The road is long: On the importance of infrastructure – from scholarly comms to sci comm

On Monday, I tuned in via live-stream to an interesting keynote by Geoff Bilder, Director of Strategic Initiatives at CrossRef, who talked about the importance of scholarly cyber-infrastructure (video archive here). Bilder was speaking at Shaking it up – a one day workshop in Boston to discuss “the changing state of the research ecosystem”.

Bilder started by lamenting the lack of importance placed on infrastructure, which is often seen as “unsexy” and goes unnoticed.

It can also be seen as an afterthought in many projects, or regarded as outside of the project’s scope:

Bilder then proceeded to consider the challenges of implementing centralised infrastructure, specifically mentioning issues of trust:

Wishlist of requirements for scholarly web infrastructure

So what would be the ideal founding principles of new infrastructure? Bilder outlined the following:

1) It should transcend disciplinary silos, geography, institutions

2) There should be non-discriminatory membership of the organisation.

3) The organisation should be non-lobbying – individual members can lobby, but don’t let organisation become involved with things that may become “mission creep”.

4) The organisation should be financially sustainable – and preferably create a surplus.

5) The organisation should make money from providing services not data.

6) And finally, as built-in insurance against the organisation “going evil”, the software used should be open source and information deposited as open data so that the entire system could be reproduced elsewhere, if necessary.

From scholarly comms to a science of scicomm

While this event was clearly focused on the scholarly web i.e. sharing academic research data, infrastructure is also something that’s been mentioned with respect to science communication more broadly. Specifically, Bilder’s talk brought to mind a post by Brooke Smith of COMPASS, who earlier this year argued that we need to construct “a metro for science communication“. More recently, Alice Bell has also underlined the need for science communication infrastructure.

So how relevant is Bilder’s list to the scicomm infrastructure discussions? In terms of transcending silos, there have been various conversations about sharing knowledge from different disciplines such as sociology, marketing and the digital humanities. This information exchange has been loosely termed “the science of science communication” and formed the theme for a couple of Sackler symposia held in Washington DC in 2012 and 2013. However, there’s no centralised infrastructure to facilitate that kind of information exchange on an ongoing basis nor, as far as I know, a firm set of new collaborations formed as a result of those meetings.

Have we even reached the point of widely acknowledging that such infrastructure is necessary? Or are we better off relying on smaller personal networks to seed the adoption of new norms via an ongoing process of “refining our craft” – as Dan Kahan outlined recently, using journalism as a specific example.

If creating infrastructure to support the science of science communication is a goal, perhaps it would be most realistic to start by creating a simple, (mostly online) meeting place where people from these different fields can exchange ideas and form new connections, gradually testing out the benefits of working together (rather as Liz Neeley outlines in the latter half of her post here). Maybe then we can scale to considering case studies of successful projects that might be replicated elsewhere in similar scenarios, and then move towards building a larger set of best practice resources. Something more akin to the “applied science of science communication” that John Timmer discussed last yearwhere we are eventually able to translate tested ideas into standard practice.

(Of course, this skips some of the other items on Bilder’s list – such as membership questions and funding models –  things that others have already been pondering).




5 thoughts on “The road is long: On the importance of infrastructure – from scholarly comms to sci comm

  1. As you say Lou, there are networks and conferences that already attempt to share expertise across disciplines to better enable sci-comm but these aren’t really taken further than the room they are discussed in.
    I’m interested (and I don’t know) how sci comm is taught within masters courses and how expertise is brought together there?
    Like lots of multidisciplinary endeavors unless the areas are brought together under a specific project headline (which would have a limited lifespan) or dedicated network/society the infrastructure is unlikely to be generated organically. I’m not sure how this can be taken further but I would like to see more sharing of expertise in these areas happening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t really comment on Masters courses, but I know that the #GradSciComm conversations are currently taking place in the US to consider how to integrate science communication training with graduate training in the sciences. Check out the archives here for more info from the various meetings: There’s a report due shortly too.

      You make a good point about the limited lifespan of specific projects too – which echoes what Geoff Bilder discussed about the challenges of funding infrastructure. I’m not sure if we’ve identified all the necessary stakeholders to create a scicomm infrastructure – I would love to see this discussed at an in-person event where we could brainstorm possible paths forward.


    • Paige, I think it’s probably a good start at trying to connect people in way that has some more visibly lasting thread than tweets, but I’ve heard various concerns expressed about using Facebook as “infrastructure” – from functionality challenges to privacy and professionalism concerns.

      Going back to Bilder’s list, I wonder how many of these items could – and should – be strived for when setting up the science of scicomm infrastructure. I’d be interested to hear how important anyone else perceives them to be.


  2. Pingback: 2014 in blog posts | Social in silico

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