Social media and academia: notes from a lecture

Today I held a lecture (in Swedish) about the potential of social media for academic researchers. It had the silly subtitle: Can Facebook make you a better researcher?

To set the scene the lecture began with a quote from Plato’s Republic (1982, p116) by Peter Medawar on what a scientist is:

“Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.”

The purpose of the quote was to set the groundwork and remind the audience (all scientists) that we are all different in our motivation, inclinations and methods and therefore we need to find a common ground to be able to discuss what it is that we do.

This common ground is the actual organization within which all these diverse individuals carry out their activities: The university. I showed a timeline with the establishment of the University of Bologna in 1088, University of Paris 1150, a charter of academic freedom (Constitutio Habita) in 1155, University of Cambridge (1209), University of Salamanca (1218), University of Uppsala (1477) and University of Lund (1666).

In addition to this I reminded the audience that the enlightenment project began in c:a 1650 and that the first purely scientific journal the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society commenced in 1665.

The point of all this was to set the stage for the fact that the topic of my talk was how a recent technology is affecting a well-established system. The Internet (ArpaNet) was connected in 1969 and the World Wide Web in 1991. The technological infrastructure of my talk is just ten years old.

So why should a system that has worked for 1000 years care about this new, new thing?

To answer this I pointed out that all systems have within them flaws. No matter how well a system works it carries within it the negatives as well as the positives. So in order to be an improvement the new systems must negate the flaws while maintaining the positives.

To exemplify inherent flaws I talked about affordances and showed an example of anti-homeless technology. Anti-homeless technology turns regulation of society into technology and removes the need for democratic process. I showed the flaws of printed works with the Wicked Bible of 1631 – where a small error in the printing changed one of the ten commandments into: Thou shalt commit adultery. And an example of the dangers of trusting authority by discussing the Sokal Affair. Here I used a quote from Alan Sokal’s discussion of what he had done in his infamous article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (Social Text Spring/Summer 1996)

The fundamental silliness of my article lies… in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning” adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity… has profound political implications… Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions. (Alan Sokal “A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies“ Lingua Franca 1996).

Following this I returned to the promises made by the enlightenment project: freedom from dogma, evidence based studies, individual before authority, science before belief, freedoms of expression and democracy etc.

The problem with many of these great promises is that they were not made available to a wider audience. In part this may be because the wider audience is not ready for the promises but also because the communications infrastructure was in the hands of a smaller group. The latter could be due to monopolies, political control or limited popular knowledge but still the general public was largely outside the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Technology began to ease these limitations and create a possibility for larger groups to participate. Indeed through the last centuries work in digitalization and connectivity and the cheapening of a multitude of personal devices the whole game plan has changed radically. I like to argue that in relation to many of the enlightenment promises the theoretically possible becomes the inevitable – for good and for bad.

Scientists and universities are now living in a world where the larger audience has the ability to connect and comment so how does this make individuals into better researchers?

Well in the lecture I focus on two aspects: communication and networks.

The ability, created by technology, for the researcher to communicate via blogs provides a potential. While many see the “new” technology as a waste of time – and many universities see little or no value in blogs – at least I have yet to come across a university that rewards its researchers for blogging (even though some pay lip-service to the act).

Therefore it is up to the individual – from his/her own perspective to find a reason for finding the activity rewarding. In order to demonstrate this I provided my reasons why academics should blog:

Practice: No matter how much you write you can always practice. Now writing papers is practice but papers demand a more rigorous approach. Get it wrong and the work is wasted (almost). Rejection makes it difficult to feel that the writing has been worthwhile so the writer tries very hard to fit in to the form set by the community. Blogging on the other hand – can be – freer. It provides an interesting arena for experimentation with the lighter, wilder, weirder ideas that research generates. Naturally you will be argued against but it is doubtful you will be shot down in the same ways as you are in a paper.

Marketing: Lets face it, not many people really read papers. Many are virtually unread. Getting a paper published can do little more than another line to the CV. Hardly the kind of thing that builds your reputation. And another thing we must face, researchers live in several marketplaces. We like to think of ourselves as living in pure (ivory towers of) research but in reality we are always in need of funding, collaboration and access. We are selling ourselves – it may not be pretty but it is difficult to deny.

Shorts: Blogging is amazing for pushing out small ideas. The stuff that you think you may eventually write about – if you ever get the time – but probably never will. An insightful blogpost is more useful to you and to the world than the half written notes in a forgotten corner of your harddrive.

Explaining yourself: As a newbie PhD student one of my professors always said that I should be able to explain the relevance of my research within 60 seconds, or the amount of time it took for a short elevator ride. The point being that most people are not interested and to be able to explain the relevance of what you do is vital. Blogging can help you practice and hone these skills.

Feedback: Too much academic feedback is stuck in the formalia. Making the writing fit the journal or community requirements. When you blog the people who do comment or argue with you demand that you stick to the point rather than the format. It can be brutal but it’s always valuable.

Community: As a researcher you become a nerd. And not in the (now) popular way. You are dealing with some really obscure shit. Getting out there and talking increases the chances of other nerds finding you and accepting you. This is important because you can never have too many friends.

Competitive edge: Blogging alone will not make you into a successful academic. But it will provide you with a competitive edge. Your work will be more widely known. Maybe even more widely read. Whatever happens no researcher loses on not being heard of.

Serendipity: Researchers became researchers because they love research. Its not a highly social skill set. We tend to stick around in libraries, labs or departments. Seriously simply by being online we increase the chances of happy occurrences that may improve our contacts, lives and research. Sure this is a very optimistic worldview but hoping for serendipity sure beats the alternative.

Cortado for the public sphere

The Nordic (Finland, Sweden, Norway & Denmark) countries have for a long time led the world in coffee consumption per capita (between 8-12 kg per person and year, compared to the US which has about 4 kg). The high amounts of coffee are not necessarily the same as drinking quality coffee.

In the history of coffee the actual location where the coffee was served has played an important part in the intellectual, political and social discussion in society. Coffee Houses where important in the development and support of the public sphere. In his work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas points argues that to develop a public sphere requires things like disregard of status and inclusivity and as such the coffee house provided an excellent infrastructure.

But this intellectual discussion does not spring from infrastructure alone. Twenty years ago coffee (in Swedish cafés) was badly brewed and stood warm for long periods of time. The quality of the coffee and the discussions was rather low. But there has been a fascinating development in café culture in most (all) Nordic countries with better raw material and freshly made ‘espresso’ style coffee.

So the coffee gets better but importance of the café for the public sphere is still minimal. The café does however play an important role in providing infrastructure for the public domain. It is not that we go to coffee houses to discuss the politics of the day but by providing a public place to sit and even more importantly access to the Internet through “free” wifi the coffee house is an office for the traveler, for the creative individual, for the small consultant. It is a shelter were we can sit and work.

entering the public sphere

The coffee house takes over the role of the library and the agora. It is a warm home for the digital nomad with a laptop providing access to the larger group & context of a larger discussion. The practice of sitting in public and staring at a screen may be seen as anti-social but that is only perceived so by those who fail to see the sociality of technology mediated communication.

The role of the coffee house is not what Habermas described, it is not the vibrant places of social discussion among the people who are physically co-located but if you remove the coffee or the ability of the shops to provide wifi for the wifi-less an important access point would disappear. Habermas recognized inclusivity and the coffee shop wifi provides just that. Along with a decent cup of joe.

Ghost writing in Science, plagiarism with a twist

Read yesterday in the Guardian that a MD was being accused of plagiarism with an interesting twist. Basically he had been accepting cash to add his name to medical articles written by a drug company.

Doctors have been agreeing to be named as authors on studies written by employees of the pharmaceutical industry, giving greater credibility to medical research, according to new evidence.

The Guardian has learned that one of Britain’s leading bone specialists is facing disciplinary action over accusations that he was involved in “ghost writing”.

When talking to students about plagiarism I tend to say that plagiarism is any attempt by a student to use the ideas or words of others in an attempt to deceive the examiner into believing they are students own. But is what the MD is doing plagiarism? And how does this differ from the more accepted forms of collaboration? For example lazy co-authors or large teams working together. How much does the “author” of a paper actually need to write him/herself for it not to be plagiarism? Some papers are co-authored by hundreds of researchers who have worked together to varying degrees. ScienceWatch reports on multi author papers and give examples of papers with up to 900 collaborators!

The question is naturally important but what is the difference between 900 collaborators or a paper ghost written by the company to which the MD agrees?

Is blogging counterproductive to writing?

Like many bloggers I have occasionally indulged in online self-examination and questioned why I blog (here, here & here). Obviously there are many reasons why to blog (personally I do it because it’s fun). But I have never really considered the effects of my blogging. Not the effects on other people, but the effects on me.

So far in my blogging I have been happy to write posts. They are a quick and comfortable way to organise and spread thoughts and ideas. Didn’t think much more about it. But then I came across a quote – which I cannot find right now, how typical. Anyway the quote was from a writer who said he did not like to talk about what he was writing about becuase… it ruined his creative tension.

I find the idea of maintaining a creative tension very interesting. Blogging is fun and can be used successfully to organize and communicate but could it have a negative effect on other writing? Writing blog posts not only take time and effort but is also very rewarding.

The rewarding part is actually not all good as it does produce a feeling of well being. And this well being does acutally remove part of the motivation to continue writing. Obviously I have no intention of giving up my blogging but I may need to come up with a better strategy to prevent blogging from killing the motivation to write other stuff.

Work and art

Finally finished the mind-numbingly boring work of reading proofs for a manual on the GPL license. It’s so boring that I have broken records in procrastination but today surrounded by loud music I stayed at home and finished. In front of me is my latest acquisitio, a color lithograph graphic by Claude Weisbuch which I brought home today.


While on the subject of art I cannot help but spreading this anecdote about Dali which I just read on _Paddy K_

Apparently Dali liked to eat out, with large groups of friends in tow, but was not so fond of paying the bill. So he made a point of paying using a check from his checkbook and, just before handing the check over, scribbled a little drawing on the back and signed it.

And now the owner, suddenly in possession of a signed Dali, would usually just frame it and hang it on the wall and show it to his friends instead of cashing it at the bank.

Sitting with licenses is sooo boring.

On philosophical advice

Not all intelligent sounding advice is actually good advice and most philosophical advice is on the level of a bad sound-bite. Most of it just sounds cool but is totally useless real life applications. The latest strip from Jorge Cham of PhD comics has come online:

What this means in real life thesis writing (if I now may offer some advice…) is not to dig to deeply into “how-to-write-a-phd-or-masters” books since they are filled with obvious advice and keep you busy reading the wrong things. I think that Nike had the right approach with their slogan “Just do it”.

Keeping it brief – the six word memoir

In the digital world space is not an issue. But there is a real limitation on the amount of information we want to receive. Ernest Hemingway, a man known for brief writing was once asked to write a biography in six words (a bar bet or a challenge) responding by writing the amazingly moving short story:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

That was the whole story and not the title. Six words that really hit you right where it should.

This was probably the inspiration for the book that began as a challenge by the editors of storytelling magazine SMITH in 2006 to write six word memoirs. The challenge resulted in the book: Not Quite What I was Planning: Six Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure.

By limiting space the author is forced to really think. Each word is weighed very carefully. Not really sure which six words I would use as my memoir as I still hope to add a few events in my life. But right now it might be something like: “Bits, bytes, inward outward journey onward.” Wow that was silly! But give me a break I just made it up on the spot. or maybe “Wish I was already standing there”.

What would you write in your six word memoir? I tag Martin at Aardvarchaeology, Kalle at Cyberlaw, Eva at Homespun, Andres at Technollama and Claire at Mummys Bracelet.

Positive Procrastination

While procrastination is often seen as a negative act it does have a positive side. Of course if the procastination we enjoy turns out to be positive and leads to a result – is this really procrastination at all? Hmm an academic Zen koan… but I digress and possibly procrastinate.

Since returning to Göteborg from my Open Access project in Lund there has appeared a small window of opportunity to begin doing something more substantial and long term. So based upon this premise I happily ignore a bunch of more pressing, but smaller, tasks in order to create a meaningful long term project.

Thus far I have located and area, a vague plan of action, a whole bunch of related work and now I am formulating a thesis to be presented, argued and defended. So with the risk of jinxing the project by talking about it at this early stage my idea is to write a book (not very original since I am an academic) on the connection between copyright, culture and innovation.

There! It’s out now. So all I need to do now is to fine tune the thesis and begin purposely bashing the keyboard. Who said that procrastination is all bad?

From Bizzaro by Piraro

The death of the blog (again)

The demise of the blog is a common call but they are still around. In a recent version Paul Boutin, in an article entitled Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004 in Wired Magazine writes:

Thinking about launching your own blog? Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.

His argument is interesting but based on the premise that individual bloggers cannot effectively compete with the top blogs in the world today. Therefore since you cannot beat the top blogs in the number of visitors it’s not worth writing.

This is wrong in so many ways.

His arguments are based on the assumption that all bloggers want to compete in that manner. That they want to have the most visitors. If they do not desire this then they should not be there. This is like telling a person that he or she should not bother jogging since he or she will never win the New York marathon. There are other values involved.

In addition to this the belief that only established media will ever be the biggest fails to take into account the rise of all successful new media products from reality tv to fashion blogs – these were not predicted and still they manage to overturn the typical view of what content should be.

Spineless Academy

In 1786 King Gustav III founded the Swedish Academy to preserve the purity, strength, and sublimity of the Swedish language” (Svenska Språkets renhet, styrka och höghet). The Swedish Academy is most famous for decideding who will be the laureate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded in memory of the donor Alfred Nobel. A task it has been carrying out since 1901.

The motto of the Academy is “Talent and Taste” (Snille och Smak) and apparently neither talent nor taste have anything to do with any form of courage.

In connection with the Rushdie affair when the Iranian mullahs pronounced the fatwa against him. The Swedish academy decided not to make a statement in favor of Rushdie and denouncing the death threat he now faced. The academy naturally could comfortably rely on old principles that they should not make political statements. Two of the members of the academy left in protest (Kerstin Ekman and Lars Gyllensten).

So now when the Italian author Roberto Saviano is revieving death threats for writing a book about the Camorra and several notables (amongst others: Michail Gorbatjov, Desmond Tutu, Orhan Pamuk, Dario Fo, Günter Grass & Salman Rushdie) have shown their support, the academy when asked formally to show support replies (my translation)

It is extremely sad that a writer in an European country is in mortal danger because of something he published but it seems to me [Horace Engdahl the academy secretary] to be a police errand and not a question of protecting principles of freedom of expression.

The people of talent and taste are hiding behind their non-political stance to avoid taking formal moral stances. Everything a body like the Swedish Academy does is political. Every time they make a choice in litterature concerning the most author most deserving of the Nobel prize – it is a political choice.

Therefore the decision not to stand up for freedom of expression or, at the very least, to condem death threats is moral cowardice.