A conversation with Timo Hannay about the scientific web

As director of web publishing for Nature Publishing Group, Timo Hannay’s projects include: Connotea, a social bookmarking service for scientists; Nature Network, a social network for scientists; and Nature Precedings, a site where researchers can share and discuss work prior to publication.

The social and collaborative aspects of these systems are, of course, inspired by their more general counterparts on the web: del.icio.us, Facebook and LinkedIn, the blogosophere. That’s part of what we discussed in this week’s ITConversations podcast. We also talked about my longstanding concern that scientists, like other academics and indeed most professional people, aren’t directly rewarded for being wired into the web. Timo has some great ideas about how to change that. He notes:

This will sound a bit strange coming from someone who works for a journal publisher, but to date, the way that scientists’ output has been measured has been unduly focused on publications in peer-reviewed journals. That is, and will continue to be, a really important part of it, but it’s not the only thing they do.

Here’s one specific proposal for change — measure, and reward, contributions of data:

Biology in recent years has seen a move from what I would characterize as cottage industry science, where everything from data capture through to analysis to writing the paper happens within one lab among a small group of people, to a much more industrial scale where you have different groups, widely dispersed, perhaps who don’t even know each other, doing the data capture versus the analysis versus writing the paper.

But you can’t just publish a data set. So what tends to happen is that, for a really big important data set — like a new major genome — they’ll publish a paper off the back of it, and do a very quick preliminary analysis. But the real news is not the analysis, it’s the data set. They have to make this fig leaf of analysis in order to justify publishing the paper.

We need to make it possible for people to publish data sets — to put them out there, track what use is made of them by other people, and then eventually gain credit for that.

Excellent suggestion!

More broadly, Timo wants to measure activity in the specialized versions of the blogging, bookmarking, and social networking services that Nature Publishing Grouop is creating for scientists. He says NPG is working with funding organizations to figure out what kinds of measurement can support a broader system of credit and recognition.I know it’s hard to nail down this touchy-feely stuff, but it really does matter. Yesterday I found a great quote from E.O. Wilson — in Consilience, which I’ve finally gotten around to reading — that helps explain why:

The creative process is an opaque mix. Perhaps only openly confessional memoirs, still rare to nonexistent, might disclose how scientists actually find their way to a publishable conclusion. In one sense scientific articles are deliberately misleading. Just as a novel is better than the novelist, a scientific report is better than the scientist, having been stripped of all the confusions and ignoble thought that led to its composition. Yet such voluminous and incomprehensible chaff, soon to be forgotten, contains most of the secrets of scientific success.

Narrating the work in openly confessional memoirs can and should be measurable, valuable, credit-worthy.

8 thoughts on “A conversation with Timo Hannay about the scientific web

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  2. paul

    Scientists should be blogging with authority in their field so we can learn from them and link for source material, or confront them when we think they are wrong.

    Some of the best science has been accomplished by non-scientists and the interconnected web will enable all of us to be scientists.

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