Thoughts on open notebooks, research, and social media

I remember thinking over a decade ago how valuable it would be if researchers kept open notebooks (aka digital commonplace books) like the one Kimberly Hirsh outlines in her article Dissertating in the Open: Keeping a Public Research Notebook. I’d give my right arm to have a dozen people in research areas I’m interested in doing this very thing!

The best I could hope for back in 2008, and part of why I created the @JohnsHopkins Twitter handle, was that researchers would discover Twitter and be doing the types of things that some of the Johns Hopkins professors outlined in this recent article The Promise and Peril of Academia Wading into Twitter are now finally doing. It seems sad that it has taken over a decade and this article is really only highlighting the bleeding edge of the broader academic scene now. While what they’re doing is a great start, I think they really aren’t going far enough. They aren’t doing their audiences as much service  as they could because there’s only so much that Twitter allows in terms of depth of ideas and expressiveness. It would be far better if they were doing this sort of work from their own websites and more directly interacting with their colleagues on the open web. The only value that Twitter is giving them is a veneer of reach to a broader audience, but they’re also opening themselves up to bigger attacks as is described in the article.

In addition to Kimberly’s example, another related area of potential innovation would be moving the journal clubs run by many research groups and labs online and opening them up. Want to open up science?  Then let’s really do it!  By bookmarking a variety of articles on their own websites, various members could be aggregated to contribute to a larger group, which could then use their own websites with protocols like Webmention or even simple tools like Hypothes.is to guide and participate in larger online conversations to move science communication along at an even faster pace. Greg McVerry and I have experimented in taking some of these tools into the classroom in the past.

If you think about it, arXiv and other preprint servers are really just journal clubs writ large. The problem is that they’re only communicating in one direction by aggregating the initial content, but they’re dramatically failing their audiences in that they aren’t facilitating or aggregating any open discussion around that content. As a result, the largest portion of their true value is still locked away in the individual brains of their readers rather than as commentary or even sentence level highlights and annotations on particular pieces out in the open. Often is the time that I’ll tweet about an interesting article only to receive a (lucky) reply that the results have been debunked, yet that information is almost never disclosed in or around the journal article (especially online) where it certainly belongs. Academic publishers are not only gouging us financially by siloing their content, they’re failing us far worse than most realize.

Another idea: Can’t get a journal of negative results to publish your latest research failure? Why not post a note or article on your own website to help out future researchers? (or even demonstrate to your students that not everything always works out?)

Naturally having aggregation services like indieweb.xyz, building planets, using OPML subscriptions, or the coming wave of feed readers could make a lot of these things easier, but we’re already right on the cusp for people who are willing to take a shot for doing this type of research online on their own websites and out in the open.

Want to try out some of the above? I’m happy to help (gratis) researchers who’d like to experiment in the area to get themselves set up. Just send me a note or give me a call.

📺 Open science: Michael Nielsen at TEDxWaterloo | YouTube

Watched Open science: Michael Nielsen at TEDxWaterloo by Michael NielsenMichael Nielsen from YouTube

Michael Nielsen is one of the pioneers of quantum computation. Together with Ike Chuang of MIT, he wrote the standard text in the field, a text which is now one of the twenty most highly cited physics books of all time. He is the author of more than fifty scientific papers, including invited contributions to Nature and Scientific American. His research contributions include involvement in one of the first quantum teleportation experiments, named as one of Science Magazine's Top Ten Breakthroughs of the Year for 1998. Michael was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of New Mexico, and has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, as the Richard Chace Tolman Prize Fellow at Caltech, as Foundation Professor of Quantum Information Science at the University of Queensland, and as a Senior Faculty Member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Michael left academia to write a book about open science, and the radical change that online tools are causing in the way scientific discoveries are made.

Sadly this area of science hasn’t opened up as much as it likely should have in the intervening years. More scientists need to be a growing part of the IndieWeb movement and owning their own data, their content, and, yes, even their own publishing platforms. With even simple content management systems like WordPress researchers can actively practice academic samizdat to a much greater extent and take a lot of the centralized power away from the major journal and textbook publishing enterprises.

I can easily see open web technology like the Webmention spec opening up online scientific communication and citations drastically even to the point of quickly replacing tools like Altmetric. If major publishing wants something to do perhaps they could work on the archiving and aggregation portions?

What if one could publish a research paper or journal article on one’s own (or one’s lab’s) website? It could receive data via webmention about others who are bookmarking it, reading it, highlighting and annotating it. It could also accept webmention replies as part of a greater peer-review process–the equivalent of the researcher hosting their own pre-print server as well as their own personal journal and open lab notebook.

We need to help empower scientists to be the center of their own writing and publishing. For those interested, this might be a useful starting point: https://indieweb.org/Indieweb_for_Education