David Crotty from CSHL, who I’ve corresponded with before, has again published an obituary for Science Web 2.0. I think this is premature but typical of how the media cycle works, especially on the web where the youthful perspective predominates. I’ll get back to this, but permit me, on the occasion of Castro’s resignation, a brief philosophical detour.
I’m a scientist because I like to think about things in a critical fashion. This is entirely different from simply being a critic. A critic often simply repeats obvious shortcomings of his subject, whereas thinking critically means taking your analysis to a more detailed level, considering how well the reality of something corresponds to your conception of that thing. For example, you might look at a purple object and make the observation that the object is purple. A critical examination, however, might reveal that the object is instead composed of small red and blue subunits. If you were in a hurry to report your findings, as we so often are, you’d probably report that the object was purple and move on, and this is often the right thing to do. It could be more important to make a rapid, more or less in-the-ballpark judgment than to make a more slow, but more accurate determination. Most reporting, and in fact, most decision-making, in this fast-paced world is of the rapid, less accurate type. My nature is to tend towards the slow, careful analysis, so now that we’ve gotten the jackrabbit judgments of how well Web 2.0 works for scientists, let me add my turtle-like analysis of the situation.
There is no “out with the old, in with the new” for ideas, only for people.
No one should even expect established scientists to give up their established processes for the new way of doing things. Architects didn’t throw out their drafting tables en masse when CAD programs came on the scene, and lawyers still keep legal libraries to this day, at great expense, when the legal databases are more up-to-date and easier to search. Perhaps I’m echoing a bit of Thomas Kuhn here, but new tools are used by the people who had them available as they were learning, and greater adoption comes from a greater number of these people getting into science, rather than a greater number of people already in science becoming those people. If your service can’t wait that long, well, sucks to be you, but it really doesn’t take that much of an investment to keep a website up. I don’t know how much money Nature is losing on Connotea and related services, but I’d imagine it’s a pretty good marketing tool, no matter how much banner ad revenue it generates, so it should fit fairly nicely in the marketing budget. There’s no way to quantify goodwill and brand exposure, unfortunately.
Evolution will answer the question far more definitively than a thousand bloggers ever could.
Those with a more winning strategy, perhaps more effectively leveraging Web 2.0-type information management techniques, will be more successful, and come to make up a larger proportion of scientists, even in the absence of inter-scientist communication.
Speaking of inter-scientist communication…
It’s slow. Scientists are slow to exchange critical data with close collaborators, forget about them talking about their processes and how to be productive. I still think there’s tremendous potential in speeding up the exchange of information, and it’d be a shame to prematurely declare the death of this potential.
Web 2.0 is all about aggregating, filtering and sharing information
This isn’t the first time this has been said. Hell, it’s not even the thousandth. If you haven’t “gotten” it by now, one more post isn’t going to change anything. I could go on and talk about how I use Connotea and Zotero and what blogging has done for me personally, but before you really understand what we’re talking about (before you can become a critical thinker, instead of just a critic), you have to go try some things out. Everyone has different needs, different ways of working, and finds different things useful, so my experience probably isn’t all that applicable. Just as everyone can’t use the same investing strategy and expect to make a profit, not everyone will get the same return on the the same investment of attention, and the only constant is that an investment of nothing, a risk of nothing, can produce only a return of nothing, and who would listen to a financial advisor that doesn’t invest, anyways?
Start a blog, start bookmarking things with del.icio.us or Connotea, subscribe to a bunch of feeds from people who are saying things you find interesting, maybe even turn that online protocol site that no one visited into a wiki. You just might find something that gives you an edge.