Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Open Source, Meet 'User-Generated Science': So Here's My Forecast: User-Generated Science Is New, but It Is Here to Stay

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Open Source, Meet 'User-Generated Science': So Here's My Forecast: User-Generated Science Is New, but It Is Here to Stay

Article excerpt

Although this issue of CIL is devoted to open source solutions, I'm taking a look at a slightly different yet related topic. In its Sept. 20, 2008, issue, The Economist magazine published a short feature on a very intriguing new blog application--not quite open source by a strict definition but very much in the spirit of open source community building. The application is called Research Blogging, and it is being promoted by a nonprofit with the same name (see http://re searchblogging.org). In covering this new product, the title The Economist gave its article was, portentously, "User-Generated Science."

Hmm. Half of my senior colleagues on the faculty here take a somewhat dim view of blogs, and the word "user" reminds them more of students than of their own colleagues. More than a few of them are unenthused with The Public Library of Science (PLoS) and similar innovations that go beyond the terra firma of tried-and-true peer-reviewed science. But the concept of "user-generated science" struck me as enormously compelling: Could it offer a good solution for linking Web 2.0's emphasis of user-generated content with serious scholarship? Maybe, maybe not; but I think the basic paradigm of Research Blogging will grow. Here's why I'm excited.

Research Blogging Explained

Research Blogging is a community-run nonprofit organization that is promoting a suite of blogging software to scholars. The program was written by New York's Seed Media Group (SMG). The Research Blogging group is separate and runs its own extensive family of blogs that are based on scientific disciplines; more on that below. SMG is in business for a profit, so that stretches its links to the open source movement to the limit, but not over it. SMG donates its Seed software to schools and organizations and takes an active philanthropic role in promoting science on the web.

Research Blogging itself does two things, and it does them very well. First, it extends an invitation to a community, and it is open to anyone. Users add a snippet of code to their blogs, and then Research Blogging captures their posts and puts them on its own aggregating homepage. The result is many hundreds of distinct discussion threads that follow scientific research in the bright light of the blogosphere, findable by discipline as well as by author. The Economist rightly equates this social networking with the historical institution of the "journal club": authors discussing their work, in all seriousness, with like-minded peers under the umbrella of a respected journal. As a frequent visitor to London and a fan of Neil Stephenson's science fiction writing, I can easily imagine a wood-paneled London club as the site for discourse and debate. Research Blogging seeks to re-create that very feeling.

Second, Research Blogging requires its users to follow guidelines. Nothing major, nothing too onerous, but very well-crafted guidelines to please digital librarians. Users must follow citation guidelines, must have their posts reviewed by experts in the field, and must allow the posts' family of blogs to be archived. Most of all, they must publish original work of their own and stand by it. It sounds a lot like a peer-reviewed journal in practice but with the speed and cross-pollination of instantaneous web communications.

The combination of rigorous guidelines that conform to scholarly culture with the practices of the blogosphere provides an interesting new spin on how science can be done. If the leading minds of any given profession adopted this style of communication, the open dialogue that would follow would strengthen the principles of peer-reviewed research instead of diluting them. The research in progress presented would also reside completely beyond the boundaries of a peer-reviewed journal, including an ejournal. That's new scholarly terrain; scientific discourse is viewable by everybody on the blog aggregator that Research Blogging hosts. …

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