Why I spend so much time on the internet

Internet Forever! (Image from: Allie Brosh at www.hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com) )
Internet Forever! (Image from: A. Brosh http://www.hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com)

This is a recycled post from my personal blog, The Bug Geek. I’m sharing it here now because it’s rather timely for me: I’m preparing a talk on this subject, with an emphasis on its relevance to grad students, for the Entomological Society of Canada annual meeting in about two weeks; it’s part of a special symposium entitled “From the Lab to the Web”. Also, it’s clear that McGill is one academic institution that is embracing online activities as an important component of learning, teaching, and outreach. These are exciting times, folks….


I’ll update in November with some tips and caveats for grad students. In the meantime, enjoy, and please share your experiences and opinions!

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During the course of an average day, when I’m working on any number of academic pursuits from my home office, I visit a bunch of web sites: library data bases, insect identification aids, online scientific journals, statistical software help pages, how-to lab/procedural pages, etc.

I also spend time on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Flickr and a big ol’ pile of blogs.

I’ve been thinking about the title of a talk I’d like to give. It would sound something like, “Why I spend so much time on the internet.” Lately, I’ve had a number of very interesting discussions with other grad students, faculty members, and online sciencey-folks about the roles and effects of social media on the way we think about science, do science, and communicate about science.

Let me be frank: I’m really, really excited by the buzz about the topic (Morgan Jackson provides a great round-up of blog posts at his blog Biodiversity in Focus ), not only in different social media venues, but also in more traditional, academic forums.

A recent paper in the journal of Innovative Higher Education by D. Powell, C. Jacob and B. Chapman provides strong arguments for the benefits to academics of blogging and other social media, with implications for research, teaching and learning, and outreach. I get the sense that academics can more intuitively appreciate how social media can be used in outreach activities, and even in teaching, but many are still very resistant to the notion of incorporating social media in their research activities.

Here are some reasons why scientists should embrace social media:

  • Social media can be used to identify research opportunities and find collaborators.
  • You can get real-time feedback from other researchers, helping you refine your research questions, methods, and interpretation of experimental results, well before the formal publication stage.
  • You can easily get this feedback from a larger, more geographically and disciplinarily diverse base of expertise than you would likely reach via traditional means.
  • From a more altruistic perspective, other researchers can benefit from online transparency and accessibility, often in ways that cannot happen in traditional media. For example, lab methods or data collection instruments can be demonstrated in photographs or video (saving other researchers the trouble of trying to decipher complex methods sections if they’re interested in replicating specific protocols in their own work).
  • Blogging can help you become a better communicator, by improving writing skills and language proficiency.
  • Sometimes journalists get it wrong. You can tell the public about your research in your own words.
  • Blogs, by their very nature, permit the rapid distribution of information to a very wide public audience. Your new paper will get more attention and readership if it gets cross-posted on multiple blogs and Twitter than if it only gets delivered to paying subscribers of a particular journal.
  • You can access alternative modes of funding for your research.
  • It is fun; also personally and intellectually rewarding.
  • Soon, everybody will be doing it: get with the program.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek, but I mean it in all seriousness. I will even go so far as to say that scientists must embrace these new tools. I think that social media are going to be the catalysts for a major paradigm shift in the scientific community, in terms of who we perceive as being the audience/receptors of science and who we perceive as being our collaborators.

P.Z. Meyers at Pharyngula cautions researchers not to be dismissive about the role of blogging/blogs in scientific discourse, and highlights the need to develop the pertinent skills:

I can imagine a day when this kind of presentation [blogging about a new study] becomes de rigueur for everything you publish, just as it’s now understood that you could give a talk on a paper. It’s a different skill set, too, and it’s going to require a different kind of talent to be able to address fellow scientists, the lay public, and science journalists. Those are important skills to have, and this kind of thing could end up making them better appreciated in the science community.

Boraz Zivkovic at Scientific American’s A Blog Around the Clock discusses the evolution and future of this paradigm shift in his post, “The scientific paper: the past, present and probable future” more eloquently than I ever could; please take some time to read the entire post.

This evolution will not happen overnight. There is still considerable resistance to the notion that blogs and other new media might have a role in “real” science.

Take, for example, this comment left on the Tree of Life blog (Jonathan Eisen, UC Davis evolutionary biologist), by the author of a paper that was critiqued by both the blog author and commenters:

I would like to provide my response to several comments that have been mentioned here that will not arise in a peer-review setting and that make blogs a dangerous venue for information delivery as it reduces the credibility of findings regardless of scientific support [emphasis mine].

To which I say: “Really? Reeeaaallly?” Blaming the medium for the message (which could have easily been shared between professors in a lunch room, by grad students participating in a journal club discussion, or by a dissenting colleague in a conference talk) is, frankly, asinine.

Blogs encourage discussion, the sharing of ideas, and open debate. We may not always agree with or appreciate what is said (especially if someone is criticizing our own work), but that’s life. Sometimes statements may be made that are not based on factual information, but you can bet your bippy that if misinformation is published (either in the form of a comment or a post) readers will be quick to point it out. Edits or retractions can happen immediately, and we don’t have to wait for the next issue of X journal to come out to hear other opinions or see corrections made.

What is unique, and arguably better, about blogs compared to more traditional discussion venues is that blogs allow real-time discussion in a public forum. To quote Powell et al.:

Conversations about scholarly work that in the past have been restricted to faculty hallways, conferences…publications and response in subscription-based journals are now also occurring in openly accessible online spaces, opening up the dialogues to a broader audience…

Said another way, social media is just another kind of “hallway talk…in a really, really, long hallway”. (Thank you Bug Girl for that most excellent insight.)

I think nay-sayers need to understand that no one is suggesting that we do away with traditional means of publication (journals, books, conference proceedings, etc.). Rather, social media should be embraced as a compliment to these traditional communication tools.

There are, of course, some kinks to iron out. There are issues of copyright, intellectual ownership, co-authorship, and the risk of being “scooped” by other researchers (although, regarding that last point, read this: “On getting scooped in ecology“). Although Powell et al. mention some of these concerns, no suggestions for addressing them are offered. While these factors certainly present challenges, surely they are not insurmountable; it simply speaks to the need for additional discourse and the establishment of standards for these new media forms.

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Douglas A. Powell, Casey J. Jacob, & Benjamin J. Chapman (2011). Using blogs and new media in academic practice: potential roles in research, teaching, learning and extension Innovative Higher Education

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