Doing science publicly: Interview with Jean-Claude Bradley

Jean-Claude Bradley and I first met at the First Science Blogging Conference where he led a session on Open Science. We then met at SciFoo and later joined forces on a panel at the ASIS&T meeting and finally met again at the second Science Blogging Conference back in January where Jean-Claude co-moderated a session on Making Data Public. Jean-Claude is famous for being the pioneer of the Open Notebook Science movement. He started posting his daily lab activity and results on his blog Useful Chemistry. Soon, he attracted a lot of feedback and subsequently some excellent collaborators. As the work became more complex, Jean-Claude added more blogs, e.g., UsefulChem Molecules and UsefulChem Experiments, but in the end realized that wiki was a better format for this and started the UsefulChem Wiki where you can see, among else, how one of his students is writing a Masters thesis in real time.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background? What is your Real Life job?
I am an associate professor of chemistry at Drexel university. I’ve been there since 1996. My Ph.D. is in organic chemistry and I have done postdoctoral work on DNA chips and gene therapy. At Drexel I worked on nanotechnology and scientific knowledge management until 2005 when I started the UsefulChem project, centered on synthesizing new anti-malarial compounds using Open Notebook Science.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
I’ve worn many hats in my career and part of the fun is not really being able to predict what makes sense doing several years down the road. I try to concentrate on working on projects that I think will have an important impact and where I am in a unique position to contribute.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I discovered science blogs just through using various social networking sites and finding like-minded people. Some of the blogs I follow most closely: Cameron Neylon’s Science in the Open, Deepak Singh’s BBGM, Antony William’s ChemSpider, Bill Hooker’s Open Reading Frame, Shirley Wu’s One Big Lab and Peter Murray-Rust’s blog. I don’t like answering these types of questions because I don’t want to leave people out:) There are many others in my blog reader but these are probably my main focus right now because they deal with Open Science issues.
bradleypic.JPGYou are one of the pioneers of Open Notebook Science. Could you, please, explain to my readers what this is?
Open Notebook Science is simply the practice of making one’s laboratory notebook completely public in as close to real time as possible. In organic chemistry this is pretty straightforward – researchers must keep a notebook where they record what they do and observe in an experiment, generally with the intent of making a specific compound. In other fields, records may be kept in different formats but the idea is that the research group doing ONS should strive to do research transparently with as little “insider information” as is reasonable. In organic chemistry this means providing access to all raw data files (spectra for example) so that another researcher can independently verify all observations and conclusions made.
You started your Open Notebook on a blog, but then later moved it to a wiki. Why? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the two platforms?
Yes, initially I started with a blog but realized fairly quickly that it was not sufficient to function as a lab notebook because there is no record of changes made. A wiki is really close to a perfect tool for the actual notebook since all page versions are time-stamped. We use Wikispaces as our hosting service, which has the advantage of providing third-party timestamps on everything recorded or changed.
Doing science is like focusing a lens. At first you have few data points and make some tentative observations. As more data get added and more thinking and talking get done, things become clearer and the notebook is updated accordingly. Sometimes that means errors get fixed and that entire process is tracked by the wiki. I still use the blog as a means of reporting on big picture issues and milestones. I can then link from the blog to the wiki to back up any claims I make.
Very few scientists are doing Open Notebook Science right now – do you see the practice exploding in the near future, with almost everyone doing it? Will this be a generational thing? Or dependent on the scientific discipline?
I don’t see the practice of full ONS becoming used by the majority of researchers very soon, although I do think many more scientist will become more open in some way. For example they may blog more about their current work or make more raw data available after their papers come out. I don’t think the practice should be mandated. Those who choose to do will most likely find it rewarding, if only in meeting new colleagues and collaborators. There may be something to the generational effect – the YouTube generation probably does expect information to be free to consume and share. There is certainly a discipline dependence – where intellectual property is a concern there will be an additional barrier.
When we talk about Science 2.0 and science blogging, we usually discuss science communication, publishing, networking, political action and teaching. But you have performed experiments in Second Life, i.e., Internet is also a tool for actually doing science. Do you see this happening more – people using the Web as a tool in scientific research in the open view of everyone who cares to come by and watch you?
Yes I do see researchers using the web to share their primary research – Gus Rosania and Cameron Neylon are probably the best recent examples. As far as Second Life, it is another tool – with Andrew Lang we are now able to interact with spectra (NMR, IR, etc) simply by “talking” to the display. We can display proteins and molecules in 3D with realistic shapes. Right now, for my work, I view Second Life to be like a website or blog – I can provide basic information about my research and link to the lab notebook on the wiki if people want more information. I have areas on Drexel Island and the American Chemical Society Island to share my lab’s work. My organic chemistry students also do projects for class in Second Life. I think the most useful outcome of using Second Life is meeting new smart people with similar interests. I have met a few wonderful collaborators that way.
Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
The most memorable event at the conference was probably meeting Moshe Pritsker from the Journal of Visualized Experiments. He offered to send someone over to my lab to record a protocol – I still have to arrange that….
It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again in January.
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Check out all the interviews in this series.

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