Science Online, London ’09

Gulliver has a beer.
Gulliver has a beer.

This is an archival repost of something written on the old blog in august 2009.

As always, it was great to see everybody at Science Online, and great shame not to have more time to talk to everybody. A Sunday afternoon informal in the park next year, perhaps?

These were the topics that were still stuck somewhere in my mind after all the drinking.

Public relations

I felt the session on public/media relations on the Friday night was notable since it was a bunch of scientists admitting that scientists are part of the problem when it comes to bad science, bad journalism, and poor public understanding of science. Several reasons for this were discussed. There are those who don’t know how their press office can help them, and just want to be left alone (see last week’s flash fiction), and there are those who know too well what their press office can do for them, and end up hyping their work (can I hear you say “Ida”?).

With around half of the audience being science communicators of some variety, there was a lot of support for more outreach and communication from research institutions. I suspect that academics of the earlier variety will be wondering why their science communicators are helping them write press releases rather than helping them write the paper that will get accepted by Cell/Nature/Science. Both the scientists and the science communicators present, though, agreed that good PR is good for the scientist’s career too, and also that it’s the science budget that’s at stake if science doesn’t get good at PR.

Finally, Vaughan reassured us that the arts moan about their PR problem as much as the sciences: PR has a PR problem.

The scientific paper

Gulliver has another beer.
Gulliver has another beer.

Ian Mulvany pointed out that last year’s conference topic was “what is a blog?”, and we seem to have answered that since then. This year’s question is “what is a scientific paper?” I started writing the answer, but it turns out that the answer is going to be several posts long. Here are some quick bullet points in the mean time:

  • There are actually several questions: what is the scientific paper? what is wrong with the scientific paper? what are we going to do to fix things?
  • The publishers and librarians thought that the solution to all the problems with publishing science in the modern world was to make more journals — the Journal of Stuff, the Journal of Visualised Experiments — and to increase the range of items that can be called a “paper” and put in a “journal”. They’re even willing to drop the requirement for peer review, so long as the papers are still being published in something that can be called a journal. I’ll argue in future posts that this is the complete opposite of the correct solution.
  • We shouldn’t blame the publishers for not providing the sort of functionality that requires a cultural shift to adopt, though. Often, the publishers are hugely enthusiastic about new ideas, but they can’t afford to go implementing technology and policies that nobody will use and that will drive people away. Either scientists and publishers need to decide to do something together, or some third party has to come and force them to do it — e.g. GenBank deposition, Clinical Trial Registration, and Open Access.

Author identifiers

Gulliver finds the wine.
Gulliver finds the wine.

There is a problem: our intellectual output is recorded by our names. Our names are not unique, they can change throughout our lifetimes, and they can be represented in a dozen different formats. This makes it impossible to automatically link together the parts of an oeuvre, and makes manual curation very difficult, time consuming, and unreliable. This much was already known to those of us who have found ourselves trying to find the correct email address for a John Smith or the full publication record of a Wei Li.

I was hoping that this session might be a reveal of some interesting new solution to the problem. Sadly that wasn’t the case. We heard about Thomson ISI’s Researcher ID, during which I drifted off to catch up with the tweets, since I think we’re all already agreed that ISI are the last people we want to have control of this; and we heard about Elsevier and Scopus , who don’t want to be the people to have control of this; and we heard about Open IDs which solve a completely different problem and probably aren’t really a good solution to this one; and we heard about CrossRef, who don’t yet have the solution, but it’s at least reassuring to know that they’re thinking about it.

Jack of Kent tweeted that we should all really be a bit more skeptical of and even worried about these initiatives. Can we be pro-author identifiers and anti-ID cards? I think David raises a good point that people should think about, but that it’s a relatively small problem that is no greater than that of privacy on Facebook or your blog. The issues of Author IDs compared to ID cards is like amateur street photography compared to CCTV. This is not a sinister effort to put together a dossier on your academic and online behaviour that can be read back to you when they drag you to the Ministry of Truth; it is just a way to keep a portfolio of your published work that might be helpful to you and your colleagues.

Comments on the original

David Colquhoun

“good PR is good for the scientist’s career”

I’d much prefer to say that good science is good for a scientists’s career. PR is often no better than paid lying. I actually had to stop our Press Office from putting out a Press Release on a recent Nature paper, They couldn’t get it accurate enough -all vacuous hype and anyway the subject was too esoteric to be of much interest to the public -the purpose of the press release was really to benefit UCL, not to .the public).

Posted at 2009-08-24 07:10:34 – [Ban][Del]
Joe D Hi David — yes, you won’t find me arguing that PR don’t regularly get things wrong, and sometimes have different motives to the researcher. I just thought it worth noting that this is probably the first time I’ve heard a group of scientists admitting to having a problem themselves.
Posted at 2009-08-24 14:40:26

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