The essence of science has always been communication. Nothing gets entered into the scientific record until it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal so that it can be explained to the scientific community at large, allowing them to examine and critique the work. And the roots of those journals go back to the letters that the first natural philosophers of the enlightenment wrote to one another to share their ideas and the results of their experiments.
So it is fitting that as new communications technologies are developed, scientists are among the first to adopt them and make use of them in their work.
The World Wide Web, created by scientists at the CERN particle physics lab in Geneva just over 20 years ago, has become such a part of research over the past two decades that it is almost second nature for most scientists to begin any new research project with an internet search. But in the past couple of years, online interactions have become an even more integral part of science.
Easy to set up websites like blogs, as well as social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are just the latest communications technologies to be adopted by scientists. The speed at which they allow you to connect with people all over the world, and the diversity of those you can connect with means that many scientists have found them invaluable tools for finding collaborators, solving problems and discussing their work.
While some scientists have taken to posting problems online, others have taken the idea of sharing their work even further. The ‘Open Science’ movement encourages researchers to share their data online long before it is organized into anything resembling a scholarly publication – sometimes even as the data is in the process of being collected. In June, astronomer Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena took open science one step further by live-tweeting his observations of a transit of dwarf planet Haumea by its moon, Namaka. Despite the fact that it made some of his colleagues uncomfortable because of the potential for errors, Brown told Nature in a live Q&A – conducted, appropriately, on Twitter – that it was a great opportunity for people to see how science really works in real time.
“Normally people would just see the finished paper or press release and have no understanding of the process. This was a chance to see the whole thing,” he said.
It is this same spirit of openness that is driving microbiologist Rosie Redfield, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to record on her blog (and via the arXiv) her attempt to replicate the controversial claim that a bacterium can incorporate arsenic into its DNA in place of phosphorus. That paper, published last year by Science, was one of the most high-profile examples of how scientists are using social media in their work. Within hours of publication, the paper had been subjected to widespread public criticism on blogs and on Twitter, part of an increasingly common trend that has seen many scientific results dissected in a public form of retrospective peer review.
Where in the past these sorts of conversations would have taken place in private or among colleagues at conferences in the months after publication, now happens instantly and in public. It can be uncomfortable for those involved – the authors of the arsenic life paper have so far resisted engaging with their online critics – but in the end it is making science more democratic and accessible.
These sorts of online interactions are only going to become more common. A new generation of young researchers has grown up in a digital world, and is quite comfortable with putting their lives, and their work, online. A survey published in June by the British Library and JISC, a group that helps UK universities make use of digital technologies, found that just 8 % of doctoral students born between 1982 and 1994 had not used any open web technology in their work.
Some may worry that making so much of their work available before it has been published, as Brown and Redfield are doing, could make it easy for others to steal their ideas and data and attempt to claim credit for it. But with new technologies will come new behavioral norms. Already many are suggesting that the question of scientific priority will be settled by who put the data online, rather than who published first in a traditional journal.
In the end, science has always been about advancing and spreading knowledge. It is only natural, therefore, that researchers are constantly embracing new ways of doing just that.
Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
This article was originally published in Materials Today (2012) 15(3), 78. To access past issues of Materials Today, and register for your free subscription to the magazine, just click here.