Could this be the Science Social Networking killer app?

There are tons of social tools for scientists online, and the somewhat lukewarm adoption is a subject of occasional discussion on friendfeed. The general consensus is that the online social tools, in general, which have seen explosive growth are the ones that immediately add value to an existing collection. Some good examples of this are Flickr for pictures and Youtube for video. I think there’s an opportunity to similarly add value to scientists’ existing collections of papers, without requiring any work from them in tagging their collections or anything like that. The application I’m talking about is a curated discovery engine.

There are two basic ways to find information on the web – searches via search engines and content found via recommendation engines. Recommendation engines become increasingly important where the volume of information is high, and there are two basic types of these: human-curated and algorithmic. is an example of a algorithmic recommendation system, where artists or tracks are recommended to you based on correlations in “people who like the same things as you also like this” data. is an example of the other kind of recommendation system, where human experts have scored artists and tracks according to various components and this data feeds an algorithm which recommends tracks which score similarly. Having used both, I find Pandora to do a much better job with recommendations. The reason it does a better job is that it’s useful immediately. You can give it one song, and it will immediately use what’s known about that song to queue up similar songs, based on the back-end score of the song by experts. Even the most technology-averse person can type a song in the box and get good music played back to them, with no need to install anything.

Since the reason for the variable degree of success of online social tools for scientists is largely attributed to the lack of participation, I think a great way to pull in participation by scientists would be to offer that kind of value up-front. You give it a paper or set of papers, and it tells you the ones you need to read next, or perhaps the ones you’ve missed. My crazy idea was that a recommendation system for the scientific literature, using expert-scored literature to find relevant related papers, could do for papers what Flickr has done for photos. It would also be exactly the kind of thing one could do without necessarily having to hire a stable of employees. Just look at what Euan did with PLoS comments and results.

Science social bookmarking services such as Mendeley, or perhaps search engines such as NextBio, are perfectly positioned to do something like this for papers, and I think it would truly be the killer app in this space.

On the alleged correlation between beer consumption and academic productivity.

Here’s the link to the paper in Oikos.

Before we get into philosophical discussions, however, let’s look at what they actually showed.

Alleged paper/beer consumption correlation

The first thing to notice is that this analysis is over the range of 1-6 liters/capita/year. That’s 1 pint every 6 months up to once a month. Now, I don’t know any Czech ornithologists personally, but I do know several Germans, some Polish, and a couple Hungarians. Their spread of beer consumption rates among them is more like 1-6 liters/capita/week. Therefore, unless Czech ornithologists have a significantly different consumption from the regional average, one must assume sampling error is present among such a rarefied population. When you look at it, and I know this is what passes for great results among ecologists, but the correlation really ain’t all that great, is it?

Now, as we all know but often forget, mere correlation doesn’t imply causation, so it could be just as likely that low productivity causes beer drinking or that some third factor causes both low productivity and beer drinking. What could that putative third factor be? Could it be that people who tend to…ahhh…misrepresent themselves tend to have higher publication rates (until peer-review catches up with them, of course), and would also, on this near-teetotaler end of the drinking scale, tend to under-report their consumption? So all they’ve really done here is show that people who lie on surveys get more publications!

To actually make one serious comment, let me say that it does make sense that someone who has no life at all will spend more time in the lab, but since 99.9% of all researchers worldwide already fall off the right side of the chart, how useful is this information?

Why are we so impatient about new web technology?

Look, I can use a web meme too! I R teh funnay!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.
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Scientists should learn to be communicators, says Chris Mooney

Interesting talk yesterday, the main points of which were:

  • Science is complicated
  • You can’t expect the media to get it right
  • So, scientists should stop obsessing over tedious facts and learn to market, or “frame”, our work.
  • Nice sentiment, but facts are what we’re trained to do, and facts are all that many of us care about. If gene expression profiling suggests that one race is smarter than another, then that’s what they’re going to believe. The very literal, logical point of view is why they became scientists in the first place, and it’s a necessary ingredient of their success. If they cultivated their creative, expressive side they might not have been able to tolerate the grueling tedious hours in the lab that were necessary to achieve their discoveries. I think Chris missed this because of his English background, really, so it’s understandable, but do we really want to put the responsibility of communication on the non-socialized, Asperger’s-afflicted, born nerds?

    Science blogging is great, but one’s audience is self-selected, so you can teach someone who accepts global warming about climate models, and you can teach someone who accepts evolution about phylogenetics, but you don’t get to reach the undecided without the help of broadcast media. Media that exposes people to things they didn’t seek out.

    Of course, I’m comfortable with science blogs being a source of information for broadcast media science reporting, digesting the raw science into understandable issues, but I think that’ll be a pretty bitter pill for traditional media types to swallow.

    “Bloggers producing content that the media repeats?” “Inconceivable!”

    So it seems to me like the real question is whether the real story of science gets told better by science-ignorant reporters sensationalizing things or by unsocialized, slightly sociopathic scientists trying to learn to communicate their results better.

    Maybe there’s a niche for people with a science background who somehow retained communication skills? What’s the going rate for a “science ambassador” these days?

    The commentary on “Defining Pluripotency in Human Cells” is up at the Niche.

    Featuring commentary on their previous article by Peter Andrews, Shinya Yamanaka, Paul Tesar, and William Gunn(aka yours truly).

    I really like Paul Tesar’s idea of a “pluripotency score”, because it’s just this kind of multi-factorial definition we’ll need to really nail down just exactly what pluripotency is.