If you build it, will they come?

21 Mar
Published by bartrum


general open research

Hats Off! to Ginger for creating TSL.

I was quite excited when I first found TSL. I was, in fact, looking for an open research community, without much luck. I was actually planning on building a similar website, if I couldn't find one already in existence.

I must admit that I am somewhat discouraged that TSL has been around for over a year, had some rather high powered publicity at kickoff, but seems to be languishing.

Why are not more people here?

What are the issues that prevent people from contributing?

For me, I must admit that I am concerned about IP issues.

I'm not so worried that someone will steal an idea I have. I've gotten used to that.

Mostly I worry what my employer will think.



gtaylor's picture


First, thanks for the barren head :-) Of course, I didn't do it alone. Scientists have guided me and my software buddies helped me out plenty until got back up to speed on the technical requirements to do the job. (I was managing for a while and lost most of my coding skills.) Anyway, enough about that.

I saw your post just this week. And I must admit that I got crabby that I didn't see it sooner. Why didn't I see it sooner? The website navigational design (mostly my doing btw) just didn't make your post spring to the front. So despite the fact that I go to the website nearly every day, I missed it for quite a while.

At the same time, I noticed that jcbradley had also just made a very interesting post. And yet, he wasn't getting any comments either. Was this also because of site design issues?

UGGHH was our site design slowing down the active collaboration that we're working towards?? I think it's likely part of the issue and fortunately it's something I can change. So before making this wordy post, I got busy on some website changes.

Website Changes to Enhance Connections

New Email Notifications

I auto enrolled all TSL registered users to begin getting email notifications (short summary emails with links to the detailed message) for posts made on TSL. I can tell from some of the email responses I've seen lately that this has confused a few people, as they weren't expecting it. The point is to alert people when new activity such as Jean-Claude's post is made so that they can contribute if they can. If anybody gets annoyed by the email, then follow the link at the bottom of the email and unsubscribe. This will turn off the email alerts.

New Recent Posts Link and Block

The default recent comments block that comes with Drupal is great at providing a visual alert for comments, but does nothing to alert about new posts. That's very useful for a typical blog. But TSL's website has the front page simply describing what it is that we're trying to do; it is not a typical sequential list of posts. We're new; what we're doing is different. We cannot take for granted that people know what we're doing. Therefore I still feel this introduction approach is necessary. But we needed a better block on the right to alert people about all new posts - whether they're comments or original posts.

Matt Todd, our schisto leader, has been on me to figure this out for quite some time. Our recent Drupal upgrade and some experience I gained with other customers, made me think of an option I hadn't thought of before. Ta-da! Notice the block on the right when you're on the front/welcome page. It's not perfect, but I think it will better alert users to new posts and comments.

Other Thoughts Scientist Culture and Collaboration

I don't think site design is all that's holding things back. I also sense a cultural hesitation in open scientific collaboration. Here are a few cultural issues I suspect may be slowing down the collaboration rate:

  • You stated that you're worried about IP issues. I could be off, but I suspect that's more true of people working in for-profit labs than those at university labs working on tropical diseases.
  • I get the sense that many scientists are anxious of the scrutiny of their peers. I probably get 4 times (an estimate) as many emails from scientists through the site than we get posts on the site. Yet these posts are looking to collaborate. I want people to post online.
  • Bernard Munos wrote an article on open source science that was published in Nature. He got a lot of feedback from people questioning people's ability to trust and work with somebody they hadn't met. Hence, you'll notice our poll on the website. Per the poll, people generally think that they're willing to do this.
  • I suspect another big issue, particularly those based in university labs, is fear of loosing publishability by posting too much too soon. I spoke with a significant scientific editor on this topic and he said (off the record) that a series of collaborative posts with lab notes and discussions was not the same thing as pre-publishing. And that certainly he would expect somebody to be able to publish from a project born here at TSL or anywhere else on the web. He simply cautioned that the collaborators should not pre-announce discoveries before an official peer reviewed journal reviewed the data and polished article. That's a bit vague. But it seems doable to me.


Over time, I hope our website gets better and makes it easier to collaborate. By all means, pipe up if you have other suggestions. If you have programming skills and scientific skills, volunteer to build an enhancement if you have ideas on that too.

As for cultural issues, I suggest that a few brave people lead by example. In some respect those volunteering to help with other projects is as valuable than those starting new projects. When you find a project and help, you're providing incentive for somebody else to start a new project. Now if you don't find a project that you can help with, then by all means start a new one and ask for contributions. Tell others you know who can help and get them to post on the site. Then publish an article on your project. Lead by example. Show that it can work. If it works, others will follow.



Discovered TSL some time ago and have been lurking around for a while, but first now got to create an account.

I cant agree with you more about the problem with the fear of scrutiny of peers. I think this is a major thing that drives down posting frequencies and open collaboration. I posted the following a while back on my own blog:

Surprisingly few comments can for example be seen on PLoS Ones published articles, while the same articles are discussed heavily in journal clubs.”

Why is that? Even myself was lurking around here for weeks before posting although I wanted to comment several times.

A great deal of the problem is that scientists need an incentive to open up, even more so than an ordinary blog reader. We need to be credited and so on. This is of course also connected to the fear of loosing publishability and subsequent funding by posting too much too soon.

To get TSL running a think we need to, not only profoundly change the way scientist think, but also supply an incentive to participate.

Ben Pacheco http://www.yourscicom.com

I also, don't think site design is holding us back. However, I am confused by the dates and times of some things, also, when I click on 'recent posts', I seem to be getting some rather old posts??

Regarding, IP issues. I wouldn't be too quick to just write off all scientists from the 'for-profit' sector. In fact, I suspect there are quite a few scientists who would like to work on these projects, but just aren't sure if they can/should. Also, I imagine they just might have some ideas on how to make medicines to treat disease, which is our goal after all. Having some sort of clear IP statement, might help things out.

Having worked in both 'for profit' and academic labs, I will say that I have seen more idea and data stealing in the academic world than in the for-profit world. Why? it's all spelled out quite clearly in the for-profit sector. Ambiguity is the problem.

Definitely, I agree with the concern about 'scutiny of their peers'. I think that will go away as more people contribute. But I am still concerned "what if I say something totally stupid, it will be here forever" Oh well, .. In order to make others feel better about themselves I solemly plegde never to spellcheck any of me posts.

I am a bit confused by the answer of your scientific editor. Sounds to me like she/he would consider discussion of experimental results on TSL to be pre-publishing.


gtaylor's picture

RE: the Recent Post block dates confusion.

Our Recen Post block is a bit confusing and why I said the solution wasn't perfect. What's happening is that posts will move to the top based on their post date or the most recent comment date - whichever is most recent. So a very old post with the most recent comment will be at the top. This is not clear at all and I know that. But I settled for this solution because I was able to deliver it without writing (and supporting) a single line of new code. I'm leveraging another module to produce that block and this is the best I was able to come up with. It's important that we leverage Drupal and the extension modules maintained by open source developers because we don't have any paid staff and everything is done on weekends and at night. The great news is that there are a huge number of open source developers writing and supporting drupal for us. This is yet another proof point of what can be done with open collaboration :-)

RE: IP issues and for-profit scientists

Sorry if it sounded like I was dismissing the contribution potential of those working at for-profit organizations. I in no way meant to do that. In fact I would love to see some for profit organizations begin partiicipating in a formal manner too. Oracle and IBM afterall support and test Linux. Imagine if several computational biologists collaborated (Gene Wiki?) to indicate that a given gene/protein was a promising drug target. Then imagine if several pharmaceutical companies took that input to run HTPS against their known compounds and found something!

You asked for a clear IP statement. Have you seen our IP Guidelines? We tried to keep the lawyer confusing speak to a minimum. I personally think that long-winded lawyer agreements online should be outlawed. Nobdoy ever reads them and always just clicks ok. If you think we're missing something important, add comments to that post as appropriate.

RE: Data stealing thoughts

I've heard tales of idea theft in the academic circles. And yes, I've heard that's less true in the for-profit arena. I would hope that putting something out publicly (e.g. here at TSL), you would have a very public forum to claim an idea as yours.

RE: Scuitiny of peers

Go one further - if you see a green comment or idea, correct kindly and encourage boldly and publicly. We can all learn something from somebody and we all make mistakes sometimes.

RE: Editor comments

I agree his comments were ambiguous. What happened is that he at first was quite bold in saying shouldn't be a problem. Then I asked him if I could quote him and that's when he back peddled a bit and asked if I'd email him to confirm the quote first. It made him a bit uncomfortable because frankly he was talking off the cuff and he realized his answer had big implications. I frankly think we need several publishers to get together and hold a forum to discuss this very point. Perhaps we can get that on the agenda for the next Scifoo.

Cheers and thanks for your candor, posts and no spell check :-) (mine isn't spell checked either...)