Harnessing the web – online platforms for global research communities

Photo: UNDP in Ukraine/Internews
Photo: UNDP in Ukraine/Internews
Nov 2015
9

Connecting people and ideas worldwide is an oft-stated aim. But how can we make it work for the research community?

With the continuing spread of internet access into all corners of the world, new opportunities to work together without moving an inch are emerging all the time. For the scientific community, online innovations are changing working habits and advancing the progress of research every day. Leading the charge is the emergence of individual platforms for data storage and data retrieval (such as Zenodo and DataONE, among others), collaborative programming platforms (e.g. GitHub) and collaborative writing platforms (think Google Docs). There’s no doubt these innovations have changed how individual science projects are carried out, but what are the wider consequences for whole communities of researchers?

Over the last five years, I’ve been part of setting up a global community for early career researchers in the ecological sciences. Our ambition was clear: INNGE would focus on creating opportunities for early-career scientists to carry out collaborative and innovative activities through global communication and outreach. We also aimed to facilitate contributions from the entire scientific community on emerging topics, such as the interconnected challenges associated with achieving long-term sustainability of current human activities, evidence-based reform of university curricula, and increased adoption of open science practices. When we set up the International Network of Next Generation Ecologists (INNGE), we knew we had to capitalize on the advantages of the internet, but how to do this in a way that works for the scientific community was not always clear.

IPBES is currently experimenting with open reviews of assessment report drafts using collaborative writing tools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve seen more and more concrete examples of how scientists are using the internet to create an open and globally distributed research community, but looking around, we found few online community platforms that could help us build the kind of online platform that would engage the whole community and inspire innovative ideas and applications. Rather, different organizations seemed to prioritize one or two of the things we were looking for, but not all of them. In a recent paper, we therefore decided to map out and define the features of such a platform, and to give a name to the beast (after all, a good taxonomy is an important part of ecology!). A name that captured their potential. We ended up calling them Global Community Innovation Platforms (GCIPs).

We identified four main features of GCIPs. These include a commitment to: (1) global reach and membership; (2) improving connections between and participation of local communities; (3) exploring and promoting new and emerging paradigms (innovation); and (4) being an accessible platform for information for and about the community.

Identifying these features is all well and good. But how do you put them into practice and build an online community platform? Here I will dwell on what one could argue to be perhaps the most visionary approach for such a platform – the open online approach. An open online approach simply means that a significant amount of the components of the community platform are open, in principle for the entire public, on the web.

So why take an open online approach? First of all, open online platforms lower the barriers to broader participation, reducing set-up costs, and the overheads of memberships and logistics. It avoids the step of having to predefine your community and instead makes information accessible to anyone interested. The community moves towards becoming a self-assembling / self-organizing entity.

Secondly, open science is here to stay. The open approach to science has been enabled by the web. While the web was not necessarily made for open science, it certainly was made for sharing data among scientists. Beyond research coordination and data accessibility, the “open science” movement advocates for transparency and sharing throughout the research process (Hampton et al. 2014). Numerous groups develop software tools and provide resources to the broader community with the aim of end-to-end reproducibility (Mascarelli 2014). An example is the developer collective rOpenSci (http://ropensci.org/).

ROpenSci develops tools for the open source R-programme to enhance use of and access to open data.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, doing things out in the open is an empowering step. While the argument exists that the public is not ready to see (and make sense of) all steps of the scientific process, and that sharing everything could decrease trust, a growing number of online citizen science projects are demonstrating how whole communities are becoming part of doing research. Let’s not forget that a lot of research projects are funded by public resources and an open approach to sharing information is one way of giving back the wider public.

We’ve put this approach into practice at INNGE, by working primarily via online communication tools that can be contributed to and accessed by any person, including email listservs, shared task management systems (e.g., Slack and Trello), Voice over IP services (e.g., Skype and Fuze), and a wiki (http://innge.net/wiki). The wiki in particular has some interesting opportunities for engaging everybody in the community – just think Wikipedia. A wiki for a research community has the potential to be the living collective knowledge of the community, as well as a part of a communication effort to the outside world.

INNGE’s wiki is a resource for finding many online resources relevant to ecologists that everybody can contribute to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Creating such a living collective knowledge of a whole research community is one of the ambitious aims of Future Earth, and one which I’ve often heard debated, both with regard to how it will help connect scientists and to how it will foster integrated and transdisciplinary research. However, the debate often dries up quickly when it comes to the concrete.

Coming back to our GCIP framework, there’s no doubt international programmes like Future Earth live up to the three first characteristics of the GCIP framework, but how does adding the fourth feature (i.e. moving the community online) change the picture? What would a more full-blown version of the GCIP approach look like for a programme like Future Earth that serves as umbrella for thousands of scientists, dozens of individual projects and myriad research activities?

Future Earth has already applied a good number of methods taken from the GCIPs approach like this very blogging platform, making use of online questionnaires, social media activity and the occasional live streaming.

But applying an up-scaled GCIP approach to Future Earth could add further dynamism to an already dynamic platform.

Inspired by the INNGE experience and our research on GCIPs, the first idea that comes to mind is a Future Earth wiki where the community curates its body of knowledge, common terminology and research activities and their findings. A wiki could later on be elaborated with an open data visualization platform where the public could engage with key sustainability trends, as is currently possible for some Future Earth projects (such as the Global Carbon Atlas).

In 2014 GBIF announced an open challenge for innovative use of open-access biodiversity data.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another type of activity that could be useful for energizing the community is issuing data, analysis, visualization or communication challenges to the community in the broadest sense, or asking for ideas for those challenges. Finally, Future Earth could continue to host more online conferencing and webinar events, and make it easier for individuals to find various research projects, sign up for their email newsletters, and get involved!caption here 

Further reading: Connecting people and ideas from around the world: global innovation platforms for next-generation ecology and beyond - http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/ES14-00198.

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