ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power

I know it’s been a couple of months now since the ScienceOnline’09 and I have reviewed only a couple of sessions I myself attended and did not do the others. I don’t know if I will ever make it to reviewing them one by one, but other people’s reviews on them are under the fold here. For my previous reviews of individual sessions, see this, this, this, this and this.
What I’d like to do today is pick up on a vibe I felt throughout the meeting. And that is the question of Power. The word has a number of dictionary meanings, but they are all related. I’ll try to relate them here and hope you correct my errors and add to the discussion in the comments here and on your own blogs.
Computing Power
Way back in history, scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were called then), did little experimentation and a lot of thinking. They kept most of their knowledge, information and ideas inside of their heads (until they wrote them down and published them in book form). They could easily access them, but there was definitely a limit to how much they could keep and how many different pieces they could access simultaneously.
A scientist who went out and got a bunch of notebooks and pencils and started writing down all that stuff in an organized and systematic manner could preserve and access much more information than others, thus be able to perform more experiments and observations than others, thus gaining a competitive advantage over others.
Electricity and gadgets allowed for even more – some degree of automation in data-gathering and storage. For instance, in my field, there is only so much an individual can do without automation. How long can you stay awake and go into your lab and do measurements on a regular basis? I did some experiments in which I did measurements every hour on the hour for 72 hours! That’s tough! All those 45min sleep bouts interrupted by 15min times for measurements, even as a couple of friends helped occasionally, were very exhausting.
But using an Esterline-Angus apparatus automated data-gathering and allowed researchers to sleep, thus enabling them to collect long-term behavioral data (collecting continuous recordings for weeks, months, even years) from a large number of animals. This enabled them to do much more with the same amount of time, space, money and manpower. This gave them a competitive advantage.
But still, Esterline-Angus data were on paper rolls. Those, one had to cut into strips, glue onto cardboard, photograph in order to make an actograph, then use manual tools like rulers and compasses and protractors to quantify and calculate the results (my PI did that early in his career and kept the equipment in the back room, to be shown to us whenever we complained that we were asked to do too much).
Having a computer made this much easier: automated data-collection by a computer, analyzed and graphed on that same computer, inserted into manuscripts written on that same computer. A computer can contain much more information than a human brain and, in comparison to notebooks, it is so much easier and quicker to search for and find the relevant information. That was definitely a competitive advantage as one could do many more experiments with the same amounts of time, space, money and manpower.
Enter the Web: it is not just one’s own data that one can use, but also everyone else’ data, information, ideas, publications, etc. Science moves from a collection of individual contributions to a communal (and global) pursuit – everyone contributes and everyone uses others’ contributions. This has a potential to exponentially speed up the progress of scientific research.
For this vision to work, all the information has to be freely available to all as well as machine-readable – thus necessity of Open Access (several sessions on this topic, of course) and Open Source. This sense of the word Power was used in sessions on the ‘Semantic Web in Science’, the ‘Community intelligence applied to gene annotation’, and several demos. Also, in the session on ‘Social Networking for Scientists’, this explains why, unlike on Facebook, it is the information (data) that is at the core. Data finds data. Subsequently, people will also find people. Trying to put people together first will not work in science where information is at the core, and personalities are secondary.
Power Relationships
In the examples above, you can already see a hierarchy based on power. A researcher who is fully integrated into the scientific community online and uses online databases and resources and gives as much as he/she takes, will have an advantage over an isolated researcher who uses the computer only offline and who, in comparison, has a competitive advantage over a person who uses mechanical devices instead of computers, who in turn does better than a person who only uses a pencil and paper, who beats out the guy who only sits (in a comfy armchair, somewhere in the Alps) and thinks.
Every introduction of new technologies upsets the power structure as formerly Top Dogs in the field may not be the quickest to adopt new technologies so they bite the dust when their formerly lesser colleagues do start using the new-fangled stuff. Again, important to note here, “generation” is a worldview, not age. It is not necessarily the young ones who jump into new technologies and old fogies do not: both the people who are quick to adopt new ways and the curmugeons who don’t can be found in all age groups.
Let’s now try to think of some traditional power relationships and the way the Web can change them. I would really like if people would go back to my older post on The Shock Value of Science Blogs for my thought on this, especially regarding the role of language in disrupting the power hierarchies (something also covered in our Rhetorics In Science session).
People on the top of the hierarchy are often those who control a precious resource. What are the precious resources in science? Funding. Jobs. Information. Publicity.
Funding and Jobs
Most of the funding in most countries comes from the government. But what if some of that funding is distributed equally? That upsets the power structure to some extent. Sure, one has to use the funds well in order to get additional (and bigger) funds, but still, this puts more people on a more even footing, giving them an initial trigger which they can use wisely or not. They will succeed due to the quality of their own work, not external factors as much.
Then, the Web also enables many more lay people to become citizen scientists. They do not even ask for funding, yet a lot of cool research gets done. With no control of the purse by government, industry, military or anyone else except for people who want to do it.
Like in Vernon Vinge’s Rainbows End, there are now ways for funders and researchers to directly find each other through services ranging from Mechanical Turk to Innocentive. The money changes hands on per-need basis, leaving the traditional purse-holders outside the loop.
As more and more journals and databases go Open Access, it is not just the privileged insiders who can access the information. Everyone everywhere can get the information and subsequently do something with it: use it in own research, or in application of research to real-world problems (e.g., practicing medicine), or disseminating it further, e.g., in an educational setting.
In a traditional system, getting publicity was expensive. It took a well-funded operation to be able to buy the presses, paper, ink, delivery trucks etc. Today, everyone with access to electricity, a computer (or even a mobile device like a cell phone) and online access (all three together are relatively cheap) can publish, with a single click. Instead of pre-publication filtering (editors) we now have post-publication filtering (some done by machines, some by humans). The High Priests who decided what could be published in the first place are now reduced to checking the spelling and grammar. It is the community as a whole that decides what is worth reading and promoting, and what is not.
In a world in which sources can go directly to the audience, including scientists talking directly to their audience, the role of middle-man is much weakened. Journal editors, magazine editors, newspaper editors, even book editors (and we had a separate session on each one of these topics), while still having power to prevent you from publishing in elite places, cannot any more prevent you from publishing at all. No book deal? Publish with No magazine deal? Write a blog. No acceptance into a journal? Do Open Notebook Science to begin with, to build a reputatiton, then try again. If your stuff is crap, people will quickly tell you and will tell others your stuff is crap, and will vote with their feet by depriving you of links, traffic, audience and respect.
You can now go directly to your audience. You can, by consistently writing high quality stuff, turn your own website or blog into an “elite place”. And, as people are highly unlikely to pay for any content online any more, everything that is behind a pay wall will quickly drop into irrelevance.
Thus, one can now gain respect, reputation and authority through one’s writing online: in OA journals, on a blog, in comment threads, or by commenting on scientific papers. As I mentioned in The Shock Value of Science Blogs post, this tends to break the Old Boys’ Clubs, allowing women, minorities and people outside of Western elite universities, to become equal players.
Language is important. Every time an Old Boy tries to put you down and tell you to be quiet by asking you to “be polite”, you can blast back with a big juicy F-word. His aggressive response to this will just expose him for who he is and will detract from his reputation – in other words, every time an Old Boy makes a hissy fit about your “lack of politeness” (aka preserving the status quo in which he is the Top Dog), he digs himself deeper and becomes a laughingstock. Just like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do to politicians with dinosaur ideas and curmudgeon journalists who use the He Said She Said mode of reporting. It is scary to do, but it is a win-win for you long-term. Forcing the old fogies to show their true colors will speed up their decline into irrelevance.
Another aspect of the Power on the Web is that a large enough group of people writing online can have an effect that were impossible in earlier eras. For instance, it is possible to bait a person to ruin his reputation on Google. It is also possible to affect legislation (yes, bloggers and readers, by calling their offices 24/7, persuaded the Senators to vote Yes). This is a power we are not always aware of when we write something online, and we need to be more cognizant of it and use it wisely (something we discussed in the session about Science Blogging Networks: how being on such a platform increases one’s power to do good or bad).
The session on the state of science in developing and transition countries brought out the reality that in some countries the scientific system is so small, so sclerotic, so set in their ways and so dominated by the Old Boys, that it is practically impossible to change it from within. In that case one can attempt to build a separate, parallel scientific community which will, over time and through use of modern tools, displace the old system. If the Old Boys in their example of Serbia are all at the University of Belgrade, then people working in private institutes, smaller universities, or even brand new private universities (hopefully with some consistent long-term help from the outside), can build a new scientific community and leave the old one in the dust.
Teachers used to be founts of knowledge. This was their source of power. But today, the kids have all the information at their fingertips. This will completely change the job description of a teacher. Instead of a source of information, the teacher will be a guide to the use of information: evaluation of the quality of information. Thus, instead of a top-down approach, the teachers and students will become co-travellers through the growing sea of information, learning from one another how to navigate it. This is definitely a big change in power relationship between teachers and their charges. We had three sessions on science education that made this point in one way or another.
And this is a key insight, really. Not just in education, but also in research and publishing, the Web is turning a competitive world into a collaborative world. Our contributions to the community (how much we give) will be more important for our reputation (and thus job and career) than products of our individual, secretive lab research.
Yet, how do we ensure that the change in the power-structure becomes more democratic and now just a replacement of one hierarchy with another?
Coverage of other sessions under the fold:

Open Access in developed and the countries in transition:Net/notworking in the networked world, the paradox of our times
Danica, on Slideshare: Not/Networking, open access in developed and countries in transition Session
Social networking for scientists ScienceOnline09: Social Networks for Scientists
HASTAC blogs: Liveblogging Science Online ’09: Social networks for scientists
Knowledge Sharing: ScienceOnline’09: Social Networks for Scientists
Deep Thoughts and Silliness: Semi-live Blogging Scienceonline09: Day 1
Science in the open: A funny thing happened on the (way to the) forum
Expression Patterns: ScienceOnline09 – Day 2
Christina’s LIS Rant: Science Online ’09: Saturday PM
Nobel Intent: Science Online 09: (social) network failure
Gobbledygook: Interview with Kevin Emamy
Online science for the kids (and parents)
Ideonexus: ScienceOnline09: Science Online for Kids (and Parents)
Highly Allochthonous: ScienceOnline Day 1: generalised ramblings
How to become a (paid) science journalist: advice for bloggers
Culture Dish: Documents for my ScienceOnline 09 Getting Published Talk
Pondering Pikaia: ScienceOnline09 Conference Update
Laelaps: SciOnline’09 and the future of Laelaps SO’09: The structure of a Saturday
Confessions of a Science Librarian: ScienceOnline ’09: Saturday summary
Deep Sea News: Science Online ’09: From Blogging to Paying Bills
Reputation, authority and incentives. Or: How to get rid of the Impact Factor
McBlawg: Science Online ’09 – How was it…. via the internet?
Science in the open: A specialist OpenID service to provide unique researcher IDs?
The Scientist NewsBlog: New Impact Metric
Open Access News: PLoS ONE will offer more impact-related data on articles ScienceOnline09: How to get rid of the impact factor Is a replacement for impact factors in research evaluation on the way?
Christina’s LIS Rant: Science Online ’09: Sunday AM
Confessions of a Science Librarian: ScienceOnline ’09: Sunday summary and final thoughts
Nobel Intent: ScienceOnline 09: Beyond the valley of the impact factor
Blogging101 – how to get started
Nature blogging
Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted): Nature Blogging 101
Deep Thoughts and Silliness: Semi-live Blogging Scienceonline09: Day 2
Highly Allochthonous: ScienceOnline Day 2: generalised ramblings
TGAW: iNaturalist: East Coast vs. West Coast
Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted): Nature Blogging 101 Session: Attendee Responses
Ideonexus: ScienceOnline09: Nature Blogging
Deep Sea News: Science Online ’09: Nature Blogging
A DC Birding Blog: Questions on Nature Blogging
Nature Blog Network: Nature Blogging at ScienceOnline09
Providing public health and medical information to all
Gobbledygook: ScienceOnline09: Providing public health and medical information to all
Christina’s LIS Rant: Science Online ’09: Sunday AM
How to search scientific literature
Christina’s LIS Rant: Science Online ’09: Searching the Scientific Literature
Deep Thoughts and Silliness: Semi-live Blogging Scienceonline09: Day 2
The Logical Operator: Teaching Library Stuff
Confessions of a Science Librarian: ScienceOnline ’09: Sunday summary and final thoughts
How to paint your own blog images
The Flying Trilobite: Things I don’t blog about
Science blogging networks – what works, what does not?
Highly Allochthonous: ScienceOnline Day 2: generalised ramblings
Ideonexus: ScienceOnline09: Science Blog Networks, What Works, What Doesn’t
The End Of The Pier Show: Come Out From Under There: We Won’t Bite
Deep Thoughts and Silliness: Reflections on ScienceOnline09
Expression Patterns: ScienceOnline09 – Day 3

6 responses to “ScienceOnline’09 – Saturday 4:30pm and beyond: the Question of Power

  1. What are the precious resources in science? Funding. Jobs. Information. Publicity.
    I’ve started a little (very little) twitter meme asking: “what is missing from this list?”
    Responses so far:
    @kejames (that’s me): Pipettes.
    @bordadoingles: Coffee.

  2. wow great. I can relate on so many levels.
    Publishing power – I recently had a manuscript rejected. Themajor critigue is that I didn’t run a model simulation of a hypothesis I propose. I’m not modeler. Not that the comments weren’t fair, but it was more of a philosphical paper and that got me thinking. Are our ideas about science no longer worthy of discussion if there isn’t a complete experiment – real or simulated – to prove it? What happened to healthy debate and consideration in science dialogue.
    Education/Language/Citizen Scientiststs: I often get some push back (not alot, but when it comes on it’s real) when I use lay language to discuss science. My primary audience are lay people (which includes students), so what’s wrong with plain language? All of the jargon scares many people away, particularly minorities, 1st gen college attendees, etc. I get a little ruffled, as you may be able to tell.

  3. Eh? What has this to do with Cilantro?

  4. Yet, how do we ensure that the change in the power-structure becomes more democratic and now just a replacement of one hierarchy with another?

    I doubt that’s possible. the practical problem with a lot of what you’re writing about is that it is very easy to publish on the web, but that means that there is so much stuff out there that it becomes difficult to filter out what is relevant or interesting. The people who filter become the ones with power. You only have to look at people’s hits when PZed links to them to see this. The way the hierarchy is chosen is more democratic, but in terms of getting one’s work read, you generally still need to get some human filter to approve of it.

  5. All right, Bora. If you insist on being provocative, you will sometimes provoke. 🙂

  6. You can, by consistently writing high quality stuff, turn your own website or blog into an “elite place”.

    We’ll just see if that’s true. (You should see my pageserve reports. Still, it’s only the beginning for my blog.)