Science 2.0: New online tools may revolutionize research
Described as an extension of the internet under the ocean, the Venus Coastal Observatory off Canada's west coast provides oceanographers with a continuous stream of undersea data once accessible only through costly marine expeditions. When its sister facility Neptune Canada launches next summer, the observatories' eight nodes will provide ocean scientists with an unprecedented wealth of information.
Sifting through all that data, however, can be quite a task. So the observatories, with the help of CANARIE Inc., operator of Canada's advanced research network, are developing a set of tools they call Oceans 2.0 to simplify access to the data and help researchers work with it in new ways. Some of their ideas look a lot like such popular consumer websites as Facebook, Flickr, Wikipedia and Digg.
And they're not alone. This set of online interaction technologies called Web 2.0 is finding its way into the scientific community.
Michael Nielsen, a Waterloo, Ont., physicist who is working on a book on the future of science, says online tools could change science to an extent that hasn't happened since the late 17th century, when scientists started publishing their research in scientific journals.
It's happening because technology is both offering the opportunity and creating a need.
"We're changing by orders of magnitude the sampling ability we have for the oceans," says Benoit Pirenne, associate director of Neptune Canada.
The same applies in other scientific fields. Pirenne argues that scientists need new tools to help them deal with the data windfall, and that's what projects like Oceans 2.0 will provide.
One way to manage the data boom will involve tagging data, much as users of websites like Flickr tag images or readers of blogs and web pages can "Digg" articles they approve. On Oceans 2.0, researchers might attach tags to images or video streams from undersea cameras, identifying sightings of little-known organisms or examples of rare phenomena.
The Canadian Space Science Data Portal (CSSDP), based at the University of Alberta, is also working on online collaboration tools. Robert Rankin, a University of Alberta physics professor and CSSDP principal investigator, foresees scientists attaching tags to specific data items containing occurrences of a particular process or phenomenon in which researchers are interested.
"You've essentially got a database that has been developed using this tagging process," he says.
If data tagging is analogous to Flickr or Digg, other initiatives look a bit like Facebook.
Pirenne envisions Oceans 2.0 including a Facebook-like social networking site where researchers could create profiles showing what sort of work they do and what expertise they have. When a scientist is working on a project and needs specific expertise — experience in data mining and statistical analysis of oceanographic data, for example — he or she could turn to this facility to find likely collaborators.
Nature magazine launched the Nature Network in February 2007. A meeting place for scientists, it contains blogs and many discussion groups and offers researchers a way to meet and keep in touch.
"Especially for young scientists, being in the lab can be quite isolating," says Corie Lok, Nature Network senior editor.
Eva Amsen, an active Nature Network user and blogger who recently completed a biochemistry doctorate at University of Toronto, says it's a good way for scientists to exchange ideas and get help with problems, something that otherwise happens mostly within one lab.
"I was lucky to be at a big institution," Amsen says, "but what I've seen on the site is a lot of people are in smaller places."
Online collaboration gives them better access to colleagues.
Nature has other Web 2.0 initiatives, including Precedings — a site where life sciences researchers share preliminary findings and preprints of their papers — and Connotea, an online reference-sharing tool that Lok describes as "a scientific version of De.licio.us."
As blogs and sites like Twitter allow ordinary people to share details of their day-to-day lives, some scientists are sharing their laboratory activities through open lab notebooks online.
"What we do is we make our lab notebooks open and available to the public pretty much in real time," says Jean-Claude Bradley, an associate professor of chemistry at Drexel University in Philadelphia and a pioneer of open-notebook science who gets about 200 visitors a day to the wiki that contains his lab notes.
Open notebooks let scientists see what others are doing and sometimes help each other with problems, Bradley says.
While these are only a sampling of scientific Web 2.0 projects, Nielsen says the shift faces significant obstacles. The biggest, he says, is a scientific culture that emphasizes formal publication as the key to prestige, funding and academic tenure.
"You build your career by publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals," he says. "You don't do it by contributing to wikis."
What is needed is a way of recognizing contributions to wikis and other online resources, Nielsen says — and there is evidence it can happen.
Scientists can post electronic preprints of journal articles through various online facilities. In the mid-1990s online search tools began making it possible to track how often other scientific literature made referenced to such preprints, providing a way for authors to show their work was influential.
Because of that, Nielsen says, by the late 1990s electronic preprints became as important — at least among physicists — as published papers.
Tools that help researchers do their work are already catching on. Technologies that leave behind the traditional model of career-building through publication are taking longer, Nielsen says — but they will come.
"It's a really exciting time," Lok says, "a really active time for Science 2.0."