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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Doing Science in the Nude

Dave Weinberger from Joho the Blog has an interesting commentary on a talk by Timo Hannay, director of web publishing for Nature magazine, on What the Web Means for Science. (There are also some other talks on the Berkman Luncheon Series dealing with Open Source Science.)
Open WetWare and UsefulChem put info into a wiki. Science isn't used to this, says Timo, because "it's like doing science in the nude": It exposes scientists to embarrassment because what they're posting may not be finished, perfect or right.
The question of embarrassment is really related to the expectation of the audience for a particular vehicle. When I pick up Nature magazine I expect to find complete thoughts, no spelling or grammatical mistakes and a minimum of speculation. If I were to attend a talk given by a researcher on the same material, I would not be thrown off if bullet points were used instead of full sentences or if the speaker discussed failed experiments and speculations or even used humor. And if I were to go to the researcher's lab and read their laboratory notebooks I would expect accuracy and clarity but not much else in terms of format.

I know what to expect in these situations because I have seen enough examples of papers, talks and lab notebooks. As science bloggers (especially data bloggers) we have an opportunity to set the expectations of these new data dissemination vehicles.

In the case of UsefulChem, the project has evolved into a collection of blogs and a wiki. The part that houses the raw experimental data generated in my lab serves as a collective laboratory notebook. But because of the added functionality of a wiki (such as versioning) it enables me to also use it as a pedagogical tool. For example, in this version of an experiment to synthesize DOPAL, I had reminded the researcher that the procedure was incomplete (in red) and it was subsequently corrected (in green). This is an especially useful way to guide students to formulate discussion points and ultimately conclusions based on their results. This format also provides a convenient mechanism to expose the undergraduates in my organic chemistry class to real research.

So what expectations should a visitor have for such a vehicle with the dual purpose of scientific information dissemination and pedagogy? They should be able to decipher how an experiment was carried out and analyzed, to a degree sufficient to reproduce any part of it. But since it is a work in progress and done by students with a wide range of laboratory experience it might not be pretty.


  • Another benefit of doing science in the open is that the public can see the process. It seems to me that J. Average Citizen has a pretty lousy idea of how science actually works, and what kinds of things it can and cannot do. Blogs are an ideal way to remedy that.

    By Blogger Bill Hooker, at 12:43 PM  

  • I also believe that "doing science in the nude" allows for other academic disciplines to understand the process of scientific discovery. As an English teacher, I might not realize an error in formatting a chemistry lab report. But, tracking wiki changes allows me to see what was missing and when it was fixed. In this regard, I don't need to understand the chemistry involved, but I can track the development of language.

    Student blogs are wonderful because they offer students the opportunity to be published. As such, they aren't pretty. I am not embarrassed by this nakedness; in fact, I am refreshed by it. We are an imperfect world, and perfection does not come in neat packages; it comes from development and revision. If we can instill this work ethic into students, we have taught them a far greater skill than transparent perfection.

    By Blogger Beth Ritter-Guth, at 11:59 PM  

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