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Science Online: Information Sharing First; The Medium Is Not The Message

Recently, several geobloggers brought up an excellent point on science communication: Now that it has been established that researchers need to do more outreach to share their work, HOW? The barriers are plenty – sharing on the internet takes energy, time, some understanding of the different online outlets, putting words together in an explanatory and not officious manner and, most critically in my opinion, the inclination to share what you know to the extent that you can – and you end up with folks walking away saying “blogging shmogging.” Whether in academia or private industry, scientists find it much easier to plow on through their work, teach their immediate co-workers and apprentices verbally, share with the powers that be via slideshows, internal white papers or external, limited-access journal articles and call it a day. Note that “documenting work in a meaningful way” and “sharing findings with a wider audience” are not listed above, as there is no apparent intellectual or monetary reward for doing so. This is why I believe a philosophy of and personal value for “maximum knowledge to and from maximum people” has to be established first. From that place, the methods of communication (online or off) become secondary and much easier to choose from based on the information that needs sharing.

There are practical reasons for information sharing as well: Making more of you and getting as many people knowledgeable in, if not excited about, what you do so that they send or vote money your way. Sharing online doesn’t just mean talking, it means a lot of listening, too. This is a great source of information, ideas and critique for your own work. Take the following interchange between Matt Kuchta, a professor of geology and myself, an industry geophysicist:

A very basic example, but one with a point: In the span of ten or so tweets, I challenged Matt’s rendering of the transition between continental and oceanic lithosphere with a suggestion, Matt challenged me back, we alluded to the lack/scarcity of outcrop, I pointed out that an alternate indicator is new, deeper seismic and Matt kept and changed portions of his interpretation. We could have done this over email, but more people benefit and can join in from holding the exchange on Twitter following which I can record the dialogue here on my blog (or on Storify) for future reference.

How much to share, how and where: Lockwood Dewitt has written a great post about why he started his blog and how he keeps it going: “Blogging takes exactly the amount of time you want it to.” I extend that to sharing takes exactly the amount of time you want it to. If you don’t want to start a blog, get going with a low-energy-for-entry outlet like Twitter and use it to write a few words on your topic and post a link to the details. From there, try very hard to respond to those who ask questions about your post and manage your interactions, which  can be intimidating but only for those who let it be.

Once here, you will hear all kinds of things about the means or media of communication: Print is extinct! Online is the way to go! The blog is dead! Long live the blog tweet tweet! No, hark! The revival of long-form writing online. Blogger or Tumblr? All hail!

Whatever. Blessed with increasing methods of communication, I don’t see a reason to find the Grand Unified Medium. Use them all. The point is to communicate and share as much as possible – through print and online, blog and tweet, FB post and Instagram picture – even if you end up being redundant. There is no such thing as too much information sharing. And here is what I mean by establishing a personal morality of learning and sharing widely, i.e. increasing the awareness of self and others as its own end, before anything else can happen.

(Something I will address later with a compare and contrast is why it’s worth investing in your own blog space if that’s where you want to head. Short answer: Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. don’t belong to you and can be taken away at any time.)

What to share: I am a geoblogger, but this isn’t a geoblog. If you go through these here archives, I write about travel, New Orleans, food, science, politics, being brown, being female and brown, Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers, family, history, injustice and assorted boondoggles. There is no rule that states that you have to blog on a certain topic inside a specific genre. That’s what blog categories and specific RSS feeds are for. Sure, there are folks who don’t follow me on Twitter because all of my tweets aren’t about geology. They have their reasons, while I have my priorities. You won’t please everyone, but if you’re in it for a popularity contest, you’ve forgotten the whole reason for being here: to learn, share what you know, broaden your outlook and hopefully meet other like-minded people.

Confidentiality and openness: Sharing is also hard to do if a lot of the work you do is competitive and/or proprietary, but there are tenets and techniques of your science or specialty that you can discuss. For instance, I cannot divulge what I work on in the office, but can and will gladly write an explanation of Seismic Inversion For The Non-Geoscientist here or anywhere else. Another ideal that information sharing helps along is Open – open data, open results, open access. Matt Hall also works for the energy industry and I agree with his assessment that it “has a lot of catching up to do. Humanity is faced with difficult, pressing problems in energy production and usage, yet our industry remains as secretive and proprietary as ever.” In a similar vein, I’ve postulated here that “the crux of the problem is that the business ends of academia, companies and software providers are at odds with their more important aspects of teaching, finding oil and creative solutions.” The more we share (what we can), the more the results happen here and are available to a wider audience.

You will notice that, ultimately, all of this leads not just to talking about science online, but doing science in a wider framework. Funny, that’s what the internet was built for in the first place.

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As long as you want to be here and can handle it, it’s not that bad and actually pretty good. If nothing else, I’ve made good friends. Should you want to start your own blog/Twitter feed/online outlet (or just want to discuss this whole business of sharing), please leave a comment below and I will either help you or find someone who can.

1 comment… add one

  • Matteo February 27, 2013, 2:38 AM

    Hi Maitri

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on this. Great post. I like the geo-example, but my favourite bit is the Lockwood Dewitt quote.
    Also, I never thought about the possibility of twitter and other media been taken away. Good point: if you start a blog, you own that arena.

    I started blogging a year or so ago. Initially with the desire to share my ideas on visualization in geoscience, then on other topics. Along the road, I stumbled onto many cool blogs, about science and other topics, I got to know great people, wrote some papers, and helped someone else get started with their own blog, which felt hugely rewarding. But above everything, I learned a lot and had fun.

    PS on the slightly off topic of designing a blog, I love your header image!

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