Over the past month, I went to three workshops which both independently and collectively impressed me with the power of networked knowledge, and how powerful knowledge is created in networks. They’ve also helped me understand how Force11 can help bootstrap the power of networks and try to help expand the nodes on these networks exponentially.
At the end of August, I went to a summer school on text mining at Montana State University where twelve top-notch innovators in biomedical text analysis talked about their work on annotating, collecting, combining, processing and creating networked biological knowledge. About eighty people from the MSU Systems Biology COBRE center attended – staff, grad students, colleagues from other departments – and the general atmosphere was one of excited learning and happy discovery, all around. During the tutorial that started the workshop, I sat next to a woman who was ‘the only aggie here’ – I learned that meant that she worked in agronomics, with cattle, in particular (though I never quite understood what exactly she did with those cows…). As we worked through the excellent demo on Taverna and MyExperiment which Katy Wolstencroft had provided on the PCs in the training room together, I watched my PC-partner's disbelief turn to excitement and outright joy, as she discovered that many of the (bioinformatics) procedures that she was used to running on her laptop were actually available online already, ready for her to use, tweak, and share back. There were two components to this network, which both contributed to her excitement: first, MyExperiment has a great, seamless, fast and robust way to connect different workflow parts together. Their architecture allows tools that previously would only work locally on someone’s desktop to connect over the web, and therefore work in a completely different situation. The second network component that excited this ‘aggie’ was the human one: there were people working on similar problems as she was, and she could find them and talk to them using MyExperiment’s social platform. This would not only save her a ton of time – she might find people to talk to and perhaps work with, as well!
The second meeting was the Annual Meeting of the ALPSP, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers – a venerable group of science publishers. I was in a session that focused, again, on text mining (seldom has someone with so little programming skills talked so much about text mining :-)!) together with co-Force11 members Cameron Neylon and Stefan Decker, who both talked about the power of networked knowledge. For Stefan, this is such an important concept that he has made it into the slogan of his institute, DERI (‘Enabling Networked Knowledge’) and Cameron gave his highly thought-provoking talk on networked knowledge. If you haven’t seen or heard this, I strongly suggest you look at his talks or read his blog on this topic: basically, Cameron makes a well-reasoned, passionate plea for creating demand-side filters, rather than access limitations; in other words, allow all data and knowledge to be free, but then focus on building tools that filter and connect this for the individual (suggesting a business model that charges for personalized tools and connections, not content access). Cameron’s main point is that perhaps in the past the network of interconnected scholarly work was too sparsely populated to be of independent use, but right now we are reaching a point where the network allows a new type of discovery that was simply not possible before. Mark Wilkinson’s talk in Montana actually offered a beautiful example of this principle: Mark found new human proteins that were akin to mouse proteins by letting an intelligent agent trawl and discover data sources, using his web service-based semantic discovery framework, SADI.
At the ALPSP Awards dinner, the 2012 ALPSP Award for Contributions to Scholarly Publishing went to CrossRef, and Geoff Bilder and Ed Pentz were there to receive this very well-deserved accolade. I don’t think you can find a single organization that has been more effective at crossing barriers and creating connections between the naturally very insular universes of publishers – with CrossRef, spearheading ORCID, CrossMark (which allows the tracking of updated versions of papers) and now Fundref, which identifies and connects grant numbers. Crossref is certainly a critical node, and Ed and Geoff creates network connections wherever they go.
The third event I attended was in Nashville, Tennessee, where I had been invited to a meeting of the Association of American Medical Colleges’ GREAT (Graduate Research, Education, and Training) and GRAND (Group on Research Advancement and Development) working groups. Research management and education in medical colleges is a world that I am very unfamiliar with, and it was fascinating to see ‘behind the curtain’ of the funding world and the politics that underlie it. There were a few great talks that elucidated the challenges here – for one thing, it was argued that mostly due the doubling of the NIH budget in the period 1998-2003, there was a dramatic increase in researchers employed by medical research institutes, and therefore in funding requests – and therefore, the chance of funding dropped from about 30% in 2003 to 18% in 2011, or even lower for first-time grants… Though all speakers emphasized that they did not want to talk about politics, most of them made very clear that the double whammy of healthcare reform plus a Tea Party-driven agenda of reduced government spending is threatening life as the NIH has known it, so far, and the future probably holds some very difficult transitions for everyone.
Cameron, agent-of-change John Wilbanks and I were invited for a ‘disruptive’ session and, I believe, succeeded in our assignment, which was to scare the living daylights out of most of the participants :-)! Simply put, in an open linked society with freely accessible data, courseware, and content, institutions will have to think long and hard about how they are still relevant and worth the money they charge and receive. It was great to hear the responses and discussions before and after: one attendee who was just out of graduate school came up after my talk, and said that she liked how our session was finally reflecting how her generation thinks. For everyone growing up today, the constant sharing of questions and answers and data and thoughts on social media platforms is second nature, she said, adding that ‘the only people who want to write papers are the ones whose parents are academics’. I think this is fascinating: can it possibly be that knowing how to write full-text papers will soon be as relevant as knowing how to write in longhand?
It was great to see how some of the very insightful and bright AAMC folks are working on making this change happen, such as the open online classes on bioinformatics which Vanderbilt is working on with Coursera and the networked information framework on neural regeneration being built at the University of Miami. And despite some fits of panic here and there, most attendees seemed to head home humming: ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine…’
So how does this of all relate to Force11?
Throughout all three meetings, there was a great interest in the tools, thoughts and activities that Force11 wants to promote: a vision of open, networked, scholarly communication. It was also clear that before we can get to where we’d like to go, there are two clear information needs: the first and most widely heard comment was ‘there’s so much out there, how the <%%insert expletive!!> do I know where to start?’ and the second: ‘I wish this tool/project worked in a just slightly different way and could be adapted for my data/problem’. Talking with Maryann Martone (Force11’s executive director) we realized there are several areas where the Force11 network could help – which we'd like to invite everyone to comment on:
- First of all, we can to offer an overview of the types of tools that exist, grouped by category, searchable, with up to date links and brief descriptions that allow the user to assess whether or not this is what they are looking for. Questions include: is everyone interested in helping populate this, how do we build this on this website, how do we make sure it stays up to date?
- Then, we’d like to have a portion of the Force11 website that enables ‘project brokering’ – if you want to try your tools on a corpus, for instance, you can find a publisher who might work with you on this. Or conversely, as a publisher or data repository who is looking for novel, innovative interfaces or apps, wouldn’t it be useful if you could find a collaborator in academia through the Force11 website?
- Third, we thought it would be useful to develop the idea of Force11 helping to broker ‘micro-grants’ which would allow a group of scientists working on a specific problem to spend some time working with someone who has created a tool that almost, but not quite, addresses that problem. Such ‘micro-grants’ could pay for a brief period of time (say: three months) during which two people – one from each team – work together, spending the time to find out about each other’s work and what is needed, tweak the tool as required, and do a brief test, to see if it works. If it fails, at the very least, they will understand more about each other’s issues, and be better tool producers/consumers on the next round. If it works, of course, you have a more versatile, useful tool, and a happy and more productive community that can use it. Thoughts, opinions?
Lastly: in all off these workshops, again, it became apparent that the most useful aspect of any meeting is the personal contact between the participants: the happy serendipity that you can find in meeting someone from a different community who is looking at a problem you are interested in, but from a different angle. As is always the case at meetings, the conversations I had with people in the hallway and over (sometimes a few too many) drinks were by far the most useful and long-lasting outcome of the event. Making more new connections with people you’d normally never meet is the final goal of Force11, and one we hope to once more achieve with the next workshop we are planning. There will be more information coming soon, but we can tell you we are thinking of holding ‘Beyond the PDF 2.0’ in Holland in the spring of 2013. I can’t wait to meet you all there, again or anew, and see how we can continue to grow this network of knowledge together.