I give up

It’s what – 10 years or more? – since we began to wonder when web technologies such as RSS, wikis and social bookmarking sites would be widely adopted by most working scientists, to further their productivity.

The email that I received today which began “I’ve read 3 interesting papers” and included 1 .doc, 3 .docx and 4 .pdf files as attachments is indicative of the answer to this question, which is “not any time soon.”

I’ve given up trying to educate colleagues in best practices. Clearly, I’m the one with the problem, since this is completely normal, acceptable behaviour for practically everyone that I’ve ever worked with. Instead, I’m just waiting for them to retire (or die). I reckon most senior scientists (and they’re the ones running the show) are currently aged 45-55. So it’s going to be 10-20 years before things improve.

Until then, I’ll just have to keep deleting your emails. Sorry.

17 thoughts on “I give up

  1. liamthompson

    I can’t even get my same age colleagues (30) to use RSS, wiki’s or social bookmarking. I think it boils down to computer savviness rather than age. There is no hope for those who don’t expand their computing skills beyond msword, email and browsing.

    1. nsaunders Post author

      That’s a factor too. On the other hand, I suspect that aspiring junior scientists look to the behaviour of senior scientists for guidance, consciously or otherwise.

  2. liamthompson

    Ok, I give you that one. Seeing as we have no innovative seniors in our setting, I agree, the juniors don’t bother or are not driven to innovate and work better. Reminds me of the speech by Gerald Rubin honouring his days in Sydney Brenner’s lab. Good lab environment and interactions don’t just appear, it takes energy and drive to keep it going, most of it by the PI or other seniors. I think the same extends to technology.

    1. Egon Willighagen

      Yeah, important point! In a good lab, people try new things, put effort in it, and communicate this with the others in the group. Moreover, the PIs in these groups encourage that.

  3. kubke

    Ha ha! Should I also confess that I might be best described as a non-tech-savvy person? I dont think it is age or tech savviness – but open to accept that ‘my way and the ways I know best and know to be safe’ may not be the ‘best’. I see young people still refusing to ‘change the ways’: newly hired under 30 lecturers forbidding mobile devices in the classroom, refusing to participate in online discussions, and so on. And older than me people (in age and seniority) coming to me and asking ‘wooo can you do that for me please’ or discussing how to best incorporate tablets as tools to help in teaching, research.

    Science has become a ‘safe business’, no longer the ‘creative and innovative’ business it used to be. I am old enough to remember those days. I always argue, would Hodgkin and Huxley have been hired in today’s system attempting to record electrical impulses in a squid? Would Kandel have been hired proposing to show learning at the cellular level? Thing have really changed over the past 15-20 years – and in the process we stopped rewarding those who think differently because difference is perceived as risk. Or so I think.

  4. Chris Evelo

    So… what would you suggest would be the best way to inform a small group of colleagues at various locations, including industrial behind firewalls about an interesting paper I really want them to read and not to stumble upon when they happen to look at a place where I dumped it?

  5. Bill Tozier

    But: I just arrived here via a retweet of your link, and it was the next thing I read after seeing Mark James Adams’s account of getting his first github pull request on his own research.

    On that basis alone, I’d say it’s OK. And I think I know what the problem is.

    A long time ago (about the middle of my second abortive Ph.D. stint) I stumbled on a rule of thumb that I’ve followed ever since: “Stop asking broke people for money.” This applies in the academic world in many forms: don’t ask for any time from graduate students, postdocs or adjuncts because they don’t have any; don’t ask for change from professors, because they don’t have any; and so on.

    It’s my fervent hope—and a 12-year project so far—that things will improve faster than you think. It’s just that the people who provide what you feel is missing from Academia might not be the people who are academics….

  6. João André Carriço

    kubke, your penultimate sentence gets the point of the safe business and couldn’t be more true.
    But I do not perceive the resistance found to the new web-based technologies as a “staying safe” issue but rather as a “I might do it wrong so I won’t risk it”. Maybe is that that reflects on the Safe Science paradigm you point out and not the reverse. Either way, is just a matter of will to learn and being available to learn. I taught my boss to use and manage a blog (which he uses a lot although it is not science related) and he is not computer savy at all. It was his will to share some information with some friends that led him to ask me for help and to learn how to admin and manage a blog.

    In our lab, my colleagues and I push for the use of the new technologies and the first talk I gave was how to set up RSS feeds from Pubmed, and how to use iGoogle to manage them etc… and some of my colleagues saw the advantages and use it on a daily basis. As I see it there is a percentage of people that eventually take the leap while others will stay on their safe (and somewhat ineffective and time-consuming) corner.

    1. Chris

      Cockup before conspiracy…. I think the vast majority of old-schoolers aren’t necessarily risk-averse: they just don’t see the benefit. They are simply busy; too busy to change habits that have become muscle-memory, even if there *is* a more efficient way to do things. Efficiency and shininess isn’t the point here: it’s that new tools enable you to think about things in a new way. Anyone still using vi is guilty of this, for a start.

      And this gets to the real problem. We fossilize. All of us (yes, even me). Here’s an example near and dear to me: we’ve seen absolute scads of GWAS results in the last few. Too many to ignore. Yet most geneticists and molecular biologists – including some of the most sophisticated thinkers in the field – STILL aren’t thinking about new ways to study variants of small effect. Everyone wants to take a locus, find the causal variant(s) and see what they do. Because that’s the genetic paradigm: knock-out, study. Very useful for Mendelian stuff, but for systems-level perturbations? Not sure that’s the way to go.

  7. kubke

    @Joao I think that ‘safe practices’ lead to hiring of more conservative people – there is where I see the correlation. By ‘conservative’ I mean those who don’t adopt new ways unless they see a real need. I don’t explore technology because I feel a need for it, but because I know that every now and then I will bump into something that I might find useful (if I didn’t I might still be making my paper figures in the dark room and with letraset) As you say, when others find those useful they may be more likely to adopt them, especially if you help them through the initial walkthrough.

  8. kevin

    I think for antiquated practices to change … there must be new standards of doing things..
    I had hoped pubmed would lead the way changing how colleagues use it … and zotero .. but I agree.

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