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Communicating clearly

June 5, 2008 Leave a comment

Problem statement: Why is writing something easy, appealing and informative to read so difficult?
Motivation: The ability to communicate your knowledge clearly will make or break whatever case you are trying to make. In my case my master’s thesis.

No matter anyone says, writing an understandable thesis is hard. I keep forgetting that at the time of writing, the authors are the “experts” on the issues that they are writing about. So in my case, anything that I write down is from someone who already knows pretty much everything there is to know about that particular concept. Yes, at the time of writing, I understand everything I put down on that electronic sheet of paper. The tricky part here is that everything I do not write down, I compensate for it with the information that is already in my head. So at that time, I am not bothered if I leave out something that helps with understanding the concepts better. Yet, clearly, other scholars do not have that same knowledge on that particular concept that I have, so they get confused. To prove this, all I have to do is review these pieces again after some time (like a week or maybe 2). That results in me getting confused more times than I want to be. It is quite frustrating that I often go “Okay, I know what I am trying to say, but it is not written down clearly enough. I can write this down better” to the dreaded “I have no idea what I am trying to say here at all!”. And if I, the author of the text, do not understand it, how are other scholars supposed to understand it?

“Speak for yourself, I understand everything of everything.”

Sure, those active in the same research areas probably could, after some thinking and with some assumptions. Still, this will not really motivate them to read the whole thing. This stuff has to be easy and completely comprehensible on the first read. So while it feels like I have to go out of my way to make things extra simple to read and understand, it is actually the normal way of writing something. Otherwise, nobody, barring the very up to date experts, will understand what you are trying to say, which is not a good thing.

“I find that hard to believe. Surely, anything that you can comprehend is something that everyone else can comprehend, easily.”

As if, but that is the right attitude to have. As long as you write it in such a way that even those only slightly familiar with the concept can understand, I would say you are well on your way!

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Paul Ginsparg and the added value of preprint repositories

May 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Motivation: A little update on the man behind arXiv, one of the earliest, biggest and most popular preprint repository in the world: Paul Ginsparg.
Problem Statement: Considering their potential, more focus should be given to the great platform that is the preprint repository when it comes to advancing scientific progress!

As the man that made arXiv possible, one of the earliest , biggest and most “popular” (Physics) preprint repositories in the world , I have been somewhat following Paul Ginsparg’s activities [arXiv page; another arXiv page; CTWatch Quarterly article] to see what his ideas are on extending the value of such preprint repositories to advance science (and scholarly communication in general).

So happy to forward (from Peter Suber’s Open Access News) the following announcement from Radcliffe Institute on Paul Ginsparg and his plans:

Paul Ginsparg is a professor in the physics and information science departments at Cornell University. He is well-known as the creator of the on-line system arXiv.org that distributes scientific research results. At Radcliffe, he will embark on a theoretical and experimental investigation into how researchers’ interactions change as a result of ever-growing open access. Ginsparg plans to create tools and resources for researchers to communicate more efficiently with one another.

“Huh? The article doesn’t even say anything about cool new toys!”

Yet, I cannot wait to hear what his next big thing is to boost preprint repositories. But efficiently communicating with each other, huh? While there are plenty of ways to communicate with other researchers, I wonder if he means something explicitly for preprint repositories? Since they already share their preprints, it would make sense to create a real community, a central “all in one” communication point.

“But they already got mailing lists.”

I do not think mailing lists are the best way to discuss stuff. Sure, they are “old school” and as easy to use as emails, but I never found emailing to be very handy when I am communicating with more than one other person at the same time. It will quickly turn into a disorganized frenzy, with a noticeable lack of search/browse functionalities. Although I guess gmail is doing a decent job at tackling those issues for web mail. Anyway, when it comes to efficient communication/discussion functionalities, I generally find forums to be far more superior to mailing lists.

“Forums are kinda old school, too.”

True, well I guess we will just have to wait and see. arXiv has got a lot of registrants, so even something as “simple” as discussion forums could easily be very significant, if those scholars find it appealing. And once you get a community like that going, you will potentially have a very significant platform to kick off other cool stuff, like quality control for the preprints also stored there. Ah well, let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Competition vs Collaboration: Which is better for scientific progress?

May 29, 2008 Leave a comment

Motivation: Competition encourages people to work harder, to work better, to deliver more efficient products. Most of the time, whoever does it best/fastest, is rewarded the most. This is also true in science, where whoever makes the first discovery is the one that will get the much needed grants and their publications. On the other hand, the more minds working on the same issues, the more likely there will be faster results by those people. So collaboration is what one could consider a good thing for scientific progress.

Problem Statement: However, and now speaking more in the context of science, this competitive nature also slows down collaboration. Since the more one collaborates with others, the more likely they will reach results faster, but the smaller their own share of recognition is. And it is logical to want to reward the ones that do the best/fastest. I mean, sure it is likely that many important “answers” will be found eventually, but whoever comes out on top of the pack and finds those answers first is likely to be more “special” than the others. Perhaps a better scholar, or a more imaginative scholar that lead them to be the first to find the answers that everyone wanted to know. And rewarding the people who are “better” than the rest in their fields, maximizes the efficiency of grant funding, which in turn makes scientific research possible. So this is quite a dilemma on deciding which route is the way to go.

Findings: In a world with unlimited funding, collaboration is a the way to go with no issues whatsoever. However, as we live in a world where funding is limited, it is necessary to be choosy, and that means you need to spend the money on the best people to increase the odds of getting the best results. As such, encouraging people to show that they have what it takes is important, which means that collaboration might not always be the way to go.
Read more…

Ails of a Student: Writer’s block

May 8, 2008 Leave a comment

Problem statement: Addressing some of the issues of why writing a (master’s) thesis can be so difficult, based on my own experience.
Motivation: Well, I guess thinking about problems is a first step in getting them solved. Also, throwing out problems seems to be healthy. Making use of that outlet for negativity so positivity can take back the control again or something like that.

“You sound like an unemployed psychiatrist.”

Considering I am not an employed psychiatrist, I guess it is not entirely untrue. So…..over at Plausible Accuracy, I read the following:

I’ve got about 70 pages written on a document that I call “my thesis”. The problem is, I hate it. I’ve written it all in fits and spurts, jumping around from one section to the next. Some days I’ll write pages and pages and it seems like it’s going really well, and other days I’ll spend all day staring at emacs and not getting anything down. Lately it’s been much more of the latter.

I can relate to this. I have been working on my master’s thesis for quite some time now, much longer than I planned.

“I would nominate that for the understatement of the year award…”

Hey, at least it is almost finished, and I like my stuff, but it certainly has taken quite a bit of time. However, my problem is not so much that I hate writing it, but since I am skilled and creative with computers/Internet, I can think of a million other things that I enjoy doing more while I am sitting behind a computer.

“Actually, I believe the term and description for that is: a computer nerd with no (social) life who can only think of computers day and night.”

So I have been seriously considering locking myself up somewhere, with access to “Office” software and nothing else that could distract me from typing away on my thesis for hours and hours. I have heard of many students/people doing just that, with very good results. For the sake of productivity, I should be like that, too. I mean, I do have access to my university’s computer rooms and stuff. On the other hand, last time I was making use of one to work on my thesis, there were other distractive factors, such as other people typing, discussing whatever they were working on while typing and even using their cells for communication gibberish.

“Why, that is an excellent opportunity to practice your “shutting people the hell up” skills. It is crucial for people who want to be leaders one day!”

I guess. Another motivational issue is that the whole “documenting thing” is a lot less interesting than the “thinking about problems and working out (potential) solutions” thing. Yet, it is difficult to document it neatly straight away, while still in the mood to be productive after having done something “you perceive as” productive, because that normally results in incoherent notes/scribbles prone to drastic modifications overtime. I mean, I do not even want to know how many times I have (completely) rewritten my introduction, several paragraphs of my methodology and other chapters/paragraphs all over my thesis.

“Oooh, but I do want you to talk about it. As detailed as possible!”

And I was writing them quite seriously at the time, too. So imagine how much worse that would have been if I was just randomly jotting them down as scribbles instead. It is a serious hassle and it seems like I can always find a better way to put it every time I reread it. It almost makes me afraid to reread my own work again because I know I will modify it going “OK, this is much better!” and then do the exact same time the next time I reread it! But maybe it is just the mentality of being extra critical of your own work. Normally, when I am reading other people’s papers, I read through them as they are and go “OK, I am absorbing the knowledge of what it is saying here” without really paying attention to how they say it. However, when I am reading my own work, it is like I do not care what I said, but how I said it and how, if at all possible, I can say it better. It is not easy being a perfectionist!

“Actually, that’s just your pathetic lack of writing skills.”

In addition, working on a (master’s) thesis takes at least several months, from start to finish. And in many/most cases way more than that: it could takes years. For a Ph.D (concerning my research field anyway) it takes at least 4 years. I guess speed is one reason why I like blogging: writing a blog post usually takes just under an hour. OK, there are cases where I have spent longer than 1-2 hours working on one, spread out over a few days, but those are rare and then I have a “finished” product that I can somewhat be satisfied with.

“Speaking of blog posts: this is likely not the time to write one!”

Well, writing this blog post has inspired me to work harder once more! Over at Plausible Accuracy, as a “writing experiment”, some random thesis “snippets” were available in an attempt to get comments and boost his motivation. I tried to do something similar some time ago, actually. But after awhile, I realized that uploading an early chapter that I thought was considered finished was a bit too embarrassing after all. Especially after I had significantly improved it later (but locally) and saw how “crappy” unfinished the uploaded version was. So I decided not to put early drafts of a draft online like that.

“Can’t say I blame ya.”

One thing left for me to say then, for many things and regardless of reason: the longer you drag on with your work, the harder it becomes to finish it.

“Ehm, don’t you mean “lock yourself up in a library early in the process”? That sounds so much more productive, after all.”

Still undecided on that. Well, back to work it is!

The significance of Business Informatics

May 1, 2008 2 comments

Motivation: Exploring the significance of understanding the language of IT users and the language of IT-“builders” to improve the success rate of effective and efficient IT solutions.
Problem statement: Too many issues arise from having incompatible people trying to communicate with each other in different “languages”, resulting in less than desirable outcomes or even outright failures in whatever it is people try to achieve by using IT.

It is funny that I start such a post and claim that I am very attracted to this particular field of expertise while I have recently reconfirmed, the hard way, that my ability to simplify some IT concepts to non IT folks is still laughably bad. In my defense, what I am currently working on (and trying to convince others that it is significant) does not actually exist, as far as I know anyway, which makes explaining it in as few words as possible without confusing or scaring the hell out of the people I want to reach that much more difficult.

“Please, real men don’t make excuses. Stop your whining!”

Well, let us get to the meat of the blog post then. What is business informatics and why is it important? In a nutshell, every time you think of a product that requires users to do something with it on a regular basis, you need to make sure that that particular system is designed in such a way that they would actually not feel like throwing their PC’s out of the nearest windows while working on it!

“Well duh, then just ask them what they want.”

Indeed, we need to ask them what they want, but therein lies the real problem. In a lot of cases, they do not know:

  • What they want
  • How they want it
  • What is exactly possible

I mean, it is not like you are asking them to imagine and describe their favorite food or something. You are essentially asking them to tell you every little thing they (have to) do at work and how they would like to have that work and look in detail using “computers” (e.g. information systems). So on one side, we have people who have never documented what their daily work routine is like, down to details such as what they retrieve exactly and what they input exactly when and in what systems for what purposes. Fortunately, they should be able to do that on their own given enough time. The real problem is that they are mostly uninformed concerning “computer stuff” other than knowing how to log in Windows, browse through and store/retrieve folders, search stuff on Google, do the occasional chatting, download music and frequently honor adult websites with their presence. “Or people who have never spent more than 10 minutes playing around with HTML code but think blogging makes them IT savvy.” Oh, and did I mention they are clueless as to what they exactly want with work related software and how the GUI should look like on their computer screen? These things are normally only known after having worked with it for an extensive period of time, after learning how to work them, getting used to them and either do get used to do or realize that that is not an option. But when it has not been installed and used yet? Yep, no way that is going to happen for the common user. And why should it? They are not getting paid to understand and keep themselves up to date on the latest information systems and their effectivity, efficiency and user friendliness.

“So we’re banking on them having IT hobbies or something? Sounds risky to me.”

The other half of this dream team is the IT programmer, who is completely clueless as to what the future IT users do and why that is important, considering their daily work consists of programming features and modeling the occasional UML diagrams or whatever models they use to make that programming simpler to manage and program. They do not care or know how to care about business processes, they do not care or know how to care about users possibly (certainly actually) having to deal with a changing environment, a change of tools, a change of their daily routine. They do not care or know how to care about properly getting the right information out of users, properly documenting it in a format that said users can read back to provide feedback, give presentations in such a form that the IT users will not be confused with the slang or programming buzz, hold workshops to help the users prepare for what it to come and receive feedback to make it more user friendly, do stuff that makes the future IT user comfortable that this IT project is leading them to the IT system of their desires. And why should they? They did not sign up to be project leaders or managers, they are the technical workforce, the construction workers of IT systems. Their job is not to design a house based on what the customers want, but the ones that build it based on a construction plan. Nobody, least of all the programmer himself, would put a programmer in front of a group of business managers and operational users and have him explain these guys why the system rocks and how it will make their daily work easier. That is a car wreck waiting to happen.

So we have 2 groups of people: the future IT users who do not have a clue about IT systems and the IT builders who do not have a clue about business processes. Their goal is to get an IT system that not only supports, but also improves the efficiency and effectivity of the core business processes, which is largely carried out by the users. See the problem?

“Not for car dealers. Unless they are using their salesmen to repair the cars.”

Right, or use mechanics to sell their cars. Therefore, the solution is someone who speaks both languages but freaks out neither side. That someone is a Business Informatics professional. The guy who knows something about everything but not everything about something. The guy who simplifies complicated matters to the “layman” and specifies complicated matters to the specialist. And I am clearly not just talking about the design phase, but basically anything that involves IT and IT users, making things easier or more detailed for them. Indeed, I want to be that guy. I am going to be that guy.

“Yet here you are, just another blogger wasting his time writing about what you want to be, without actually being it.”

Hey that is harsh. As I said before, informing the public by simplifying otherwise complicated (IT) matters is an important task of a Business Informatics professional, too.

“Yeye, get to work!”

Well, this may not seem all that relevant nor interesting to your readers, but the next time you have a “who the hell designed this software in such an uneasy way!” or “Why does this not work the way I want it to work!” moments, you will be wishing you had a Business Informatics professional on the job!

Automated Download Scripts vs RapidShare: Cats!

April 25, 2008 3 comments

RapidShare wins the “Most Annoying Anti Download Script” award!

Ugh, for real? Yes, it is real.

Something tells me RapidShare hates automated download scripts more than any other service that provides free space for sharing purposes! I gotta say, this is either the best attempt to get me to go premium for any service or the worst attempt to get me to go premium for any service. It is so confusing that even I have not figured it out yet.

Anyway, since the verification code is 4 characters, I think the easiest way to do this is actually not to search for the characters with that particular cat graphic but the ones that do not look like it. That way, you only have to figure out which ones, usually just 1 or 2, are out of the ordinary and simply skip them.

The value of (Scientific) Blogs to Scholarly Communication?

April 20, 2008 Leave a comment

Motivation: Exploring the role of the (scientific) blogs in contrast to the traditional ways of scholarly communication.

Problem statement: The role of blogs to support scholarly communication is regularly questioned. Given the strictness of the scientific method, how does the free for all “shotgun” culture of blogs fit in, if at all?

Findings: Blogs to highlight “interesting” scientific findings: suitable, although there are more efficient ways to do so (such as RSS of big scientific news/journal sites and initiatives like Connotea). Then again, as a “new” medium for these kind of things, it is highly suitable. After all, blogs are hot now, and you gotta go with the flow! Blogs to generate scientific communication: suitable, but other initiatives such as forums generally offer better features to support discussions. Blogs to contribute original scientific knowledge: lack of accountability, structure and seemingly effort. It is vastly inferior to preprints, i.e. the scientific paper format, so good luck with that.

Conclusion: We may need something that combines the convenient and efficient services of Connotea with the ease of blogging/forums to efficiently update the scientific folks with the relevant findings and generate discussions.

As I have addressed in an earlier post: the scientific paper format has been designed very efficiently. Journal paper abstracts inform the readers of the topic, the problems, the methodologies, the results, the conclusions and ultimately the added value of the papers in one paragraph. Much like a very short summary of the paper, which is also usually free to read, regardless of whether the paper is Open Access or not. This is done to give readers a short text of the paper so they can decide whether the paper is covering the relevant aspects for them to read in more detail. Afterwards, all these elements, and in particular the methodology, results and conclusion, appear in a more detailed description, so feed the need for information.

This is traditionally missing in blogs, because, they are not an outlet for original research work, but somewhat of an alternative communication channel of already original published works. And even when bloggers blog about peer reviewed/published articles, there is rarely a mention of what is theirs and what is simply from the article but reworded in their own words. That being the case, the added value is then a somewhat personal quality filter with no original scientific added value other than the reference to the original article. And in that case, there are other initiatives that can point scholars to relevant papers that are much more efficient, such as the free online reference management by Nature called Connotea which makes sharing and finding papers rather simple.

Anyway, that scientific blogs traditionally lack (1) a standard format/structure and (2) original scientific information, are rather significant issues to question the usefulness of blogs. Improving the original added value with scientific blogs, while still emphasizing their speedy and easy accessibility, are seemingly difficult to realize, enforce and sustain. I blogged about a standard scientific blog format before, in response to the first issue. However, I am unsure of how appealing such an idea is. Scientific bloggers might not find the idea of adding an extra paragraph (blog abstract if you will) describing their original value (or lack thereof) very interesting. Let us see how some of the research blogging community try to solve the second issue.

Research Blogging by BPR3

BPR3 allows readers to easily find blog posts about serious peer-reviewed research, instead of just news reports and press releases. We provide bloggers with an icon they can use to show when they’re talking about a peer-reviewed work that they’ve read and analyzed closely.

Great idea, I am all for more (optional) quality filters. Assuming it is accurate, it could significantly contribute to the advance of scholarly communication and science in general. However, when going through their guidelines, it seems like they envision doing more than just being a scientific quality filter of blog posts. And there is nothing wrong with trying to add more value to the scientific community, by way of blogs, but I think there are some very complex issues at hand here. Let me address the guidelines that focus on the original value: #4, #5 and #7.

4. The post author should have read and understood the entire work cited.
5. The blog post should report accurately and thoughtfully on the research it presents.
7. The post should contain original work by the post author — while some quoting of others is acceptable, the majority of the post should be the author’s own work.

In theory, I think these are significant guidelines. In practice, I wonder whether they are actually enforceable and sustainable. For one, I have a hard time imaging that their reviewers can actually read every paper/article that a blog references to, and then use that knowledge to verify whether the blog authors themselves understand the scientific works they are linking to. Even if they can right now, it is difficult to maintain sustainability if and when the scientific blog community grows. Additionally, I would have to ask how this process is answerable? Who is responsible for making sure bloggers adhere to these guidelines? What is their experience/background? How do we know they did what they said they would do? How do we measure this?

Assuming it can be enforced and sustained, we could be talking about some pretty significant sacrifices for these activities. I mean, they are solid guidelines. In fact, they are so solid that they are much like the requirements for scholars participating in journal peer reviews. So if they do have the skills to perform these quality assurance activities, is it efficient to use their time evaluating already peer reviewed papers to certify a blog post that may or may not have original added value? Come to think of it, what is considered original value for blog posts anyway? For Research Blogging by BPR3, it includes the rewriting and summarizing of the article in their own words. So added value: yes. New knowledge: no. To be fair, if the blog posts concern errors or other things worthy of concern for published papers, then that would be very meaningful, but just to validate a blog post that highlights how interesting the research is? Or to generate a discussion, which may be more suitable for forums? Or a summary/rewrite of the original article? Is that not a lot of effort for little gain as opposed to, say, peer reviewing unrefereed manuscripts (i.e. preprints) for journal publication, which might truly have some real original knowledge to share with the scientific community?

In fact, if they have to blog & review scientific literature, why not blog & review preprints? That way, they can actually provide original value by contributing to validating the so far unrefereed scientific knowledge. It might even support the journal peer review process. Either directly by submitting these blog peer reviews or after the author has improved the scrutinized manuscript. Much more productive and efficient if you ask me. Of course, reviewing preprints is a bit more challenging (and risky) than just covering peer reviewed publications (i.e. postprints), but if you are going to blog about and scrutinize blogs on scientific knowledge, might as well do it right and focus on stuff that has yet to be validated?

“Well, that is only assuming that the people verifying peer reviewed publications have the right expertise and the time to do the same to unrefereed manuscripts.”

Well, I suppose there is a difference between understanding a scientific article and being able to scrutinize it. I wonder if that is the real issue at hand here?

“I ought to be for you, you’ve never done a formal journal peer review before!”

Well, aside from the fact that I was still not sure what I thought of this initiative on a more serious level, that is why I never bothered to apply for “membership”. However, most of these bloggers that are getting these BPR3 tags do not strike me as people that are unable to perform proper peer reviews. But it is true that it takes significantly less time and effort to cover peer reviewed publications as opposed to peer reviewing preprints. So on a less serious note, blogs do provide that quick and dirty highlights of scientific literature. And since blogs are so popular right now, and probably will stay that for quite some time, I guess there is some advantage of going with the flow to reach out to others? It is hard to make up my mind about this, I guess it requires some more thinking on it.

More on the original value of blogs
Over at RealClimate, a blog post concerning the value of blogs and peer review received quite a few comments. A lot of those posts concerns something about climate physics, and I will not go into that because they confuse the hell out of a non-climate guy like me, but I found this particular comment by Myles Allen rather interesting:

I personally would never comment critically in public on a peer-reviewed paper even to point out “obvious problems” (who is the judge of what is obvious here?) without at least exchanging e-mails with the authors to make sure I had understood it correctly (I’m more than happy to criticize non-peer-reviewed material on Channel 4).

I appreciate that publish-first-and-ask-questions-later is “traditional” practice in blogging, but perhaps, as scientists, we should be challenging that practice.

As far as I am concerned, anything that is published and made publicly available, is free to be criticized. In fact, if there are indeed flaws in it, it should be pointed out for the sake of the other readers and scientific progress in general. However, I also agree that, in terms of scientific papers, that should only be done when you are sure of your case. We would not want it to be a standard practice for mudslinging, reputation smearing, eye gouging dirty fights, after all. And indeed, one way of keeping it civilized while trying to provide value is to contact the authors. Additionally, this could also potentially prevent public embarrassment for both parties. One issue with this measure is that it would significantly slow down or even discourage the concept of criticizing peer reviewed/ published research papers. I mean, what if they wait a long time before responding or simply do not respond at all? And the whole idea of blogs is that it is a fast (and easy) communication medium, and removing that element would remove the key motive for the popularity for blogs I think.

Myles Allen continues this over at Nature’s Climate Feedback blog post on Web 2.0:

Just to be clear, I don’t have a problem with blogging per se, if bloggers were to comply with the old-fashioned courtesy of checking with the authors that they have understood a paper correctly before criticizing it in public (as opposed to over coffee or the conference bar).

If bloggers on high-profile sites like RealClimate were to adopt a simple policy of fact-checking comments on papers with the papers’ authors before posting them, and if necessary posting a response from the authors together with their post, it would certainly be a vast improvement on current practice. The argument that the authors can always respond on the blog doesn’t work, because the responsibility for fact-checking should surely be with the blogger, not his or her unsuspecting targets.

As I agree that preventing is better than curing, I think this is a strong point as well. However, going back to the self-corrective nature of scholarly communication: one can also reason that if the blog is sufficiently popular/significant, the truth will come out one way or the other. Either through other blogs responding to it, or in the comments of that blog post. And if the blog is not popular/significance, then nobody will take notice of it, anyhow. So while risky, it is not an impossible situation to correct. Of course, and this is particularly true for blogs, in between the time of sharing faulty information and the correction, it could have traveled quite far already. Hmm, dilemma.

“What? No closing paragraph to give a sense of closure to this piece?”

I guess I should, but I cannot think of any. Then again, a lack of closure kind of fits this topic, considering its young and dynamic nature. So I guess I will write something extra in the “blog abstract” and forgo writing a “that’s all, folks!” paragraph.