The Evolution of the Virtual Researcher
Peter J Stogios works at the University of Toronto and is a PhD Biochemist.
The rapid development of networking technologies and social media has had profound transformational impacts on every industry and pursuit. Scientific research is certainly not excluded; we are in the midst of a revolution in the way scientists interact, share data and share ideas.
Historically, the scientific conference was the key venue for the dissemination and exchange of ideas and more importantly for meeting fellow researchers that are often scattered across the world. At a conference I recently attended, I conversed with researchers whose work that I had read but never met in person. I had a very basic impression of whom they were but meeting them in person did not match my expectations. It turns out reading their papers wasn’t sufficient to connect with them as researchers at all. Having conversations about science (and also about non-science topics) expanded the sharing of thoughts and ideas that wasn’t possible simply through papers.
Researchers are increasingly becoming digitized – but do we know all the effects?
This experience sparked some thoughts in a corner of my subconscious. I have many collaborators and many more competitors that I have never met in person. In today’s scientific community, I think this is typical; we do not personally know all of our collaborators, competitors, advisors, funders, communicators, or the myriad of other people involved in the research enterprise. Yet we likely have read about these people or read their work online.
So who cares? Does it matter if we do not know the people involved in our work offline? Is this a problem?
I am not convinced we understand as a community what are the ramifications of “virtualizing” research and researchers. The implications of digitizing research science and increasingly “removing” in-person connections between researchers like the experience I described aren’t clear to me.
Can we answer the following questions: Is it necessary to know these people “in real life” or is a “virtual connection” sufficient? In what ways does digitizing science help scientific progress, and in what ways is it hindering? In what ways is “virtualizing” researchers helping their career development, and in what ways is it not?
The many pros of digitizing science
The largest benefit provided by moving scientific research results, communication and researcher profiles online is to initiate and facilitate connections. Whether they are “real” in the sense of forming substantial, lasting connections between scientists is, however, not apparent to me. Yet obviously, communicating with fellow researchers whom we may meet in person provides numerous opportunities. For example, my Researchgate profile is followed by many people I have never met. I am assuming they are reading my work, digesting it, transferring the knowledge I generated to their own work, and then applying that knowledge in their own research questions. My papers are read and cited by many more that may never have found my work had it been confined to print journals and thus my work would have much more of an impact than in the pre-internet era.
The digitizing of science also allows for connections to non-scientists: to funding agencies, media organizations, or directly to the public via institutional websites and researcher profiles, or via forums, blogs, social networking tools. This connectivity is essential for advancing scientific knowledge outside of the silos that generated it, for public education, for funding advocacy and many more non-technical requirements to support the research enterprise. I am not sure scientific progress could be communicated with such ease and with such coverage across the world without internet technology.
Finally, digitizing science facilitates access to a wealth of research data in ways that a scientist only 50 years ago could only dream of. With modern networking technologies, the barriers to finding data are vastly decreased: we share large datasets via public repositories; we share presentations and talks easily; we provide protocols, instructions and details for our work that could previously only be shared by word of mouth.
The downsides of virtualizing research
While clearly there are many benefits to the digitizing of science and the “virtualizing” of researchers, to me the major drawback is that the communication that occurs online has little resemblance to how we communicate in person.
Non-verbal cues are important in interpersonal communication and making connections. These are lost online; think of how many times you’ve misconstrued the words in an email. Many researchers prefer to talk business “over a beer”, or over a meal, or in another casual setting. I fail to see how online interactions can reproduce the directness, transparency and personal connectedness we feel offline.
Research studies are increasingly showing that time spent online is having effects on our ability to form and keep basic connections between people (http://nyti.ms/1kHI6OP, http://cbsloc.al/1hOb3HI, http://onforb.es/1C7bfJx). Texting does not replace a phone call; email does not replace a real conversation. Similarly, in my experience, conversations with collaborators exclusively via email, or reading their research papers but never having met them or heard them give a talk about that work are poor substitutes for face-to-face interactions.
Disturbingly, ongoing research has shown that neurological connections are molded by online activities due to the inherent neuroplasticity in neural networks. For example, our brains are being “rewired” to better respond to repeated use of our thumbs when using our smartphones (http://bit.ly/1IqMuOD), clear evidence that our brains are adapting according to how we access information.
I wonder if moving scientific data and its dissemination online, dramatically increasing its volume and complexity, and changing how we interact with research data is producing fundamental neurological changes. Anecdotally, in my experience, after digitizing my huge stacks of printed research papers, my ability to remember and access research facts has changed; I now rely on my literature management applications’ search capabilities to access the data. I’m not sure if this is a problem or not, yet I feel that the adaptation of our basic psychology towards breadth of information and ease of accessing it, at the sacrifice of depth of knowledge, will have long-term ramifications for how we do research.
Finally, when moving our personalities and work online we are faced with risks: what to share, and what not to share? There are no rules and we are learning as we go. It is a regular occurrence to read about careers being shattered by wrong words in a tweet. Privacy concerns are also critical; what information about our careers and personalities should we share, and how would that affect employability? Finally, researchers need to understand the legal and intellectual property implications from publishing their work; anything that is disseminated to the public becomes “prior art” (http://bit.ly/16UgdPt) and this creates a barrier to the advancement of that research towards commercial opportunity.
Clearly, we are beyond the “point of no return” in terms of the digitizing of scientific data, developing new methods of sharing and communicating this data, networking and advancing our careers online. This is how we interact as modern researchers and we cannot go back. I will continue to share my research, my writings and information about my career online but I am also increasingly aware of how this is changing how I do science and how my career will evolve.
We as researchers need to be aware that digitizing science provides both major advances and also perils. Researchers should be cognizant of these as we go forward with the inevitable. We need more research into how academic research is changing, how our work in the lab is evolving. This research should provoke the necessary debate and discussion so researchers understand what it means to digitize their science.