Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Measuring Scientific Contributions on the Web

Michael Nielson (The Future of Science) has been writing some very interesting ideas about why scientists have been slow to adopt the use of information-technology as a means to distribute their work and to invite collaboration.

He cites the failures of significant efforts to foster online collaboration and communication. For example, the journal, Nature, launched an open commentary section on their website to foster discussion among scientists about papers published. Nature terminated the effort when the site failed to get many comments. The final report on the site stated, “…there is a marked reluctance among scientists to offer open comments.”

Neilson suggests that there are two major problems that prevent web-based scientific publishing and collaboration—a lack of software and cultural practices within the scientific community that prevent open sharing. He suggests that the second problem is the biggest problem.

He also notes that we don’t have good metrics for how to judge the value of online contributions:

1. What is the value of a blog post?
2. What is the value of a blog?
3. What is the value of a contribution to Wikipedia?
4. What is the meaning of having a webpage at the top of Google’s Page Rank?
5. What is the value of your lecture on YouTube?

These are tough questions to answer, but it seems to me that we have to begin to provide some best guesses and take this type of work into account in making judgments about the quality and quantity of scientific work. Failing to do this will only harm science and education because our best work will not be available in easily accessible ways.

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