The Back-Channel of Science

Research Blogging / by Dave Munger /

Scientists are exploiting online tools to facilitate research and communication in an increasingly flat media landscape. What are the implications for science?

Six months ago I attended a real conference in a virtual space. Last weekend, I went to a virtual conference in real life. Science Online is an annual gathering of leading science communicators and scientists from around the world. Superstar journalists like Carl Zimmer and Michael Specter were there, as were editors and publishers of major science journals. But the real action at this conference was on the “back-channel”—the tweets and other messages attendees exchanged between themselves and the rest of the world before, during, and after the conference’s official events.

Conference organizers worked with an outside contractor to make sure the attendees’ infovore habits didn’t overwhelm the conference facility’s ability to provide internet service. It was the first conference I’d ever attended where the wi-fi never failed, which meant that robust conversations could happen throughout the weekend without ever losing their frenetic pace. At one point I found myself in an empty room, carrying on three online conversations at once, so I tweeted, “You know you’re a geek when you’re at a conference with 250 people and you’re sitting in a quiet room tweeting them.”

The back- and front-channels often worked on interesting parallel lines. In a session on how journalists can know whether they can trust scientists, science journalists Christine Ottery and Connie St Louis were talking with the assembled group about making science reporting more accurate. But in the back-channel, another discussion was flaring up, about whether bloggers or reporters are more likely to break news embargos, where scientific publishers release early versions of research reports on the condition that the information is not published before a specified date.

Sometimes the back-channel and the real-world conference merged. When Henry Gee, an editor for the journal Nature, proclaimed to the room that “news editors are demons and devils” because of the distortions he claims they introduce into science stories, Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health, playfully tweeted “careful, there’s a devil sitting next to you.” Indeed, Oransky was sitting right next to me.

All joking aside, the interplay between the online world and the real world was perhaps the most prominent theme of the conference. I attended a demonstration by marine ecologists for measuring recreational-fishing yields using text messaging. Scott Baker of North Carolina Sea Grant showed us how he provided a simple card to boaters that instructed them how to text what they caught, what they kept, and what they released. He invited the people in the room to try it out, and we could see our made-up numbers instantly reflected in his online database (which, presumably, he subsequently corrected).

In another session, Nate Silver, the polling expert from FiveThirtyEight, discussed the burgeoning field of “Web Science,” which studies how the online world interacts with the real world. In a few years, might it be possible for computers to monitor literally everything we do? Could face-recognition software and ubiquitous webcams keep a 24-hour tab on our activities? Privacy issues aside, such developments could eliminate some of the peskier problems of virtually attending a physical conference. Martin Fenner, one of the organizers of the Science Online London 2009 conference, noted it was difficult to figure out where all the conference tweets were coming from if you weren’t actually at the conference. Five separate sessions were running concurrently, and the tweets didn’t always make it clear where they were coming from. Conferees were asked to use a hashtag—a code to make it easy to find tweets about the conference—but not everyone remembered to tag all their tweets, and there was no agreed-upon way to tag tweets about a specific session. But if everyone’s location was automatically tracked online and referenced against a conference site map and program, there would be no need for those physically present to use tags, and it would be easy to keep things straight—and less important to attend a conference or other event in real life.

Building connections in the other direction can also be a challenge. At a session honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., David Kroll and Damond Nollan of North Carolina Central University talked about efforts to get minorities involved in science. They pointed out that young blacks and Latinos are more likely to use handheld mobile devices for accessing the internet than their white counterparts. The problem for Kroll and Nollan’s institution is that science faculty aren’t using those devices; they email on computers and don’t text on phones, so there’s a gap in sharing the information their students need. In another session, Michael Specter commented from the audience that most of the public doesn’t access science information from niche magazines or websites devoted to science, they get it from popular news broadcasts, newspapers, or social media, so it’s important for scientists and science journalists to use these more general tools and outlets for outreach.

As many of the conference attendees have pointed out, it’s difficult to leave the conference with a single overriding impression of the event, except that the intersection between the online and the real, in science and in all other spheres of life, is likely to get even murkier in the future.

Front page image courtesy of linh.ngân.

Originally published January 20, 2010

Tags communication innovation research technology

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