don’t have to be nice or play well with others.

    I guess one could argue that what you’re proposing is ultimately a time-saver, which is probably true. But for most of what’s on the list, plain old Web 1.0 or even print is going to be sufficient. Why do you need a collaborative wiki for the technical expert or the troubleshooter when they could just write up a protocol or a set of instructions? There are many methods journals available that can spread this knowledge in a wide manner and provide a publication for your CV. Shouldn’t the innovators publish their work in journals too, which would boost their career as well as accomplish what you suggest? The same goes for the subject matter experts, who have many outlets for review articles, book chapters or even entire books (which can be published electronically and in print).

    The connectors strike me as the only ones on the list really boosted by Web 2.0, and it’s unclear to me what career benefit they’re going to get from all that work.

  2. David,

    In every lab I have been in, both academic and corporate, there is teaching going on. Someone has to teach the new grad students how to use the equipment, what the protocols are, etc. This takes time away from research by the post-docs. etc.

    Each of these types of researchers is actually HAVING to spend time right now away from their research. The technical experts already know how much of their effort is actually devoted to answering the same question for everyone who wants to use the machine or wants to have help interpreting the data.

    People who develop new techniques crucial for the lab’s work teach the others in the lab how to do this procedure. They then serve as reservoirs of knowledge about the procedure.

    Few researchers works totally alone. They all must work and cooperate to some extent with others in the lab. Even for the most selfish there will be time they have to spend on matters that take time away from their work.

    Online approaches reduce the amount of time they have to spend on this. Write up an FAQ once and send everyone there, instead of having to walk every newbie through the bioinformatics software.

    I have asked these types of researchers if their normal workflow includes substantial amounts of time answering these sorts of questions. In my experience, these approachs all save time and improve the researcher’s workflow.

    Let me address some of your other points. Innovators often do a lot of things that just would not get published. They read about a technique and try it out. It doesn’t work for them so they move on. The results go in a drawer somewhere, lost forever to the rest of the group.

    But, it may turn out that with a little tweaking based on some different information, this technique could have large ramifications. Now, in normal circumstances, this would only happen if someone else in the lab made an independent discovery, because the innovator’s work is in a desk somewhere. Put the innovator’s initial work online and it is much more likely that someone would see it and more rapidly make the necessary discoveries. Now the innovator can get some credit that they would not normally receive.

    A just so story but, the amount of effort needed to put his work online is no greater than writing it down. So his workflow is not altered but he could have a much greater payoff.

    Online is better because it is accessible fro anywhere, not just in a 3 ring binder in the lab, and is searchable. This last ppint is one of the major ones.

    How do you find the subject matter experts? People can search the review articles etc. online. But, actually, I use Google and often look at the expert’s online web pages. The good ones usually have direct links to the relevant article, so I can find out just how good an expert they are. Most of the SMEs I have met really enjoy the ability to put together a page detailing their work.

    The payoff by making the work open to online searching far outweighs time used to construct the page.

  3. David,

    One final point. The overall usefulness of these approaches will also be determined by the size and type of the research lab. A small group of 5 just starting to work on a single aspect of an isolated protein will have different requirements than a large commercial research lab of several hundred.

    The former may not need these tools in the same way as the latter. The key point is that in many cases, these tools can help the workflow of an individual. The community effects can then come into play. But if the individual is not helped, then the tools are really not very useful.

  4. I understand the nature of teaching and the interactions within a lab and with other labs, but I don’t understand why Web 2.0 is the solution. As you note, you can write up a FAQ and that will suffice. That seems like a lot less work than maintaining and moderating a wiki, or doing some sort of ongoing interactive socially networked document. Plain old Web 1.0 works just fine to accomplish most of what you’re talking about here. I suggest publishing papers, which are found online and give the benefit of boosting one’s career, but having a lab website is also useful. All are searchable online.

    But that has little to do with Web 2.0. Perhaps your list should be titled “Five Researchers Helped by the internet”.

  5. David,

    I love our discussions. We both have some really strong viewpoints but can talk about them is very useful ways. This is a demonstration of just how great Web 2.0 approaches are, since we have never been in the same room together to talk (although I would love that).

    Well, how about a little gedanken experiment? Let’s visualize two pages on a similar technique. One is web 1.0, a static page. The other is a wiki page.

    Now, someone else comes up with a nice modification of the procedure. Or a comment about the best way to prepare a buffer. In the first instance, the only thing they can do is create their own page and hope someone finds it in a search. In this case, only one person gets any real notice at a time and no one really knows which is the more useful. There are just a bunch of disconnected pages.

    In the latter, they can simply add the modification. There is now only one place to look for the procedure and everyone gets a little credit. People can add comments to provide further insight. And more information can be aggregated to this page as time goes on, with links to other pages describing possible uses.

    Which is the more useful page and more likely to be examined? A single web page put up by some post-doc or a rich ongoing discussion of current procedures? Being social animals, people are going to gravitate towards creating the sorts of sites we see at OpenWetWare.

    Given both possibilities, I believe that the Web 2.0 approach will eventually dominate any Web 1.0 just as Wikipedia dominates almost any search over more specific pages.

    Yes, I am a biologist and see natural selection in everything ;-) But, if the progression is towards a rich online experience based on Web 2.0 conversations because of social network effects, why not just start there? It is no harder to create a Web 2.0 page than a Web 1.0.

  6. I’m not sure it’s any more difficult to start a Web 2.0 page than a Web 1.0 page, but it’s certainly more troublesome and time-consuming to maintain one. It’s a question of making a one-time effort or committing to an ongoing management of material.

    If you’re talking about something on a lab’s website, then many questions come up– would you allow people from outside your own lab to freely edit the wiki on your lab’s website? Would your technical expert allow people within the lab free rein to edit as well? Or would he moderate and need to approve everything (particularly if it’s out there with your lab’s endorsement on it)? At that point, would a static document that contains an e-mail address for suggestions be just as effective?

    If instead of hosting it yourself (and getting the acclaim and whatever positive credit that come with it) you instead contribute to something hosted elsewhere open to all, then you either 1) lose the credit for doing the work yourself, or 2) have your name associated with something out of your control, where the quality may not reflect what you originally wrote.

    I think the credit issue is a major problem. Since jobs and funding are in limited supply, you’re better off being the only author on a single author paper than you are being the fifteenth author on a thirty author paper. Collaboration is nice, but the more you do yourself, the more rewards you reap.

    You want to invest your time in something that will further your career. You can publish the method and add a paper to your CV (and in the case of my journal, earn yearly royalties for that work). Contributing to an anonymous wiki, or even to your own lab’s website doesn’t quite give you the same career credit. Nor does contributing to an online conversation. So, like most Web 2.0 proposals, in order to see mainstream uptake, it requires a major overhaul in the way we view career advancement, and the things valued in those careers. And I have a hard time seeing that happening any time soon. I’ve written about it some here:
    Talking about science, educating the public, commenting on other people’s work, helping out strangers in other labs are all nice things, but they’re all peripheral to what’s really important in science–research and discovery. And the problem with most Web 2.0 ventures is that they insist on prioritizing the peripheral activity.

  7. David,

    The initial discussion started by looking at how these approaches can actually help the workflow of some scientists. I firmly believe that they can. In these cases, it frees up time, giving these scientists a greater ability to do more things, like enhance their reputation by getting strong papers published in your journal.

    For the individual, it is initially not about enhancing career prospects. It is about freeing up time by finding more effective ways to deal with information. It can enhance their workflow, allowing them to be more efficient with what they accomplish.

    Web 2.0 approaches have other benefits that make them superior than Web 1.0, just as email is better for some things than voicemail.

    But I think we both agree that these tools will never be used if the individual does not see personal benefit.

    As an aside, I continue to see little benefit for the individual in the Facebook approach to current online social networking sites for scientists. At this point, I see little individual benefit for me as a scientist to take all that time to make it work.

    Heck, writing a blog like this is not what I am proposing.

    I am talking about individual approaches using Web 2.0 tools that make a researchers life easier. I think we both agree that researchers will not generally use these tools if it is only helpful for others.

  8. I do believe I have identified useful aspects that directly help an individual. Actually, I more than believe because I have actually seen the direct benefits to individuals.

    I have had colleagues spend a considerable amount of effort filling a three-ringed binder with the instructions/FAQs for using some piece of hardware whose protocols are modified by in-lab procedures. Then the 3 ring binder gets lost, or pages fall out or a new procedure is developed and the binder has to be redone. Besides maintaining the ‘Book’, they spend a large amount of time answering questions and doing trouble-shooting.

    They do this because their boss said they were the expert in the lab and they were responsible for making sure everyone else understood the procedures. It enhances the lead investigator’s reputation to have everyone up to speed with this procedure so they can get their name on more papers but not necessarily the individual scientist’s.

    Nonetheless, they have to spend the time doing this well because the lab head has made them responsible.

    Using an online approach simplifies much of this and thus frees up time that the scientists would be spending maintaining the 3 ring binder.

    They could do it only as a static web page but there are many benefits of an easily modified Web 2.0 page that permits comments from others. If nothing else, it allows the scientist the option of saying “You go add that new buffer to the page. I’m too busy doing research!” ;-)

  9. Don’t get me wrong, I’m kind of playing devil’s advocate here. I know labs where there’s a shared hard drive that contains everyone’s protocols and instructions for the machines and that worked fairly well. The big hurdle is all the arm-twisting it takes by the PI to get students and postdocs to write up their methods in a coherent manner and post them there. Once up, there generally aren’t a huge number of constant updates and changes to well-established protocols. Keeping the material current is much less of an issue than getting it written up at all.

    One of the labs I used to be in is now putting together a private lab wiki of all that type of material. The effort was started in January and the person putting the wiki together added their own protocols at that time. Since then, maybe one or two small things have been added to the site and the majority of it sits vacant and un-used. Clearly, despite the new and improved tools, the same issues exist–getting people motivated to write this stuff up and to bother contributing to the group’s shared knowledge.

    I know those issues well. As the editor of a methods journal, it takes a huge amount of commissioning of authors to get an issue’s worth of articles together. People just aren’t all that interested in writing up their protocols, it’s results that gets writers excited. We offer a huge amount of editorial support, offer to reformat working lab notes on a method and even go so far as to offer royalty payments to authors as motivation. I have one lab that contributes frequently because the PI forces each new graduate student to write up one of the lab’s methods. The student gets a fairly easy publication and the PI gets an edited, clean version of one of the lab’s methods for the group’s shared notebook.

    So to me, the big problem isn’t keeping the material up to date. It’s getting the material created in the first place. In general, you need more motivation that helping out your fellow labmate, or gaining a little efficiency over the long haul. That’s why so many of the new tools sit idle. So I tend to side with the path of least resistance, make things as easy as possible, don’t ask people to commit to a never-ending dialogue, just get the thing written.

  10. Also, the researchers I discuss include more than just scientists on a tenure-track or ones totally ruled by publish or perish. They also include the scientific support staff for the lab or for at a central facility.

    These scientists often have more research experience than many others in the lab, have greater longevity in a lab and have lab duties that take a lot of time away from their own work.

    Lessening the time they have to deal with distributing information about troubleshooting, etc. is a big plus. They already maintain the 3-ring binders. Now they can do that duty faster and with less maintenance time.

  11. David,

    I certainly understand the DA part. I try to do that myself.

    A real problem with the uptake on these tools is that there is no one to help the process along. That is, every human community has a certain rate that innovation diffuses through it. It takes a set amount of time.

    It appears to be a hardwired aspect of our social networks. It is why marketing is so necessary for even the most obvious things.

    The diffusion rate means that, left to the own devices of a community, all innovations will take roughly the same amount of time to become accepted, unless there is outside help.

    And in an industry such as science, where there is little time to really evaluate new tools without sacrificing time on other things, it can be very hard for certain things.

    I saw it take 2 years for email to fully diffuse throughout our research groups in the early 80s. People did not see much of a purpose. Why not use voice mail or just walk down the hallway? They had more important things to do than learn how to use the email system.

    There was a learning curve and no one was there to really help who understood its purpose for the individual. How it would help the individual rather than the organization.

    What I am trying to do is act as a catalyst and help lower some of the ‘energy barriers’ so that the rate of diffusion of the innovation occurs more rapidly.

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