Collaborative technologies – facilitating how we do work together

The original version of this post first appeared on the Trellis blog.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Science of Team Science (SciTS) conference in Clearwater Beach, Florida where I took part in a couple of sessions, and moderated a third. Here I’m going to share some reflections from the first session which focused on collaborative technologies for academic collaborations.

Illustration from Think Quarterly by Matt Taylor

The uses of collaborative tools

The first activity that we used to open the session involved gathering the names of current online tools and grouping them into 5 broad categories. The categories, suggested by workshop co-organiser Ryan Watkins, covered different reasons for using online tools. I’ve listed each below, with my interpretation added alongside:

  • Project management and communications – tools that allow users to organize and communicate with one another about their group-based work.
  • Sense-making – tools that enable discussion and idea sharing that leads to participants forming or refining their knowledge and beliefs about topics.
  • Knowledge sharing – tools that enable the dissemination of information.
  • Acquisition of knowledge – tools that enable active searching for information or passively receiving updates about new information.
  • Data analysis – tools that enable the sharing and computation of raw data.

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Planning teamwork – 10 questions for a “collaboration pre-nup” before you start a project

The original version of this post first appeared on the Trellis blog. This is a revised version with some additions.

Last May, I attended was the 4-day Science of Team Science conference where the focus was on what we can learn about collaboration within science.

The opening workshop was a grounding in the fundamentals of team science – including discussing the pitfalls of team-based projects and how to communicate effectively when team members may come from diverse specialisms with their own sets of jargon and beliefs.

I particularly enjoyed Kara Hall’s 10 steps to consider when planning a team – which listed everything from assessing whether you have the technology in place to get your collaborative work done, to whether you have clearly outlined conflict resolution strategies if things go wrong.

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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).