Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg

Browsing Posts tagged Public outreach

This morning as I was leaving my daughter at daycare, I got asked by one of the other kids at kindergarten what I do for work. Trying to communicate what you do as a researcher to a five-year-old is a quite interesting task. Five-year-olds are smart – but not very knowledgeable, which leads to very interesting turns to the conversation. Here’s the entire dialogue, transcribed from memory and translated to English:

– What do you do for work?
– I work at the hospital, but I’m not a doctor.
– So you are a physiologist?
– No, I am something called a researcher. I try to understand why bacteria turn evil and make us sick.
– Does someone need to do that?
– Not really. But if we can understand why bugs go bad, we may be able to be sick for much shorter in the future. Or perhaps not get sick at all.
– Okay. Isn’t that hard?
– Yes it is.
– Okay. Bye!

A few things I learned from this conversation: 1) explaining your research to young kids really makes you think about how to present what you do. 2) Kids really question the usefulness of your work (“Does someone need to do that?”). This is actually quite cool, because you need to think about how useful your work really is, in terms that a five-year-old can understand. 3) Society is awesome! To some extent, my work is a “luxury job”, i.e. maybe someone does not need to do my work, but it something we can afford because we share responsibilities and work together as a society, improving (hopefully) the world for all of us. In some sense, nobody strictly needs to be building houses; everyone could just build their own cottage. But building houses improve the standards for everyone, setting time aside for curing diseases, making music, researching microbial interactions, gardening, coffee roasting… Society is awesome.

First of all, I am happy to announce that the webinar I participated in on the (un)recognised pathways of AMR: Air pollution and food, organised by Healthcare Without Harm is now put online so that you can view it, in case you missed out on this event. To be honest it is probably not one of my best public appearances, but the topic is highly interesting.

Second, next week I am taking part in Vetenskapsfestivalen – the Science Festival in Gothenburg. Specifically, I will be on of the researchers participating in the Science Roulette, taking place in the big ferris wheel at Liseberg. This will take place between 17.00 and 18.00 on May 11th. The idea is that people will be paired with researchers in diverse subjects, of which I am one, and then have a 20 minute chat while the wheel is spinning. Sounds like potential for lot of fun, and I hope to see you there! I will discuss antibiotic resistance, and for how much longer we can trust that our antibiotics will work.

My colleague Henrik Nilsson has been interviewed by the ResearchGate news team about the recent effort to better annotate ITS data for plant pathogenic fungi. It’s an interesting read, and I think Henrik nicely underscores why large-scale efforts for improving and correcting sequence annotations are important. You can read the interview here, and the paper they talk about is referenced below.

Nilsson RH, Hyde KD, Pawlowska J, Ryberg M, Tedersoo L, Aas AB, Alias SA, Alves A, Anderson CL, Antonelli A, Arnold AE, Bahnmann B, Bahram M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Berlin A, Branco S, Chomnunti P, Dissanayake A, Drenkhan R, Friberg H, Frøslev TG, Halwachs B, Hartmann M, Henricot B, Jayawardena R, Jumpponen A, Kauserud H, Koskela S, Kulik T, Liimatainen K, Lindahl B, Lindner D, Liu J-K, Maharachchikumbura S, Manamgoda D, Martinsson S, Neves MA, Niskanen T, Nylinder S, Pereira OL, Pinho DB, Porter TM, Queloz V, Riit T, Sanchez-García M, de Sousa F, Stefaczyk E, Tadych M, Takamatsu S, Tian Q, Udayanga D, Unterseher M, Wang Z, Wikee S, Yan J, Larsson E, Larsson K-H, Kõljalg U, Abarenkov K: Improving ITS sequence data for identification of plant pathogenic fungi. Fungal Diversity, Volume 67, Issue 1 (2014), 11–19. doi: 10.1007/s13225-014-0291-8 [Paper link]

In December, Alex Bateman, whose opinions on open science I support and have touched upon earlier, wrote a short correspondence letter to Nature [1] in which he again repeated the points of his talk at FEBS last summer. He concludes by the paragraph:

Many in the scientific community will admit to using Wikipedia occasionally, yet few have contributed content. For society’s sake, scientists must overcome their reluctance to embrace this resource.

I agree with this statement. However, as I also touched upon earlier, but like to repeat again – bold statements doesn’t make dreams come true – action does. Rfam, and the collaboration with RNA Biology and Wikipedia is a great example of such actions. So what other actions may be necessary to get researchers to contribute to the Wikipedian wisdom?

First of all, I do not think that the main obstacle to get researchers to edit Wikipedia articles is reluctance to doing so because Wikipedia is “inconsistent with traditional academic scholarship”, though that might be a partial explanation. What I think is the major problem is the time-reward tradeoff. Given the focus on publishing peer-reviewed articles, the race for higher impact factor, and the general tendency of measuring science by statistical measures, it should be no surprise that Wikipedia editing is far down on most scientists to-do lists, so also on mine. The reward of editing a Wikipedia article is a good feeling in your stomach that you have benefitted society. Good stomach feelings will, however, feed my children just as little as freedom of speech. Still, both Wikipedia editing and freedom of speech are extremely important, especially as a scientist.

Thus, there is a great need of a system that:

  • Provides a reward or acknowledgement for Wikipedia editing.
  • Makes Wikipedia editing economically sustainable.
  • Encourages publishing of Wikipedia articles, or contributions to existing ones as part of the scientific publishing process.

Such a system could include a “contribution factor” similar to the impact factor, in which contribution of Wikipedia and other open access forums was weighted, with or without a usefulness measure. Such a usefulness measure could easily be determined by links from other Wikipedia articles, or similar. I realise that there would be severe drawbacks of such a system, similar to those of the impact factor system. I am not a huge fan of impact factors (read e.g. Per Seglen’s 1997 BMJ article [2] for  some reasons why), but I do not see that system changing any time soon, and thus some kind of contribution factor could provide an additional statistical measure for evaluators to consider when examining scientists’ work.

While a contribution factor would be an incitement for  researchers to contribute to the common knowledge, it will still not provide an economic value to do so. This could easily be changed by allowing, and maybe even requiring, scientists to contribute to Wikipedia and other public fora of scientific information as part of their science outreach duties. In fact, this public outreach duty (“tredje uppgiften” in Swedish) is governed in Swedish law. In 2009, the universities in Sweden have been assigned to “collaborate with the society and inform about their operations, and act such that scientific results produced at the university benefits society” (my translation). It seems rational that Wikipedia editing would be part of that duty, as that is the place were many (most?) people find information online today. Consequently, it is only up to the universities to demand 30 minutes of Wikipedia editing per week/month from their employees. Note here that I am referring to paid editing.

Another way of increasing the economic appeal of writing Wikipedia articles would be to encourage funding agencies and foundations to demand Wikipedia articles or similar as part of project reports. This would require researchers to make their findings public in order to get further funding, a move that would greatly increase the importance of increasing the common wisdom treasure. However, I suspect that many funding agencies, as well as researchers would be reluctant to such a solution.

Lastly, as shown by the Rfam/RNA Biology/Wikipedia relationship, scientific publishing itself could be tied to Wikipedia editing. This process could be started by e.g. open access journals such as PLoS ONE, either by demanding short Wikipedia notes to get an article published, or by simply provide prioritised publishing of articles which also have an accompanying Wiki-article. As mentioned previously, these short Wikipedia notes would also go through a peer-review process along with the full article. By tying this to the contribution factor, further incitements could be provided to get scientific progress in the hands of the general public.

Now, all these ideas put a huge burden on already hard-working scientists. I realise that they cannot all be introduced simultaneously. Opening up publishing requires time and thought, and should be done in small steps. But doing so is in the interest of scientists, the general public and the funders, as well as politicians. Because in the long run it will be hard to argue that society should pay for science when scientists are reluctant to even provide the public with an understandable version of the results. Instead of digging such a hole for ourselves, we should adapt the reward, evaluation, funding and publishing systems in a way that they benefit both researchers and the society we often say we serve.

  1. Bateman and Logan. Time to underpin Wikipedia wisdom. Nature (2010) vol. 468 (7325) pp. 765
  2. Seglen. Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research. BMJ (1997) vol. 314 (7079) pp. 498-502