Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Academia in the social media age

As an academic, how in tune should we be with the latest developments in technology? I find myself asking this question after reading this article in Times Higher Educational Supplement. I stumbled across it mainly because it was written by an old uni friend of mine, but I found that it raised some important questions. The article discusses a report by the British Library and JISC into the electronic habits of today's early career researchers. The report finds that, despite being technology savvy (Ahthankyouverymuch) early career researchers know little about the range of electronic research aids available, and fail to make use of the latest advancements in online networking (by using twitter, wikis, blogs and the like) to improve their research.

I would tend to say that I agree with the above assessment. Obviously I'm completely tech-savvy, I tweet, I blog, our group has a wiki, I would publish in open-access journals if (a) there were decent ones in my field and (b) my funding grant had money set aside to do so. However, I'm aware that the majority of my peers probably do not. They may tweet or have a blog, but if they do, they are rarely work-related. It would be presumptive for me to comment about how well my colleagues make use of online research resources, but for the sake of this post, lets assume that we could do better.

But this all gets me thinking - to what extent is it necessary, as a researcher, to be up-to-the-minute with every new online tool? Are we, as early career academics, missing a trick? What advantages have I gained from them?

I have a twitter account, and this blog. Obviously, as I'm sure you'll agree, they're amazing!!! But what have I, or the research community, or the general public, gained from my tweeting and blogging - have I been wasting my time? For me personally, I think I have gained something from doing this. It may be hard to believe, but I do usually put in some research before I post. At least 15 minutes sometimes. Writing this blog has forced me to think a lot about how the wider public might perceive the work I do. This has forced my to think in a new way about my work, which has been really useful, It also forces me to keep up to date with current affairs a little more. Shale gas and fracking is a really fast moving topic at the moment, with learned reports appearing from all corners at a rapid rate. It might be surprising, but I think without my blog and twitter feed, it'd be quite easy for me to miss them as I'm head down in the minutiae of fracture propagation mechanics. So I think I have benefited intellectually from blogging and tweeting, although it's not actually lead to any new scientific insights or publications or anything concrete, tangible or useful.

I don't know what other researcher (if there are any geophysicists out there reading this) have gained from my blog. Hopefully you might have had a similar experience to me, where you start thinking a little more about how your work fits in with the wider world. But I've not discussed technical stuff on this blog, so it's unlikely you've gained anything science-wise. According to my stats page, I have about 500 visitors a month. But I suspect many of those are wanderers of the internet who have got lost, stumbled in here and stumbled right out again. So I don't think this blog is having much influence on the general public (much as my ego might try to persuade me otherwise).

It would be nice if the geophysics community were able to build up a bit more of a community via social media such as twitter. There are plenty of geophysical tweeters and bloggers out there, but it all seems rather disparate, not well connected, and therefore of limited use. But again, the majority of the community is well connected by other means, conferences probably being the most important. I know the majority of the big names in my field because I've seen them talk at conferences. If I want to ask them a question, I can email them. Admittedly, what then develops is a conversation between two parties only, rather than a multi-party, round-table type discussion that might sometimes be more beneficial. But again, these tend to develop in the discussion sessions of conferences, so it's not completely clear that twitter would add to this (although it's something I'd like to see).

Our research group did set up a wiki - the idea was that we'd put up descriptions of all the code we had developed, so that we could do a better job of sharing, and avoid reinventing the wheel. Noone used it - turned out a quick email round the group was the best way of seeing if anyone had FORTRAN code for multi-variant interpolation (noone did, so if you do, please get in touch). So our wiki now sits forlorn and unused.

However, there are some other cool developments from publishers that I really like. My girlfriend (don't look so surprised - yes I have a girlfriend, I know it seems unlikely....) works for an open-access physics journal. Part of her job is in developing new social media approaches, and also things like video abstracts. I really admire the way they are trying to build a community around the journal, including twitter, and YouTube channel. I wish earth science journals would take note and do the same, but sometimes in Earth Sciences, well, things tend to happen on geological timescales (sorry, couldn't help myself).

I should also mention LinkedIn here. This may only be relevant for someone like myself who works in a very applied, industry-focused area. But in joining various LinkedIn groups you do tend to pick up on the latest industry chatter, which helps identify what they see as the most important topics (although it must be said that you do also tend to pick up on a fair few idiots there as well). I guess this most closely resembles the multi-party type discussion I referred to above.

However, now we come to the second issue - online research tools like RSS feeds, online databases and the like. The report in question comes from the British Library, and you can almost feel the anguish as the efforts they've gone to with various online gadgets, feeds, databases and the like, are ignored by young researchers. But the truth is, libraries are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the modern day scientist. The last time I went into the Bristol Earth Science Library, was during my induction day at the start of my PhD 7 years ago. I kid you not, and I know the majority of my colleagues would say the same. The only role that libraries have for me is that they pay subscription fees for all the non-open-access journals I need to access. Actually the two main journals I read and cite the most, Geophysics and Geophysical Prospecting, are not part of the University's bundle, and I get access to them by being a member of SEG and EAGE respectively. If my research grant provided me with my own money for journal subscriptions I'd have no need for the library at all. The only advantage I see is that the library, because it's dealing in bulk, is probably able to get some sort of discount (although judging by typical public sector records on procurement, I wouldn't bet on it).

This is because our researching habits have changed dramatically in the last 10 years, with the internet revolution. Libraries were once the repositories of all the information needed to pursue our research. Before the internet, we were unable to locate, store, index, inventory and generally deal with these resources for ourselves. So we had libraries to do this for us. The role of the library was to harvest, index and present information for us in a way we could easily use. This role is no longer necessary. I can search for and access any research I want online.  I don't need help with ejournals and e-repositories, or rss feeds. I know what the key journals in my field are, and once or twice a month I take an hour or two to search through their latest issues to see if they have any papers relevant to my work. If I need an older paper, it's right there for me on google scholar. I know who the key names and research groups are in my field, so in particular I will look for their papers. At worst, if I'm asleep at the wheel (it does happen) and miss some key development, by the time I'm at the next conference a couple of months down the line, I'll get to find out all about it. And I guess that's part of the issue here - research moves at a slightly slower pace. All these online gizmos are great for when you need to be right up to the minute - when yesterday's news is tomorrow's fish-and-chip wrapper. But in academic research, things don't work like that. Typically, I might publish 2 or 3 papers a year (and that's considered pretty good going by many of my peers). So that's one paper every 4 to 6 months. So whether I find out about some new development right now, or in a month's time, it doesn't really affect what I do.

Finally, I want to address the comment about the "striking dependence" of PhD students on secondary sources (other publications) rather than primary sources (raw data). As far as I'm concerned, this seems like a good thing to me. Going back and re-analysing someone else's data is generally only considered worthwhile science if (a) you suspect an error, (b) you have a new framework/theory/method to try out on an established dataset, or (c) you're just a little bit pedantic with a little too much time on your hands. If someone has already done a good job on a dataset, then great, take their conclusions and move on to the bit where you develop something new either with a new dataset that you've collected yourself, or using a new method or testing a new idea. If all a student has done during the 3 (or more) years of their PhD is re-analysed old datasets with no new insights, then they probably won't pass their viva.

I should add one caveat before I finish this post (where would science be without caveats?). I speak based on my experiences in Earth Sciences. The BL/JISC report covers (I believe) all areas. Perhaps people's experiences in other fields are different, in which case I look forward to your comments (please. pretty please. I got a few comments a while back, which was quite exciting. I've not had any for a while now. It helps me feel that I'm not just talking to a desolate emptiness......)

Update: Reading this back to myself, I realise I have written a very long and rambling post that doesn't even mention fracking. I blame the G&T. So I apologise, and if you've made it to the end, thank you and kudos. FRACKING!!! There, got it in!

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