Web 2.0

The other blog where I write, The Scholarly Kitchen, has been nominated for a Webby, a fairly prestigious award in the online world. Since the winner is determined by the voting public, and since we’re up against some seriously stiff competition (including the NY Times and Wall Street Journal), your help would be greatly appreciated. You can vote for us here. Voting does require you to complete a short registration process. You can only vote once per email address. Voting ends April 29th, and results will be announced May 4th (a visual tutorial on how to vote can be found here).
From the Society for Scholarly Publishing:

On behalf of the SSP leadership, we are very proud that our community has generated a vehicle as widely recognized and effective as the Scholarly Kitchen. Now, we have an opportunity to increase the awareness of the SSP, the Scholarly Kitchen, and scholarly publishing in general.

Thanks in advance for your help!

I’ve recently written two pieces on scientists and social networks over at my other blogging gig, and thought they might be of interest to readers here:

Scientists Still Not Joining Social Networks


NIH Funds a Social Network for Scientists–Is It Likely to Succeed?

Although many feel that RSS is dead, I still find it to be a highly useful tool for finding new interesting reading material. As such, we’re happy to announce some new functionality in Cold Spring Harbor Protocols involving our RSS feeds that send out alerts when new articles are published. Previously you could only sign up for RSS feeds for article types–protocols, emerging model organisms, etc. Now you can sign up for notice of new material by subject area. This will let you see when new protocols are available in your specific subject area, whether it’s Genome Analysis, Imaging Development or Plant Cell Culture. For those more reliant on e-mail than RSS feeds, remember you can sign up for a wide variety of alerts by table of contents, subject, citation, keyword or author.

Time to catch up on some interesting links:

The End Of Free
Last week’s posting at the Scholarly Kitchen, discussing the idea of using free content as a marketing tool, and how some uses are reaching the end of their usefulness. I have a new blog entry there that will be out on Monday discussing Microsoft’s Bing and Google’s Wave.

Teen Practices

Very interesting set of observations of how teenagers use technology. Twitter and e-mail are boring things that old people use. Once again proving the idea that different tools are appropriate at different stages of one’s life and social development. This study backs it up with more numbers.

Landmark study: DRM truly does make pirates out of us all

A few weeks back, I wrote about the Kindle’s DRM:

By providing a product that suffers the limitations of lock-in and prevents users from doing the things they’re used to doing with books, Amazon is encouraging potentially honest customers to become copyright infringers.

This study offers further evidence for such behavior, and argues against DRM.

If Research Papers Had A Comments Section
A cautionary tale, in cartoon form.

Another Blogger Leaves the Seed Blogs
Some dissension in the ranks over at ScienceBlogs. Like we’re seeing at the Nature Networks, these clubhouses are hitting some rough waters.

For Wired, a Revival Lacks Ads
Interesting article on Wired Magazine’s struggles. It notes that Chris Anderson of “Long Tail” fame seems to make around $35-50,000 per lecture he gives to businesses. Ironic in that the concepts he champions seem to be failing at the actual business he runs.

And it wouldn’t be right to end one of these without some Web 2.0 cynicism/snark. So I’ll offer up Conan O’Brien’s painfully accurate Twitter Tracker, and this lovely Social Media Venn Diagram t-shirt.

More interesting articles from the last week or so……

The Comment Is King

A look at comments left on articles in The Washington Post and Slate, which does not bode well for those of us interested in creating commenting systems for science articles.

Will Wolfram make bioinformatics obsolete?
Interesting piece on the potential for Wolfram Alpha to be used as a much easier interface for bioinformatics questions.

Clay Shirky Debunks the WSJ’s “Bloggers For Hire” Feature
The increasingly ubiquitous Clay Shirky does a detailed analysis of Mark Penn’s Wall Street Journal article claiming that there are hordes of people who make their living blogging. Shirky’s pretty much shreds the poorly researched nonsense to pieces.

Too much free
Seth Godin notes that giving away your book or e-book (or whatever) for free is losing its novelty value as a marketing technique.

Wikipedia hoax points to limits of journalists’ research

Two good points made here. 1) Wikipedia is completely untrustworthy, and 2) newspapers continue to hasten their own doom by lowering the quality of journalism they perform.

Kindle wrap-up
New Kindle was announced this week, bigger, even more absurdly expensive, still black and white (which makes it a non-starter for textbooks). Hard to understand why students who are pretty much required to have laptops these days would want an extra big bulky device to lug around as well.
The Kindle Lets Amazon Make a Lot From the Few
Speculation on the Kindle’s business model. Steve Jobs was right, not enough people read to make lots of money selling a device, but Amazon thinks that small group of people will buy lots and lots of e-books, which is where the profit lies.
Publishers Nurture Rivals to Kindle
Meanwhile, publishers are unhappy with Amazon, looking to avoid turning control of their industry over to one company and repeating the mistake the music industry made in ceding control to Apple.

Google book settlement has librarians worried
Librarians weigh in on the increasingly problematic Google Book Settlement.

The Extreme Google Brain
Google’s lead designer left the company recently, and caused a stir with his revelations of how anti-design the company seems to be. This analysis looks at the extreme personality types that thrive in places like Google, and I couldn’t resist this vicious and hilarious description:

My impression of “Googlers,” which I concede is based on little direct knowledge and is prejudicial on its face, is one of undersocialized, uncultured, pampered, arrogant faux-savants who have cultivated an arrested adolescence that the Google working environment further nurtures. Their computer-programming skills, the sole skills valued by the company, camouflage the flaws of their neuroanatomy. Their brains are beautifully suited to the genteel eugenics program that is the Google hiring process but are broken for real-world use.

A bit of a follow-up to last week’s posting on Twitter, which seemed to come out as part of a society-wide post-Oprah/Ashton Twitter backlash.

When assessing something like Twitter, I think it’s important to remember that it’s just a tool, and as David Pogue has written, it is whatever you make of it. My objection is not so much with the tool itself, but to the way it’s being used, or at least the way so many are advising that I use it. I do understand that there is a power in Twitter, in both its immediacy and its accessibility. And that it can be a very valuable tool when used in a correct context. Cameron Neylon gives a great example of a specific situation where Twitter was very handy. He describes an ad hoc group put together to discuss a webcast meeting that led to the organization of a new meeting on the subject. Twitter worked well because people could contact one another in real-time, and more importantly, a widespread group was able to find one another to connect. It’s interesting to note that Neylon and his group needed to move beyond Twitter to other tools better suited for their efforts. While the 140 character limit is often pitched as a “feature” of Twitter, in reality, it’s a drawback to serious conversation and the communication of information. It either leads to shallow discussions or to kludgy workarounds like sending shortened URLs of webpages where you’ve written out what you actually want to say.

The issue isn’t with using something like Twitter in that sort of situation, where it’s appropriate and useful. The issue is with the idea that we’re all supposed to subscribe to one another’s tweets and spend chunks of our day reading through the gibberish that makes up so much of Twitter’s traffic. The telephone is also a useful tool, but no one is suggesting you leave the speakerphone on in your office all day to listen to the idle conversations of strangers. The stereotype so often used to deride Twitter is someone sending out messages about what they are having for breakfast. Jason Kottke attempts to defend the banality in so much of Twitter by noting that people are inherently banal, so trivial and meaningless conversations are to be expected. The problem I have with this is understanding why I would deliberately subject myself to even more banality than I face in my real life. Yes, we all generate and tolerate a good deal of smalltalk in our lives. But do we want to commit extra time to collecting more of it? Is it somehow more meaningful if it comes from a famous or respected person? Am I supposed to get off on the frisson of knowing what Ashton Kutcher is watching on tv?

Like most working professionals, I am limited in my time and attention, and need to spend both judiciously. While serendipity can lead to interesting new directions, it’s a highly inefficient process and directed methods are always going to be preferred where possible. So Twitter strikes me as a tool that can prove useful in a directed manner in specific situations. It’s the idea of using it for sorting haystacks for needles that strikes me as uninteresting.

Haven’t done one of these for a while, so here’s a few recent bookmarks of interest:

Kindle Failings Serve as Early Warning
I’ve got a new gig, well, sort of. I’ve been invited to join the crew at the Scholarly Kitchen, so I’ll be posting there occasionally when I have something relevant to say. My first post was a summary of who I am and what I’ve written about over here. This is my first original post over there, on worries about DRM and how we’re conditioning e-book buyers to act like illegal music downloaders.

America’s Newest Profession: Bloggers for Hire
The Wall Street Journal’s Mark Penn writes a laughably implausible article on how all us bloggers are getting rich. Makes me want to load up the truck and move to Beverly. The comments on his article set him straight, as have other bloggers.

Ford Bets the Fiesta on Social Networking
Ford gives 100 “millenials” a car and makes them Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr about their experiences. Do companies really expect efforts like this to work? If only they’d read this article first, This is how Social Media really works:

So maybe instead of getting your company on twitter, paying marketers to mention you are on twitter, and paying people to blog about your company, forget all that and just make awesome stuff that gets people excited about your products, hire people that represent the company well, and when your stuff is so awesome that friends share it with other friends, you may not even need “social media marketing” after all.

And finishing up with some follow-up to my recent Twitter rant, we have Maureen Dowd calling Twitter, “a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls” (found via The Intersection), web-strategist Jeremiah Owyang predicting that alpha-geek early adopters will move on to the next thing as Twitter enters the mainstream, and best of all, the genius of Keith Starky Explains Twitter an in-depth analysis of what Twitterers are really saying with the medium.

This week saw some interesting criticisms of Twitter, which helped reinforce some of my own biases against bothering with it. Science blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum weighed in on her oath to never use Twitter:

Welcome to generation ADD….Privacy is so last millenium.
Well call me old fashioned, but I draw the line at Twitter. Yes folks, the rumors are true. Physioprof and I have made a pact. We will never ever Twitter. It’s time to slow things down a notch. We want to enjoy a few moments disconnected. No electricity required, batteries not included.

Elsewhere, Clay Shirky has an introspective piece about the fallout from Amazon’s recent glitch where “adult”material was removed from their ranking systems, which led to widespread furor in the Twittersphere that discrimination was afoot:

Though the #amazonfail event is important for several reasons, I can’t write about it dispassionately, because I was an enthusiastic participant in its use on Sunday. I was wrong, because I believed things that weren’t true…Those are good conversations to have, we need to have them, but they are not conversations that would enrage thousands of people in the space of a few hours and kick off calls for boycotts and worse.”

Twitter is essentially a public Instant Messaging (IM) system, one where your messages can be read by anyone interested, and you can join in the conversation anyone else is having. For me, that’s the main reason I find the concept unappealing–I’ve never been a big fan of IM. I tried to give it a go back in the days of AOL/IM and found it incredibly annoying. Even with a limited group of contacts, the constant chiming from my desktop was so distracting and interruptive that I found it difficult to get anything done. Twitter strikes me as the same thing multiplied by several powers of ten. I screen my calls as well, by the way.

I know, I know, I’m missing out and I’m an old fogey stuck in the past. So be it. We each have our own time constraints and workflows. I do understand the appeal of chatting online with strangers. I used to be a huge user of usenet back in the day, and enjoyed being a part of the community discussing my favorite basketball team or whatever tv show/music I was listening to at the time. But that was back when I was very early in my graduate career, was still working my way into a research project, and had time to kill. As we get older and gain responsibilities, both career and family, time for such things gets smaller and smaller. As I progressed through graduate school and got closer and closer to my degree, my time spent in newsgroups grew smaller and smaller until I abandoned them altogether. And that’s something that worries me about most of these Web 2.0 mediums (media?) for science–that they’re going to be dominated and used mostly by those with the most time on their hands, and subsequently the least interesting things to say. Here’s a good example of someone reaching the tipping point, realizing where blogging stands in his list of priorities and considering letting it go.

Kirshenbaum makes good points about both the banality of much of what’s posted, and the exhibitionism and odd willingness to give up all sense of privacy by many users. I’ve written about boundaries before, they’re important, and you won’t find me going on about my private life or family in this blog. I don’t have a Facebook or Myspace page. It’s really none of your business. The linked Wired article in that previous blog posting should give you a sense of how easy it is to connect geo-tagged information to the real world, and I expect we’ll see some unpleasant incidents in the near future that begin to change attitudes towards being so open.

There’s also a certain laziness that Twitter seems to breed. While one constantly reads about the incredible discipline needed to edit posts to 140 characters, no one seems to mention the massive quantity of those disciplined 140 character messages that are generated. Merlin Mann describes it as “raging id”. I don’t really have the time nor the desire to read an unchecked stream of consciousness from most people. Several of the bloggers whose writing I enjoy are spending more time on Twitter than on their blogs as of late (John Hodgman for one, Neil Gaiman for another). While both are superb writers, neither generates anything I’m interested in reading via Twitter. I do understand why we’re seeing this shift, it’s easier to just spew out a thought off the top of your head than to sit and spend an hour (or hours) fully fleshing out an idea. Which is why I think it’s a lazy medium (I’m not alone in this). Even famous and talented folks just aren’t all that exciting and clever if you’re being hit with a splatter of every single thought they have. If you want my valuable attention, then you need to do a little work Edit it down, keep the good bits, and develop those ideas further. The raw material is just blather, and frankly, I don’t have a lot of time to listen to other people blathering. You’re just not that interesting.

The other noted advantage of Twitter is the “timeliness”. You can find rave after rave about how we learned about the plane landing in the Hudson or the Mumbai crisis from Twitter before the news networks had full reports on what was happening. So what. Unless you had a relative on that plane or staying in that hotel, would it have affected your life if you had to wait a few hours before knowing the story there? Kirshenbaum calls this “Generation ADD” (I prefer “Generation Now”). I guess this rampant voyeurism is the counterbalance to the rampant exhibitionism mentioned above. Shirky’s article points out how this immediacy can lead to sweeping mob movements based on incorrect and incomplete information. Amazon has apparently suffered from a threatened boycott and massive amounts of negative publicity based on false assumptions.

Even those heavily invested in Twitter advise that you shouldn’t try to read everything, that you should take time off. I’ve been told repeatedly that the key to managing information flow in this day and age is the use of powerful filters, perhaps the most powerful being that you don’t have to join in and use every technology simply because it exists. Usenet, in its time, was highly influential and great fun. But no, you’re not suffering now because you didn’t use it. Something else came along and replaced it, and something then replaced that. If you have the time and interest to join in, well, good for you. It’s an investment I can’t make and it’s good to know I’m not alone in this.

I’ll leave you with this funny, but impressively accurate list of Why Twitter is Evil.

I sort of feel like this blog has taken a negative turn as of late–I’ve been busier shooting down what I see as hype and impracticality lately than I have been at presenting positive suggestions. With that in mind, AJ Cann at the Science of the Invisible blog has given us the following homework assignment:

Compare and contrast Crotty’s “Magical Thinking” response to open content with Ellis’ attitudes to “(Selling) content in a networked age“. From the perspective of a contemporary observer, use these examples to illustrate the “content wars” of the early 21st century and explain how our present concept of ownership emerged.

So here’s my essay to complete the assignment. Hopefully this will be graded on a curve. Since I’m just auditing this course, I’m going to ignore the second half of the assignment on “content wars” (there’s a loaded phrase just waiting to inflame the passionate) and concentrate on comparing and contrasting the articles:

The two articles are philosophically similar. They share a common message, that giving away the fruits of one’s labors in a haphazard and thoughtless manner is not sustainable. Both argue that authors and publishers should see some reward for their work. Crotty’s essay is more limited, he’s merely pointing out the impracticalities of the “everything should be free” argument, while Ellis’ is more forward-thinking in suggesting ways that some material can be given away freely in order to generate even greater financial recompense for the author’s work. It should be pointed out that in other blog entries, Crotty, like Ellis, suggests that new business models and new ways of handling content should be experimented with. Crotty, in fact, runs a scientific journal that is performing a set of those experiments (discussed below).

Though Crotty’s piece is more limited, it does not suffer some of the weaknesses of Ellis’. Ellis’ essay is reminiscent of this piece in some ways, he’s describing a problem that’s fairly obvious, but doesn’t offer practical solutions other than to try a bunch of stuff and maybe some of it will work. That’s a common thread seen these days in the blogosphere and there’s not a whole lot that’s new offered by Ellis. Original thinking is needed here to invent new business models, and merely pointing out that experimentation is necessary is not terribly insightful. “Free PDFs/Paid books” is not a viable option for a scientific journal, where the lifeblood is the pdf itself. Ellis suggests that experiments need to take place in a manner where their results can be directly measured, but this is easier said than done, and again, no practical solutions are offered. Often it’s difficult to directly correlate a marketing activity with sales activity. For an example, at CSH Protocols, we make a portion of our articles freely available each month. These articles certainly see a higher readership than most (but not all) of our subscriber-only articles. But do they lead to increased institutional subscriptions? It’s hard to say. We’re certainly steadily increasing our subscriber base, but there’s no way to measure the direct effect of the free articles on this. I suppose we could eliminate the free articles for a period and look for a decrease in subscription uptake, but that seems like shooting ourselves in the foot just to prove a point (or to mix a metaphor).

So what are Crotty and colleagues at CSHL Press doing that’s a positive approach despite all of his negative articles on why other people are wrong? Let’s take a look at the journal he currently runs, Cold Spring Harbor Protocols. First off, the journal itself is an experiment, an attempt to move a 30-plus year scientific manual publishing program out of the print world and into the electronic world. CSHL Press has long been well-known for the high quality laboratory manuals published, but younger students are less likely to seek experimental methods on the lab’s bookshelf, they want to find them online. Hence, the journal was created in mid-2006. Taking advantage of the electronic medium, the protocols in the journal are regularly updated when needed, and all share a common database of cautions and recipes that are under constant revision.

CSH Protocols also experiments heavily with giving away content for free. Approximately 10% of the total journal content is made permanently freely available to all readers, suscribers and non-subscribers alike. Each month, two articles are chosen as “featured articles” by the editor and these are available to all. As noted above, it’s unclear how this has affected subscriptions, though it’s probably safe to say that it hasn’t hurt them. At the same time, it’s increased the size of our readership (the free articles are usually read more often than most subscription-only articles), increased the number of places linking to the journal (which helps for Google rankings), and increased the readership of subscription-only articles that are linked within the free articles (this is a good example, as the related articles linked within see high levels of activity). The increased readership is good for impressing potential advertisers, and it certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to sell the journal to librarians.

Further free distribution happens with the print version of CSH Protocols. A limited print run of copies of each issue are generated, and these are given away freely as promotional items at all Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory meetings, and in the CSHL Press booth at other meetings.

The other big experiment happening with CSH Protocols is the revenue-sharing relationship between the publisher and the authors. Writing up experimental methods is not an immediate priority for most researchers. Data-driven papers reporting results are the heart and soul of an academic or industry career, and that’s always going to come first. In creating the journal, we were looking for ways to help motivate scientists to write up their methods for us. Our efforts have taken several different approaches. First, CSH Protocols has no page charges and no charges for the use of color. Authors do not have to pay to publish in the journal. Second, we offer an intense level of editorial support. Since the journal comes from our manual publishing program, we’re trying to maintain the same high standards of quality that built our reputation in our books. When you put together a lab manual, you want all the protocols to follow a common, easy-to-use format, and to be as complete and clear as possible. To keep things at this high level, all articles in CSH Protocols go through extensive developmental editing. We even go so far in some cases as to take an author’s rough step-by-step lab notes for doing a method and rework it into our article format for completion by the author. Both these things increase our editorial overhead, but we feel they lead to better quality submissions and better quality final articles. They’re the kinds of things a publisher can do to add value to an author’s work, the kinds of things that make paying a subscription worthwhile for the readers. When one is competing against free resources, quality is an area where one can certainly stand out from the alternatives.

But most importantly, CSH Protocols pays authors a royalty based on the usage of their articles. Each article has been tagged for the set of authors, and each year, a portion of subscription revenue similar to the royalty percentage paid a book author is set aside. This amount is divided based on each article’s percentage of total use on the site (full text access only, we don’t include abstract reads). Often this doesn’t amount to a huge royalty, we’ve paid some authors less than $10 for a year’s royalties (though to be fair, those articles are usually the ones published late in a calendar year so they don’t have time to accumulate reads). But for some authors, articles generate several hundred dollars per year. That may not seem like much to a high end PI, but for a graduate student living on a stipend, it’s a lovely thing. It’s not clear how much of a motivating factor the royalties are, but we have had quite a number of repeat authors. I’d be willing to bet the lack of page charges is more significant in authors agreeing to write for us, but the royalty check once a year is a nice reminder to think about other methods they could publish.

So, to wrap up this lengthy assay, the authors of both pieces seem to have much in common with their approaches to the future of publishing. While Crotty comes off as a naysaying curmudgeon, and Ellis offers positive thoughts about pathways into the future, Crotty is actually doing the experimentation that Ellis vaguely suggests, and is attempting to try innovative new ways of scholarly publishing. Or so he hopes. He’s gotten a little full of himself and is now referring to himself in the third person. AJ, this is your fault for assigning this essay, and I hope you can live with the consequences.

What at first seemed to be an odd April Fool’s joke turned out to be real–the Journal of Visual Explanations (JOVE) has gone from an open access publishing model to a closed access subscription model. No official statement was made, but on Noah Gray’s blog, JOVE’s Moishe Pritsker made the following statement:

“We (JoVE) are changing our model, and from now will provide our content under subscription. Until now it was all for free.

The reason is simple: we have to survive. To cover costs of our operations, to break even, we have to charge $6,000 per video article. This is to cover costs of the video-production and technological infrastructure for video-publication, which are higher than in traditional text-only publishing. Academic labs cannot pay $6,000 per article, and therefore we have to find other sources to cover the costs.

As much as I would like to continue to provide our content for free, JoVE has to survive. I believe the world would be a better place having a video-publication under subscription than not having a video-publication at all.”

More details can be found on this Friendfeed thread:

“…we are indeed closing access. Not an April Fool’s joke. We’ve been trying to get universities to subscribe to us, but nobody seems to be taking us seriously and, given our situation, being free is just not sustainable.”

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. JOVE set themselves a monumental task, trying to break ground with a new type of science publishing AND at the same time trying to do so with an unproven business model. Doing both together was perhaps a bit too ambitious. I can think of several reasons why open access wasn’t going to cut it for them:
1) their insistence on high production values–the only journals I know that are sustainable/profitable using an author-pays open access model are those that emphasize high quantities of publication and minimal editorial oversight and support. By striving for high production values, JOVE added significant editorial overhead and costs.
2) A large number of JOVE’s publications are demonstrations of techniques. As the editor of a methods journal, I’m painfully aware of the “second-class citizen” attitude most scientists take toward writing up methods. Obviously data papers are the bread and butter of the working scientist–that’s where they’re going to advance their careers. Methods papers are a nice addendum, but they are not a priority. It’s hard to get scientists to write up methods, and much of my time is spent trying to commission articles. At CSH Protocols, we go so far as to pay our authors a royalty as an incentive for writing up methods for publication with us. I find it hard to believe that there will be very many willing to not only spend the time to put together a video of a method, but willing to pay JOVE’s costs to do so.

And so the economic realities seem to have hit home. I wish the best to JOVE, the folks I’ve met from the journal are all smart, nice people and their experiment is an intriguing one. I worry though, that so much of their support and hype came from the small but very vocal group of open access proponents so prevalent online. This shift in business models may not be taken very well by that community.

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