Platforms for scholarly communication

What is a platform? A platform is more than “software”: it is in fact an ecosystem that includes software, data, services and people.  It is in its essence sociotechnical, and its function is to enable research and scholarly communication. The Web, in its implementation and its philosophy, is the basis of each of the emergent, transformative scholarly communication platforms. A useful notion in this regard is the “social object”, be it data, workflow or paper, as the object of scientific discourse and thus also the creation of scientific social networks.


Successes.

Reviewing the characteristics of several successful platforms for scholarly communication (where “success” is measured by the research that is enabled, rather than software downloads or revenue), several common features emerge: they solve a definite problem, they are easier to use than other solutions (have a low barrier to entry); they enable connections among a community that mutually benefits from participation; they evolve continuously in response to community and technology advances; they offer both user interfaces (UIs) and application programming interfaces (API’s), and there is often a reputational benefit to participating in the ecosystem revolving around the platform. The social elements are a key component to successful platforms; they are designed around users and what they share, not just interoperable infrastructures. In this discussion we consider only Web-based platforms.


At the most basic level of use, successful platforms in scientific settings are platforms that are generic rather than research-specific. These include document management systems such as Google Docs and Office Web Apps. Project and file management software such as Basecamp and Dropbox. General blogging and microblogging platforms such as Wordpress and Twitter have been “reappropriated” by research communities, becoming platforms for scientific and scholarly communication. The same applies to web content management systems such as Drupal. Successful platforms often require little in the way of formal training and researchers can rapidly derive value. Such platforms also generally fit easily into existing workflows and accommodate many types of hardware devices.


Among platforms that were built purposely for research, success stories include ArXiv, an open-access preprint repository (which is crucial in shaping and fostering research communities), and Github, an open-source repository of code and software. Often openness lends itself to success since it supports collaboration, access, re-use and agility which are conditions that can support both social and technical aspects of platforms in support of research.


Although many successful platforms will continue to be built around research needs, new ones are emerging that blur the line between the workplace and the social environment. There is a greater expectation among researchers that the platforms they use in their personal lives will also be available in their professional lives.


Failures.

Given that the Web is the fundamental platform, it is perhaps not surprising that failure modes are those contrary to the way the web works. There are failures when platforms are not created through sociotechnical co-evolution but rather “build it and they will come”, and when they fail to evolve because they are too brittle and cannot respond to rapid changes in technology or user expectations.


For example, the Twine academic platform recently failed, possibly due to its pre-structured configuration by which use had to conform to a predetermined technology (in this case: semantic web data formats). The social networking platform Academia.edu has also failed to obtain wide use and uptake as it is addressing a use case that is already met by other solutions, for example LinkedIn.


Another example of unsuccessful research project, at a much larger scale, is the Virtual Observatory Intiative in Astronomy. The VO initiative suffered from too much focus on the design and development of large-scale infrastructural solutions. By doing so, it lacked an agile, dynamic component by which users could interact directly with tools and create communities of adopters. The Virtual Observatory has many rich features, such as catalogues, data base queries and data conversion and integration;  but in the context of this analysis it falls into the category of ‘brittle’, having been over-engineered and therefore not lending itself to use and responsiveness.


Key unsolved problems.

The major issue with a number of existing smart laboratory software and scientific management tools is poor adoption. A number of different systems have been developed: some aimed at scholarly and scientific communities at large, others aimed at specific disciplinary and laboratory contexts. Yet, adoption and penetration rates are overall low. By and large, most scientific research is performed via a heterogeneous assemblage of generic and domain-based tools, platforms, and practices. Wide adoption of a single platform for the management and publication of scientific workflows is an ongoing challenge fueled by the disparate data needs, scholarly practices, and tools across different domains.  


Promising platforms.

Because of the sociotechnical nature of platforms and the need for people and systems to co-evolve, building a successful platform is a challenge; more often, they are grown rather than created whole-cloth. One pattern for building platform is to take a system that has worked well in a particular domain or context, and extend it to other areas. Open source citizen science platforms such as GalaxyZoo’s extension to Zooniverse is a prime example; Stack Overflow (a question and answer system for computing programming) has also been successfully applied to other domains (e.g. Math, Computer Science, LaTeX.) Large-scale collaborative platforms such as Polymath are also promising collaborative tools as are similar efforts in the humanities (digital humanities projects).


In terms of supporting research a number of key platform tools are highlighted below that can be currently used by researchers.


Appendix: Examples of platforms for scholarly communication


Building tools and services

At the most basic level, with the arrival of cloud computing, the last decade has seen a revolution in the way that researchers can use computers, both for computation/analysis, and to set up web services. It is now possible for any scientist to set up web servers and services very quickly with no up-front cost, and without having to worry about setting up hardware or most software. Examples of cloud providers include:


On top of this existing infrastructure that is ready to go, there are several web frameworks that allow rapid creation of dynamic websites. These include:


An example of a web site for scientific communication built with Drupal is http://painresearchforum.org.  The Harvard Time Series Center at http://timemachine.iic.harvard.edu is an example of such a site built using Django.


Another interesting contender is the Google App Engine (http://code.google.com/appengine/) - which provides both the infrastructure and the framework to quickly develop services.


Collaboration amongst researchers

Several tools already exist to facilitate collaboration between researchers and allow collaborative document editing, including:


Services also exist to easily synchronize files over multiple computers and allow sharing between several people, including:


Examples of hybrids of these are Evernote (http://www.evernote.com) and OneNote (http://www.microsoft.com/onenote) which, in addition to being good platforms for scientists to keep organized notes and files relating to their research, allow sharing and collaborative editing of specific notebooks.


Beyond simple sharing of files and documents, teams can make use of wikis to coordinate projects. Examples of wiki frameworks or services include:


Software development often occupies an important place in research, and several websites now facilitate publication of version controlled code. For example, SourceForge (http://www.sourceforge.net) is an example of a website for publishing open-source software projects. More recently, GitHub (http://www.github.com), which pride themselves as a ‘social’ coding website, has become on of the best solutions for hosting open- and closed-source code, allowing not only the publication of the code, but active collaboration on the development itself, and communication between developers.


Direct verbal communication between scientists is of course essential to efficient research, and modern communication platforms such as Skype (http://www.skype.com) or ‘hangouts’ on Google Plus (http://plus.google.com) now allow multi-user video conferences without traditional expensive equipment.


Finally, larger-scale communication between scientists at conferences/meetings and more generally worldwide can greatly benefit from Twitter (http://www.twitter.com), which with the use of hash tags allows focused communication between groups of individuals interested in a particular topic or meeting.


Reference Management

The process of publishing papers and exploring the existing literature has also seen a transformation, with the advent of advanced bibliography management tools which not only allow researchers to keep track of interesting publications, but also add the social/sharing aspect, and in many cases offer automated recommendations for other researchers and publications that would be of interest. These platforms are invaluable in navigating the vast literature in many fields. Examples include:



Repositories

Over the past decade the use of a number of repository systems has arisen in order to support the publishing of research outputs and in the main these have focused on papers and in particular open access pre-prints. These repositories support the storage and access to research outputs, and might be used by universities, research groups or disciplinary communities. Examples include:


Communicating with the public

Once the research has been carried out and published, one final important step is communication with the wider scientific community and the public. Many platforms enable researchers to reach a wide audience, including:

  • Twitter (http://www.twitter.com) - which in addition to being a collaboration tool already mentioned previously, is also an excellent platform for reaching a wide audience

  • Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) - which similarly allows researchers to reach wide audiences and engage with the public. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope has a Facebook page that has over 70,000 ‘fans’.

  • Wordpress (http://www.wordpress.org) and Tumblr (http://www.tumblr.com) - two popular blogging platforms.



Authors/Contributors

Mark Abbott, Oregon State University - mark@coas.oregonstate.edu

Taliesin Beynon, Wolfram Alpha - taliesinb@wolfram.com

Rachel Bruce, Joint Information Systems Committee, JISC, r.bruce@jisc.ac.uk

Derick Campbell, Microsoft Research - derickc@microsoft.com

Tim Clark, Harvard Medical School / Mass General Hospital - tim_clark@harvard.edu

Tom Cramer, Stanford University - tcramer@stanford.edu

Dave De Roure, Oxford e-Science Centre, david.deroure@oerc.ox.ac.uk

Cory Knobel, University of Pittsburgh - cknobel@pitt.edu

Alberto Pepe, Harvard - apepe@cfa.harvard.edu

Thomas Robitaille, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA - trobitaille@cfa.harvard.edu


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