The Future of Online Content in Science?

Last month I attended my first ever unconference about the Future of Content. It was a great meeting about various forms of online media, from blogging to podcasting to infographics. The meeting wasn’t aimed at researchers and/or science communicators at all, but there seemed to be a lot of parallels between issues in the media world and issues in the science world. Intriguingly, the media world seems to have come up with a lot of cool ideas to tackle some of these issues, so thought I’d share a couple of these* here.

  1. The MacGyver age of content creation, open access and the role of legacy publishers. In the art world, thanks to modern technology, nowadays anyone with a 366985080_21aa5f88bf_ohalf-decent smartphone and laptop can be an “artist” and produce content. But this explosion of content also means that it has become virtually impossible to browse all content, and we increasingly rely on recommendations, from Netflix (think Netflix prize) to Amazon. So really, the function of these providers is not so much to provide the content per se, but to help us navigate through the content jungle. To me, this seems highly reminiscent to the explosion in scientific publication possibilities: from pre-print servers (like BioRxiv) through science blogging and open lab notebooks to new journals like RIO (which publishes research ideas). In the long run, this publishing revolution will inevitably mean that “legacy” journals as they exist today will become obsolete. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will cease to exist, but probably that their role will change. So, taking a leaf from the media book, I predict that a key function of journals in the future will be to connect readers to relevant content published across the web. We can already see first indications of such a process: take, for example, the recently announced “overlay” journal Discrete Analysis, which itself doesn’t publish papers, but connects readers to mathematics papers hosted on the preprint server arXiv. But also traditional publishers like Nature are clearly experimenting with different forms of online content – just look at (listen to) the diversification of their podcasts
  2. “We’re in this together now”: crowdsourcing, copyright and participatory content. Since I am currently rather disappointed by the rather feeble attempts by the research community to truly
    422393021_56d3c74565_z

    Better together. By Yeonsang via flickr.

    engage the public in crowdsourced science (really, we think people can only run screensavers, play games (like here and here and here) and hoard their mobile phones around for animal pics and GPS information???) it was really interesting to hear about new formats from the media world. My favorite example was that of HitRecord, a collaborative production company by the actor Joseph Gordon-Lewitt: here, anyone can contribute short videoclips to a given topic. These pieces are then assembled into something more extensive (eg a short film), while every artist maintains copyright over their own piece, whereas the copyright for the assembled piece belongs the company (distributed and centralized copyright). The profit is also distributed. In such a setup contributing artists are considered equal partners and not mindless minions, and maybe the science world should strive for something similar, if we truly want citizen science and public engagement. When it comes to peer-to-peer communication there was talk about integrated social screens, where people can watch TV shows (in real-time or time-shifted) together with other people’s commentary (eg twitter or facebook comments). Thus, together with the commentary a TV show can become a greater whole. To me, this very much resembles the idea of post-publication peer review, and I wonder if we can use any of the tools from social TV and apply them to papers. Thereby, rather than having to read a paper and the comments separately, you could read the paper which already has other people’s comments and criticism included, or maybe watch a slidecast and people’s comments would pop up in parallel to the slides…

  3. The future of crowdfunding? Having recently completed a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the sequencing of LilBUB’s genome, I always find it interesting to hear what other people have to say on the topic. First of all, it seems that the media world has already realised what scientists are still debating about: that crowdfunding will likely NOT replace traditional forms of funding (eg through funding agencies or big Hollywood studios), because it’s a lot of work for very little money. But certainly, if you are willing to make the right kind of effort, you can aim high: there are already multiple crowdfunded movies out there (Con Man, Veronica Mars), and a kickstarter campaign for a mission to the moon raised more than 500,000 GBP!
    The potato salad made it look easy, but really, crowdfunding is a lot of hard work for little money.

    The potato salad made it look easy, but really, crowdfunding is a lot of hard work for little money.

    Second, there are some cool forms of crowdfunding out there, which scientist aren’t exploring yet. One of these is patronage, where – rather than funding a project – you can donate money on a regular basis to a person or an organisation, if you think that they have churned out interesting work so far, and you trust them that they will do great things with your money in the future, too. I’ve already seen a science podcast on such a crowdfunding page (Go, Science for the People!), and I wonder if people would also be willing to support a science project in a similar way.

These are only a couple of the media-science parallels I could identify, others involved citations (go back to the source of information!), diversification of formats, the re-distribution of risk… Maybe a little cross-talk between science and media could go a long way?


*A lot of the ideas I discuss here are based on an excellent talk by David Dylan Thomas. If you’re interested, the slides of his talk can be found here.

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One thought on “The Future of Online Content in Science?

  1. Pingback: It’s nice to be right sometimes… | Pasteur's quadrant

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