Today at ARCS 2015, I moderated a round-table and panel discussion on opening up scholarship from research to publication. Our awesome speakers included Lou Woodley, community engagement director for the brand new communication and collaboration platform Trellis at AAAS, Erin McKiernan, neuroscience researcher and science blogger, and Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch and global editorial director of MedPage today.
The Medium Shapes the Message
Lou kicked off the session with a presentation of the different affordances of platforms for scholarly communication, including Twitter, independent blogs and scholarly journals. These affordances include persistence, discoverability, visibility and searchability, and differ for various scholarly communication platforms. Twitter for example is a high volume, and thus potentially high noise, platform. The noise afforded by the many status updates on a daily, hourly or even minute by minute basis can make the visibility of individual tweets difficult to determine. But then the instantaneous and simultaneous nature of Twitter updates makes this platform great for ephemeral conversations, which we might then be interested in storing or preserving through Storify and other tweet archiving tools.
The independent blog requires more commitment, but also allows researchers to grow their own audience. Through our blogs we can preserve our thoughts in a more persistent and visible medium, and even sometimes successfully solicit feedback and crowd-source answers to questions important to us and our research. There are new tools today for attaching DOIs to blog posts, making blogs seem like a good place to self-publish ideas or research-in-progress. This can be especially useful, Erin later pointed out, when paired with the publishing of research findings or datasets to open platforms such as Figshare. While individual science blogs may have small audiences, lay language blog posts about research findings published in online spaces that foster sharing and reuse may promote feedback and collaboration where we least expect it.
In terms of archiving blog posts for scholarly communication purposes, questions arise including what are the best practices for blog self-editing (can you go back and edit blog posts that have a DOI attached, or do you need to preserve the original post as 'version of record'?) and who will curate the increasingly vast landscape of scholarly content on blogs?
In an interesting twist in the discussion of blogging to share one's openly available research work, however, I've found that only a small percentage of researchers blog about their own research. Only a fifth of the science bloggers I interviewed for my dissertation write even occasionally about their own research. But if blogs aren't the researcher's preferred venue for talking about his or her own research, Twitter may be a venue of increasing popularity in terms of sharing this type of scholarly content. If academics and researchers are tweeting more often about their own research than they are blogging about it, what does that mean for preserving scholarly discussions and content online? It's interesting, because I think what we are seeing from researchers on Twitter is more a live-feed of the research process, and sharing of links to published papers and sometimes open data, than a direct communication of results. This type of content may be especially appealing to students and early career researchers, as they follow more experienced peers to gain the insights afforded by this "research-in-progress" tweeting. (Anyone agree? Disagree? Perhaps a question for future research!)
PubPeer and Post-Publication Peer Review
After Lou talked about the affordances of different scholarly communication platforms, Ivan tackled the issue of scientific fraud and talked about several new-ish tools for expedited post-publication peer review of new research. He highlighted just how quickly - in a matter of days - post-publication online reviews can prompt traditional journal publishers to investigate instances of scientific fraud.
Ivan talked about two post-publication peer-review platforms: PubPeer and PubMed Commons. PubPeer curates anything with a DOI or other permanent identifier for potential scholarly discourse. While both are forums for scientific discourse and reviews/critiques of new research, PubPeer allows anonymous commenting and reviewing, while PubMed Commons requires the use of one's real name. The question came up during our session of whether and when anonymous reviewing on PubPeer might be warranted and even necessary. For example, there might be cases in which early career researchers or those representing under-represented groups or minority views have reason to critique senior researchers' published work, but don't feel comfortable doing so under their real names.
Later during our Q&A session I brought up the idea, related to Ivan's talk, that commenting on published research via PubPeer may be preferable in some cases to keeping those comments on our own individual blogs, in terms of visibility and impact. In the case Ivan gave of a paper in Cell being investigated for improper reuse/manipulation of images after a series of PubPeer comments, would that kind of impact have been achieved if the commenters had used their own (potentially very small audience) blogs vs. the PubPeer platform to point out the issue?
Ivan also argued that we need to look at the landscape of scholarly communication tools and post-publication peer-review platforms as an ecosystem. There is rarely, if ever, a single platform, tool or process for research communication that is equally suitable across disciplines and user groups.
Some Downfalls of Social Media for Scholarly Communication
Of course, there are also downsides and potential issues associated with using social media to share one's research and solicit feedback from peers. During our panel Q&A, Erin shared her views on best practices related to scholarly communication via social media as an early career researcher. Erin said that while she has received high-quality feedback on her pre-print published research and research-in-progress updates from blog readers, it can also be hard to know how much time to spend online answering unrelated questions or off-base critiques. She also highlighted the importance of being courteous enough to contact other researchers for comment when critiquing or commenting on their work.
To wrap up this session on socializing scholarly communication, we addressed several audience questions related to the safety of social media for under-represented groups in science. Melissa Vaught (@biochembelle) also brought up the great question of whether social media, e.g. blogs, are truly democratizing, or whether they simply reinforce existing power structures. Unfortunately, I think that social media by and large miss the mark in terms of democratizing science and scholarly communication. Existing ideologies and power structures are typically inherited by social media structures, and online community managers as well as science bloggers themselves need to be aware of this. In my own research on the practices of science bloggers, I've found that women are significantly more concerned about trolling comments and attacks on their credentials than men when blogging about potentially controversial topics.
Lou gave a great description during this section of the Q&A on how online community managers and social media designers can foster online safety (for women in science, for example, and other under-represented groups) by adhering to danah boyd's idea of "safe streets." Digital "streets" that are public, always have "eyes" on them, and that also allow for easy private messaging when needed may help promote safety and comfort in online environments for high-risk user groups.
In considering some of the factors that might affect a willingness to look out for one another, how big is your digital street, your community? And what determines whether you’d offer to help if you saw someone in trouble, either because they were being publicly harassed or because a change in their behaviour indicated that they might need a hand? Perhaps you feel more comfortable reaching out via a back channel, rather than in public. Or do the ties to a semi-stranger feel too weak so that it would be awkward to get involved at all? - Lou Woodley, The comfort of strangers – finding safety by putting eyes on the digital street