Web 2.0 and Research

During last couple of days I was in a meeting of our Centre of Excellence in Evolutionary Genetics and Physiology, of which I’m a member. One of the issues I talked about and we discussed was using Web 2.0 ideas to help communication. This is a particular problem for the centre because there are three research groups in two cities, which are about two hours’ travel apart. We discussed some of the things we could try, but there are still a few questions remaining, so I thought I would use a Web 2.0 technique to help find some answers. In other words, I’ll blog about them and hope someone is nice enough to tell me what to do.

I have already started the Helsinki end of the centre down the path that leads to a life wasting in front of the computer by introducing them to blogging. we also have a private wiki that is used for internal matters (e.g. the Christmas party, and arranging travel to the centre’s meetings).
I hope the wiki will be used more, for example in collating data for reports, and putting together information about research (i.e. moving it towards being a communal lab notebook). The blog is becoming successful, with regular posts and some conversations now starting in the comments. But extending these to the full centre, and adding new toys tools, will change the dynamics.
For the whole centre, We would want to have a blog, and a wiki, as well as (I think) a forum, where we can have more discussions. The blog would primarily be a way of communicating with the public (we already have a regular reader from Queens, NY), but we will also be able to keep each other up to date with the relevant literature. There was also the suggestion that when we have papers accepted, we could blog about them, as simple self-promotion.
I argued that the wiki would be useful in coordinating large experiments. For example, what has become known as Toumas’ cross was carried out in Helsinki, but some of the material was taken to Turku to be squashed, squelched and stuffed into a machine. Having a central site where all the data and details of the experiment means that everyone can keep track of what’s been done, and also make it easier to look back and answer all those awkward little questions that suddenly become vital. This could go all the way to being an Open Lab Notebook (or at least a slightly less closed one).
We also talked a bit about a setting up fora, as a means to encouraging discussion in a less hierarchical way than blog posts. I can see these being useful ways of starting collaborations and conversations, for example when we are thinking about using new techniques and approaches.
One practical problem with all these ideas is how to set them up and integrate them. Whilst we could have the wiki, blog ahd forum all separate, it would be nice if we could run them together, so it would be easier to coordinate between the different bits (e.g. just having one login). I thought about using a VLE(Virtual Learning Environment) like Moodle. This is primarily designed for online teaching, but it could be used for what we want too.
All this raises a few questions:

  • Is there anything better than Moodle for combining the different tools we need?
  • Are there any other tools that people can recommend? What are they good for?
  • How do we encourage people to use the tools? Most of the researchers haven’t used Web2.0 stuff a lot, beyond looking at the occasional blog post. Overloading people with lots of new ideas might be counter-productive to start with, but we can build up.
  • We can organize our Christmas party online through the wiki, but can we actually have the party online too? How does one get drunk virtually?

And if you have any other comments, go for it!

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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3 Responses to Web 2.0 and Research

  1. Mark Tummers says:

    Bob, what kind of wiki are you using?
    The infrastructure and mentality here seems to be aimed at restricting any web 2.0 initiatives. Priority seems to be given to make everything standard, slow and save.
    I would rather have doing research as a first priority.
    I am currently using a personal wiki as a replacement for a lab book (wikidpad). I picked wikidpad because it was the only piece of software that didn’t require the cooperation of the IT department.
    Unfortunately it is a personal wiki. Only one person can make load the wiki and make changes. I love it though. I have never been so organized and actually my electronic lab book is much more detailed than my paper one ever was.
    I can also find stuff easily. Everything is linked and there is a search function.
    I showed the system to some people and at least one person started trying to use it as well.
    I my joint projects with other people in the lab the wiki is great as well. I select the pages that deal with the project, export them to a Html file and send it to my co-workers. They can’t complain that the aren’t informed any more.
    I would really love to see some general lab wiki and not just for the show, but I would like to the potentional of it used.
    A big complaint we have currently in the lab is that it is such a pain in the ass to sift to the work of old members of the lab (or even current ones). Huge amounts of datasets are basically unavailable for easy access. And even if the labbooks are there and kept up to date, the actual physical data is often not marked properly. So you still have to go through dozens of slide boxes to find a particular piece of data.
    A joint wiki-based system could really work wonders here.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    We’re using the university’s wiki system. The university is keen on web-based teaching, and I suspect that it probably wants to encourage the same thing in research, but the message hasn’t filtered down to many of the researchers.
    Your description of how you use the wiki sounds like just the sort of thing I’d like to encourage, but I don’t work in the lab, so I can’t really start telling people how to organize their work.

  3. Mark Tummers says:

    Oh, how embarrassing I didn’t know about that. I asked this morning at the coffee table if anyone knew about the university’s wiki. Nobody knew either. So I kind of feel less stupid now.
    Regarding web 2.0, I must also state that I have started to use google documents more and more now. It is actually quite nice for sharing documents between a small group of people and you don’t have to worry about losing the data or revisions.
    I have a feeling that the continued development of google documents will more and more make its use interesting for scientists.
    Some people I spoke to are a bit worried about handing over ‘sensitive’ research data to google, but I am not that paranoid myself.