The three essential components of a good laboratory website.
My colleague, Attila, asked me months ago what are the components of a good laboratory website. However, my thoughts remained incomplete until I read David Crotty’s post at the CSHL blog that I was able to form an answer, and even then it took me two long comments to get my thoughts straight.
The main argument seems to be that it’s too soon for most of the social web applications in science. Of course, everyone has to make that decision for themselves, but I think this is a great way for a beginning scientist to get noticed and to distinguish themselves. Let’s not forget the “founder effect” that accrues to the early adopters. Certainly, it can also be a great way to waste a lot of time unproductively. The key is to get in at just the right point, when the technology is ready to take off, such that the startup effort is minimal. When the startup effort is minimal, the argument that it’s not worth the time to learn a new system becomes a minor objection, and indeed, the startup effort for use of Connotea is about as minimal as it gets.
That leaves us with the question of whether existing systems are “good enough”. Again, this all depends on how long you’ve been using your system and how comfortable you are with it. If you’ve been doing something for a long time, and it’s always worked, the only argument for change is to adapt to coming changes that will break your system. I don’t intend to argue that what has worked in the past isn’t a good system. However, why wouldn’t a new investigator, just starting out, pick a system that was as future-proof as possible?
I admit I’m a bit of an early adopter, and this probably comes from working in the relatively new field of stem cell research, where protocols aren’t really set in stone just yet, and scientists do do a fair amount of technology development. The lack of the tried-and-true in my field has led me to search around for solid methods used in related fields that I can adapt for my own use. The three most solid applications I have found, borrowed from the information technology crowd, are blogs, wikis, and social bookmarking.
Blogs are a great way to open your notebook to the world, or just to the lab. They’re a rich medium(you can’t imbed an animation of cells exchanging mitochondria in your paper notebook), accessible from anywhere, and automatically backed up. They also make you improve your writing skills. From a social perspective, they’re the root of your identity on the web: the place where you communicate your thoughts, your CV, and where you receive communication from others. On a blog, this kind of interaction can happen 24/7 with anyone in the world. In person, you only interact with people in your lab, university, or company.
Wikis, and their propellerhead cousin, CVS, are the sine qua non of modern software development. They’re the single best way to coordinate the efforts of many people working on developing the same protocol, so it shouldn’t matter whether that protocol specifies the input to output transformation of digits or DNA. For a small lab that works in an established field, it’s probably overkill, but for those on the cutting edge, you must have a system for rapidly developing, validating, incorporating, and then distributing changes to protocols and techniques. If you don’t, you’re going to end up lost in the minutiae or slowed down by repetition of mistakes. If you want to move past hierarchical control and its attendant inefficiency, a wiki is the only way forward.
Social bookmarking like that provided by Connotea is relatively new, but the analog in the IT world, del.icio.us, has been widely adopted over the past 4 years of its existence. Social bookmarking allows you to easily keep, share, and discover interesting pages or papers. Sure, you can email a journal club PDF around, filling up everyone’s mailbox, but why send 3MB * 100 emails = 300 MB when you could send 300KB that’s accessible anywhere? If you’re already using Connotea, and everyone should simply for the discovery features, you can have your own journal club group that the presenter simply adds the article to. No having to maintain a list of current email addresses for everyone on the journal club list, and the article is immediately placed in context of related work.
These three applications are the essential components of a good laboratory website. If my experience is anything to go by, the website is the first thing a prospective graduate student sees. Since all three can literally be up and running in minutes with minimal maintenance required, it’s trivially easy for anyone, even professors under tight grant deadlines, to get started. To further illustrate this point, I’ll put a up a series of posts on my blog giving a step-by-step rundown of how to get started from the very basics. By doing so, I’ll simply be returning the favor done by the bloggers who I read as I was starting things up for myself. I call my blog Synthesis, no doubt annoying some synthetic chemist, but the reason behind the name is that I see my blog as a place for the synthetic product of my reading and learning on the web. By doing this, I’m lowering the barrier to entry by taking what I spent 2 or 3 hours learning about and adapting to my needs, and explaining it so that it only takes 15 minutes for the next person whose needs are close to mine. The promise of the web is that someone, somewhere, has asked the same question as you and has solved it(or at least made some headway), and this is one promise that has been kept.
In the end, each lab has to make the decision whether or not to support blogs, wikis, and social bookmarking. However, they owe it to themselves to fully understand the present and future advantages before making a decision. Not everything picked up by early adopters is a winner, as shown by the lackluster penetration of Apple’s iphone into the mainstream(Nokia FTW!), but the time is right for blogs, wikis, and social bookmarking. I’m sure of it.
About Mr. Gunn
Science, Scholarly Communication, and Mendeley