Here comes everybody, copying

People are taking the old adage of faking it until you make it to its logical conclusion.

I often start writing with snatches of ideas from wherever I’ve found them, so I get it.

I scribble in my notes, kick off with bits of inspiration from whatever I’m reading. It’s a way to get the ideas flowing, to sidestep a dreaded blank page. As I work my way through and finesse the concepts, story, style into something that’s more my thing it usually takes its own shape.

But over the past year or so serious plagiarism has popped up again and again, and in unlikely quarters.

There have been countless other examples. Artists, authors, advertisers and virtually everyone else.

There have been plenty of big cases before now, the German science minister is even under pressure for plagiarism in a doctoral thesis over 30 years ago.

But with content farms and ‘curated’ blogs, under-resourced newsrooms and everyone being pushed to file more and more stories, it seems to be getting more prevalent.

There’s even a blog called Plagiarism Today tracking the issue. I love that Steve Buttry developed a quiz to make sure people in his newsroom get the attribution right.

Here’s one today. Dan Keogh picked up that Scientific American blogger Bec Crew‘s post had been plagiarised by a reporter from the Daily Mail.

Here’s Dan’s tweet:

He picked it up using a tool created to help Wikipedia pick up ‘duplicates’.

Remember #Pepsigate?

Quick backgrounder: the ambitious science magazine SEED started a blogging network, which attracted some of the biggest names in the science blogging world. Opinionated, informed and entertaining blogging. But the whole thing collapsed in a storm of controversy around a sponsored Pepsi blog.

Barely raised a blip in Australia, though online and on Twitter it was hard to miss. For a less concise, but more insightful history see @mjrobbins’s Storify – including a series of tweets from @mims about how ScienceBlogs started.

We were looking for ways to build traffic to, of all places, #SBhistory

It was impossible not to notice all the excellent science blogs that were then scattered across Blogger and self-hosted sites. #SBhistory

Intern made a spreadsheet including estimated traffic. We sorted by that field, invited the top 20. #SBhistory

It was a success, even outliving Seed magazine. But from @mims’ tweets, doesn’t sound like the publisher ever really got it, with most of the budget going to the in-house website and publishing team, while the bloggers were out in the cold.

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel at #media140 Brisbane to dissect the story, with Wilson da Silva and Becky Crew from Cosmos, Darren Osborne from ABC Science Online, and Peter Griffin from the NZ Science Media Centre and Disappointing not to have Tim Lambert from Deltoid or anyone from The Conversation. Still, a great panel. Listen to it here.

That’s two panels on blogging in a month (I was on a panel about hyperlocal/place blogs at Reclaim The City, at the University of Sydney, in April). It’s weird, blogs as news all of a sudden. Bloggers like celebrities, and at the other end of the spectrum a growing awareness of the writing and thinking on blogs. Which is great, but I feel weird getting up on panels like it’s some new thing. Still great.

(Pepsigate panel at Media 140, Brisbane – photo by UQ journalism student Pakwayne)

So the panel on Pepsigate was interesting. I guess my main point was that like blogger outcry over the fake Coke Zero blog in 2006, the idea of a digital or social media crowd getting angry about dishonesty is nothing new. People get angry when they’re misled. It’s just now social media gives people an outlet.

What’s new to me is the potential for science blogs to be a serious alternative to the often superficial coverage of science in the mainstream media. The panel talked about the way Nature/Science dominate their respective coverage. One of the most attractive things about science blogging is how by sharing ideas, by articulating ideas and by being exposed to ideas, it creates a fertile space for innovation.

Anil Dash takes this up, saying by expanding on ideas you’re reading (instead of just tweeting or retweeting), you’re forcing yourself to articulate newly conceived ideas.

One of the most hilarious things to come out of my hyperlocal blogging panel – chaired by the lovely Jesse Adams Stein – was a comment by one of the panelists that what we do as place bloggers is “elite”. If you can write an email, you can write a science blog. Any blog, really. Though great writers *are* something special. As great writers (or thinkers) are anywhere. What’s elite isn’t the blogging platform, but the potential you create by taking part.

The other issue with #Pepsigate is the rise of branded or sponsored content. It’s nothing new in the papers, but the protocols online aren’t as well established. See Wired‘s response to The Independent doing it online. Readers, overloaded with advertising, are getting better at filtering out the direct material, which is why advertisers are increasingly using sponsored content, product placement (an audience member suggested Haruki Murakami had paid products in his books, though I doubt it). And though ScienceBlogs was a very niche corner of the web, it had a large, dedicated and well educated readership. Prime for Pepsi’s (probably very good) scientists to flex their credentials.

But if it was going to be good, relevant content to the blog network, then it should have made it there on its own merits. Blurring the line is no good in magazines or papers – eg those “special supplements” in the Herald. But it’s happening as an increasing desperate publishers look for the elusive business model.

Fast forward to the end of the story, and Seed boss Adam Bly cancelled the deal after a massive outcry, and the week of the talk in Brisbane, National Geographic announced it had taken over the blogging network.

I planned to write a bit more about Media 140 Brisbane, but it hasn’t happened. Fortunately there were plenty of fantastic bloggers and thinkers on hand. Click Kristin Alford, Craig Thomler, Kate Carruthers, Andrew Maynard and Peter Griffin for insights.

Opening science’s books for the crowd

Science takes a long time. Researchers can slave over their work, publishing modest increments for years before something really connects, and sometimes it’s not even then – it can be years later, when someone else makes the connection.

But paying for that time can be politically tricky, and in any case the funding tends to come with the political cycle and with the tide of political and public opinion. So what’s the answer?

(Beth Ditto from The Gossip leaps into the crowd on a Sydney harbour cruise)

Since June, 2006, when Jeff Howe wrote a great piece in Wired titled The Rise of Crowdsourcing, the idea of getting a crowd of passionate amateurs to replace professionals has had a mixed development. Daniel Terdiman made this observation a couple of years later.

One of the elements of Howe’s defining crowdsourcing was a new understanding of how, when brought together to utilize collective intelligence, big, disparate groups of people working on a common task can be extraordinarily productive and deeply creative.

Howe talked about the rise of platforms like iStockphoto and the open innovation site InnoCentive. Karim Lakhani, an MIT technology and innovation lecturer quoted in the article, surveyed 166 problems posted to InnoCentive from 25 different companies.

The strength of a network like InnoCentive’s is exactly the diversity of intellectual background. We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise.

As well as InnoCentive, the network of retired scientists and engineers in YourEncore was also tackling serious science and tech questions. In April, 2010, Suzannah Lyons surveyed the current crop of citizen or crowdsourced science projects for ABC Science Online.

Most coverage at the time was about the impact in consumer areas like photography and the media. It seemed as though crowdsourcing would decimate professionals in those fields. And in some ways it has. Newspapers have folded, particularly in the USA’s densely populated media landscape. In specialist fields like technology, science and the arts, the best criticism and news is on blogs. But while there is also a mess of half baked content out there, that only makes makes thorough research, good writing and sharp editing all the more valued. In some ways, it’s just been a shake out and restructure, a new model. The best writers work professionally, and their blogs have almost inevitably become start-ups themselves.

Since Flickr and iStockphoto, there are a lot more photographers feeding into the global pool. Especially since Getty’s link-up with Flickr. At the same time, the increased engagement with good photos seems to have increased demand. So while (maybe) they’re earning less, there’s better photography in circulation and increased demand. It seems like a win-win.

(Australia’s $100 polymer bank note)

Crowdfunding first blipped on my radar with the microfunding site Kiva. That lets people give small amounts of money to entrepeneurs in developing nations. It’s a fantastic, simple concept, basically harnessing the power of the web and the long tail for private sector philanthropy, and it works.

And the model has since expanded to creative projects. Think the Kickstarter and FundBreak (which has just changed its name to Pozible) models, or in journalism there’s Spot.Us. For small to medium sized projects, from a doco about David Lynch to the relaunch of  New Matilda. The New Matilda story was interesting, given they raised $150,000 to fund the online media site for a year. And while that’s still comparatively small scale for serious research, it’s getting there.

Kickstarter is billed as a fun way to fund and follow creativity – being part of the process of creative projects you like, even if you’re not a creative participant. Like a part time executive producer, I guess. In a way it’s like informalising the venture capital process, although in most of these cases, the money doesn’t equate to an actual stake in the project, it’s more like philanthropy. And many of these projects then send special gifts to funders – for example, when Diaspora was funded, many of the people who donated were given one-off t-shirts.

Crowdfunding’s never going to replace the traditional ways of funding science, but tapping the long tail of interest in science could diversify the base, so to speak, and open up different kinds of science that aren’t so suited to the current funding climate.

So how would that work in research?

Turns out it already is. Though not in Australia. There’s FundScience – which Nature covered in July, 2010. Like many of these platforms, it uses a reverse-auction like approach, where the project seeking funding puts a number on the page that is make or break for the project. If they don’t make it, they don’t get the money.

Applicants can request up to $50,000 and must be based at a university, so that the money received through FundScience can be administered like any standard research grant. Projects are selected by a network of peer reviewers, and FundScience provides 10% of their requested funds as seed money. Researchers who sign on are also required to blog about their progress to keep contributors up to date on their efforts.

EurekaFund is another microfinance platform for science. One current project, by an MIT team called Raw Solar, hopes to use cheap materials and innovative design to cut the cost of solar. At the time of writing, it’s raised $25,351 of a $75,000 goal (you can even drill into the budget). In Nature, EurekaFund’s Jason Blue-Smith said:

A small grant can help build a track-record of innovation for researchers in the early stage of their career, who may still be working in a senior scientist’s lab and may have few opportunities to develop their own ideas.

Andrea Gagglioli pitched another project, OpenGenius, in a letter to Science. There’s also the Open Source Science Project, which was designed to increase access in both directions – for the public to the science and for the scientists to the public’s wallets.

One of the earlier sites was SciFlies – named by founder and marine engineer David Fries with a nod to fruitflies and their goal to create a ‘swarm’ of science supporters, as well as just generally being fly, in a hip hop sense, which I like. Covered in Nature in May, 2009, it works differently to the others, members or visitors to the site see profiles of scientists and their projects, and can donate to the ones they like.

SciFlies will distribute cheques to researchers after their donations reach $5,000. Anyone who doesn’t make that amount will not get any money, and donors will be asked to redesignate their money.

Another model is LabGiving, which started out of a social inventory tracking system for lab supplies. Part of that system is now linking donors with biomedical scientists, however, it’s not clear just how many projects have been (or could be) funded.

There are quite a few researchers and start-ups going it alone, too. Doing crowdfunding, but without any particular platform. For example, Jackie Schooleman, chief of Virtual Proteins, issued certificates:

I also started some kind of foundation, called “friends of Virtual Proteins” were people could buy small amounts of certificates in the company. It’s a kind of crowd funding.It’s very easy to join, in the early days you did not need a whole lot of money. Because we sell certificates rather than shares, I still have 100% control in the company,  and our commercial strategy cannot be influenced by shareholders. By joining they commit money in the trust of the company.

Raising the kind of funding that supports serious, large scale research is probably out of the question, but as Nature Neuroscience editorialised,

The idea is for scientists to raise enough money to run a small research project that requires a limited amount of money and time. The hope is that these small pilot projects could provide preliminary data that would lay the groundwork for more substantial projects. This approach is appealing at a time when the consensus is that government grants are rarely awarded to risky projects, particularly those without pilot data or from young investigators with limited track records.

That’s one of the real benefits of this approach, that it might help some of the riskier, more failure-prone projects get up. But there are other benefits. Interacting with the broader public via the initial pitch, blogging the projects (a requirement for some of the platforms), and explaining the return at the end of the project. That can be a challenge too – again, from the Nature Neuroscience editorial:
Regardless of the size of the award, instead of convincing one’s peers that a project is worth pursuing, scientists must convince potential investors who may have entirely different perspectives on what makes a scientific question compelling or pressing. Although this may be a refreshing change, crowd sourcing could result in a skew of its own. For example, the public may be more inclined to fund research that is relevant to disease, rather than more basic research. Another issue that may require some time to work out is quality control in the proposals on offer. The peer review process varies widely across organizations, from very rigorous to none at all. One could argue that peer review is at odds with the process of microfinance, as the idea is to let donors choose what they consider valuable. However, it would be wasteful for laypeople to invest in projects that are ill conceived, lack sufficient institutional resources or duplicate previous work.

There’s a risk here. But one of the aspects I like about the whole process is that rather than money going through a particular institution or even through particular projects, it’s generally going to particular researchers, and as this Margaret Pagano opinion piece from the Independent comments:

putting money behind scientists rather than pre-destined projects is far more blue-sky, as brilliant discoveries or inventions are so often serendipitous.

I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who has worked this way, how did it go? It seems like part of a larger move to a more open science, alongside blogging and Twitter, and publishing without the barriers of phenomenally expensive print journals. Plus by diversifying the funding base, it makes science more resilient to political shifts. Which sounds like a win-win.

Science blogging, a rethink

In science media circles, everyone knew about NASA’s press conference last month. Alien life? A second branch of life on Earth? Unusually hyped, even for NASA, it was published in the premier journal Science.

(lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon, and Mary Voytek, Steven Benner and Pamela Conrada in a Paul E. Alers/NASA photo from the press conference)

But as UK science writer Ed Yong wrote in a post-mortem it:

turned out to be nothing more than bacteria that can thrive on arsenic, using it in place of phosphorus in their DNA and other molecules. But after the initial layers of hype were peeled away, even this extraordinary claim started falling under suspicious glances.

Despite the issues, most of the mainstream media went for it (the story was barely covered in Australia, although the Science Show had a report from a partner of one of the scientists and Stuart Gary wrote a piece for ABC Science).

Did having Science and NASA on the stand draw everyone’s guards down? Probably. And once upon a time, that’s where it would have ended.

But in the past few years, an ecology of science blogs and blogging platforms has emerged: Seed’s ScienceBlogs, ResearchBlogging, Wired’s Science Blogs, Nature BlogsDiscover‘s blogs, Science Blogging, PLoS Blogs, Scientific American Blogs, Guardian Science Blogs, Lab Spaces, SciBlogs NZScience 3.0, Scientopia, Field of Science, Occam’s Typewriter, Science Magazine Blogs, and here’s geophysicist Cian Dawson on geoscientists blogging. (There’s a smattering of science blogs in Australia, some linked to radio shows, some to international platforms. As part of the Federal Government’s gov2.0 drive, they’ve set up a government blogging platform.)

Between live tweeting of the press conference, and rapid-fire analysis from key bloggers, particularly Rosie Redfield, the issues with the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper quickly emerged.

I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.  I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.

NASA and many other mainstream science communicators and journalists were quick to dismiss these criticisms as being outside the peer review process.

Do critics of the blogosphere’s reaction realise how much of the best science writing is happening on blogs? These aren’t (all) undergrads or hobbyists – when they talk about “bloggers”, they’re talking about top flight science writers and scientists. Rosie Redfield, for example, is “The Boss” of the Redfield Lab at University of British Columbia. Long time science bloggers Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders blogged about this, of course, at Science of Blogging.

In this case, it quickly spun out of control for NASA – despite their great record with blogging and social media – seems like they messed up the PR,  then got a hint of what a lot of politicians and businesses have seen in the past year or two when the social media world senses it’s being taken for a ride.

It’s a great story, but it’s not the most important story.

The real story is how much the very practice of doing science is changing. Several recent controversies have shown how conflicted the peer review process has become. It’s closed and therefore open to (perceptions of) conflict. And that closed process means there’s nothing to be learned from the interactions of peer review, which can be hilarious:

The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about,

but could inspire new ideas and avenues too.

The reverse chronology blog feed is a style of writing that is just really well suited to science. Instead of the story beginning and ending with the latest published paper, it’s ongoing, updated as new facts come to light – in many cases by writers (scientists or not) that are following the journals (often in their own discipline).

In that sense, it’s becoming part of being a scientist. Being part of a larger conversation of ideas, being able to publish thoughts in process and comments on other work. It’s communicating science, but also about doing science, and fostering innovation. It’s not for everyone, but for the right people, blogging science and talking openly about science is powerful.

In some ways, the way we think about science blogging needs a rethink. The science community tends to think of blogging as amateur or DIY media, which it can be. But I reckon it would help if scientists started to think about blogging as an extension to what they do at conferences.

So conferences are a chance to present ideas (which may not be quite ready for the breaking paper), hear them critiqued or questioned, and do the same for others. It’s good for connecting with people.

And as well as just being interesting, that conversation is where science blogging really works too.

Do things #3

  1. This blog is so new, there’s barely a ripple of links. But once you’re a little more established, PageRankGraph can show the websites that contribute to your site’s search engine rankings. It’s far from exact, based on SEO data from Blekko. But it’s a visual clue to where your recommendations are coming from.
  2. Speaking of which, Blekko is the latest challenger to Google’s search engine crown. It launched last month – here’s a piece from Wired – and uses ‘slashtags’ to do a kind of social, more targetted searching.
  3. Thinking of visualisation and don’t know where to start? Or super experienced and want input into a book chapter on the topic? Help Paul Bradshaw with his series on gathering, interrogating and visualising data – and the tools to do it with.
  4. Sydney’s public art has boomed in the past couple of years. Here’s a story I made for Radio National about Michelle McCosker‘s Sydney Statues project this year. The council has asked for public comment on its public art strategy… Help them out.

Reading #1

  1. Museums everywhere are experimenting with ways to manage their huge collections of physical things, information, visitors – basically data – and in Canberra, the National Museum of Australia has just started an experimental data and visualisation lab
  2. So climate change is played out as a debate. But because the answers to denialist arguments are complicated, it often feels like taking part in the debate is just answering the same questions over and over. Which a robot could do. Cue Nigel Leck’s brilliant idea, a Twitter  chatbot called @ai_agw that scans Twitter for climate change denial and posts responses
  3. Clever ways of using Dropbox
  4. And with Tipping Point just finished, you may need another chance to flex your creatively intellectual muscles: Knowledge Cities Melbourne or TEDxMelbourne
  5. Dealing with data is one of the big challenges of science. We just have so much. Fortunately there’s an exploding range of options goodbye Excel graphs
  6. Steven Johnson in Wired about New Yorkers phoning in to complain about a smell of maple syrup – a tricky problem solved by data visualisation
  7. Community mapping as a basis for urban planning in Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya), where young locals are creating the town’s first free, public and digital map.