Yesterday I attended the Science Online London event at the British Library with a slight sense of trepidation. Despite my current employer I’m not exactly what you’d call science friendly! In fact the majority of my exposure to science over the years has been of the fictional kind 🙂 That said I like to think I have the ‘online’ end pretty locked down at this point and I do want to get a better idea of the interests and challenges of the more digital-minded members of the scientific community so I got on an early train to London and crossed my fingers I wouldn’t be entirely befuddled for the day.
Unfortunately I missed the opening keynote on ‘open science’ as I was a little late and there was nowhere to sit in the auditorium – even the floor space had filled up! The event was running at pretty much capacity so that isn’t really a surprise. It did give me a chance to catch up with a couple of people I know in the lobby though in a classic conference cliche scenario.
I did manage to find a spot on the floor for the panel session that was on second. This included someone contributing via Skype from the US – which worked well apart from the weird tiny avatar on the massive screen! This session was (I think) about the need for traditional publishing, peer review and the science blogging community to come together and in particular for the traditionalists to give more credit and acceptance to the work that was being done online.
I appreciated the contributions of Ivan Oransky as while he constantly apologised for oversimplifying he did manage to boil some of the issues down into something a little more understandable for a layman like myself. [I also like the idea of Retraction Watch – great stuff and I’m sure really important as well.]
A couple of things I took away from this was that (a) not all scientists or sciences are created equal – different disciplines might require different solutions and (b) peer review is not a black/white thing. It is reasonable for a peer reviewed, published paper to have some good aspects, some poor ones and some unimportant.
All in all I found the session OK – but it assumed alot of background knowledge and more than I had. I have a decent basic understanding of some of the bigger issues around scholarly publishing, peer review, open access etc because of my JISC days but I think you needed to be in the trenches (on one side or the other) to really get something from this session.
The first breakout of the day was my highlight. The Blackawton Bees session by Beau Lotto was brilliantly presented from the very start. Clearly it was well rehearsed and had been used before but he got the audience engaged from the first minute and gave an inspiring talk around what is possible with ‘public engagement’. He is clearly in a privileged position with his relationship with the Science Museum in particular giving him access to such huge number of visitors to engage with, and experiment on. Also his relationship with the teachers at his childs school afforded him alot of freedom but the creativity of the experiments and installations makes it hard not to feel inspired. The fact they managed to get the research by the children published and all the publicity (including the NPR interview) was all especially impressive.
Great as this session was it did start something of a theme. Online/digital was at best an after thought – it had nothing to do with the topic at all really.
The next breakout I attended was an error in judgement on my part. I think I misunderstood the topic of the Science Question Time and was expecting something that had been customised a little to fit the theme of the event (i.e. more about ‘online’ or ‘open’). That, however, was not the case and instead I sat through an hour of discussions about funding science, the role of the public in deciding where money is spent, the unhelpful use of jargon and what is the point of science. To be honest it wasn’t uninteresting and I can think of a number of my colleagues who would have enjoyed it and contributed to it. I however was out of my depth and found myself watching the Twitter stream more than the panel (though to be fair I wasn’t as bad as the guy behind me who fell asleep and snored *very* loudly throughout the session – even after I threw a paper plane at him!).
Again this was a session where the online world might not of even existed and I wish I’d attended ‘The importance of offline communities in online networking’ which for the life of me I can’t understand how I missed it. I think I just went to the wrong room! Given back when I was going to do my MSc, before I left JISC and my funding behind, that was pretty much the title of the project I was working on. Oh well.
The final session I attended was about Wikis and how they are being used in science. Given my interest in WikiMedia UK, the workshops I’ve been organising for staff at the day job in using Wikipedia and my general interest in open content I had high hopes for this session (in fact it was one of the reasons I signed up.) The problem I found though is that maybe I was already a bit too deep into the world of Wikipedia/Media to get anything new from the session. The stuff Henry spoke about from the CRUK perspective was interesting though – I particularly liked the ‘edit lunch’ idea with a ground of them getting together over lunch with laptops to ‘tag team’ articles. The fact they bring people with different skills from different teams together to improve individual articles is also pretty clever and something worth thinking about. Also the policy on softening some of the language and making it a little more plain English and unthreatening is also interesting and maybe links in with something Alok Jha mentioned as well about how difficult alot of the science entries on Wikipedia are to understand. That it often isn’t a place you can go and get that overview on a scientific area – instead it is written for an expert audience and not just an interested reader.
On the other hand I’m not sure the CRUK policy of trying to link back to their own content prominently is really in the spirit of things and while I’m sure they are doing it with the interests of the user in mind I worry that it opens up a whole can of worms. I do believe the hard-line some editors and admins take on Wikipedia is a barrier but some of the principles are sound.
I missed the final session as I got caught up chatting (and judging by the Twitter stream am not unhappy with that..) and then headed to the pub – which was a nice way to end the day as always.
This was my first visit to ScienceOnline London and if I’m honest it will probably be my last. I thought it was a well run event, in a great venue and the organisers were approachable and on the ball but it is clear I’m not the target audience for the event – and while I contributed to some of that myself by poor session choices the reality was I didn’t really fit. I appreciated the chance to catch up with some friends and colleagues and meet a few new people though – also the chance to visit the sci-fi exhibition at BL was a major plus so all in all I was glad I went along but not so glad I chose to get the 7.30 train back to London on a Saturday for day 2 🙂