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Open science and opening a scientist; two different things

Open science and science communication is something I have come to slowly, over my career. I’ve always been passionate about science and many a trip to the pub results in my friends rolling their eyes when I begin to wax lyrical on some topical point. Over the last few years I have been able to share this passion though schemes like the STEM ambassador program, our blog here and in the future: our massive, year long, crowdfunded openscience project. However, little did I know that while I was quietly working at all these projects, a group of like minded people had been hard at work discussing projects like these at the annual Nature SpotOn event.

SpotOn is a series of comm….you know what it’s probably best if you go read about SpotOn on their webpage, they have summarised themselves quite succinctly and I don’t think I could do better.

I only found out that SpotOn even existed when I saw that Ethan Perlstein, of ‘croundfunding a meth lab’ fame, was attending and would be free to talk to me about his work. Obviously, what with our crowdfunding project immanently due to launch, talking to Ethan would be a huge help as he has been documenting his crowd funding efforts in some detail. SpotOn ran on Sunday (with a key note by Ben Goldacre) and Monday, with some fringe events on Saturday. Unfortunately this schedule doesn’t allow for those of us that found out about it late and couldn’t get anyone to look after our 3 year old toddlers, so I only went along to the Monday session.

The first thing that surprised me about this confrence was just how well internet-linked it all was. Not only were all the sessions live streamed online but all the sessions are now available online for free! This is a great resource for anyone wanting to share information with colleagues unable to make it and it saved on making too many detailed notes on the day. It has been great watching the sessions I couldn’t attend over the last couple of evenings and I will be bugging my colleagues to check out more than a few of them.

The second surprise was just how social the event was. At one sessions (Assessing social media impact)  I was standing right at the back, because it was so popular, and I could see the entire audience (and their many screens) throughout. At a conservative estimate I would say that around 75% of the audience were simultaneously tweeting/facebooking and at one point 2/3 of the presenters were tweeting as well! Now I am all for social interaction and communication but I did think that it was a little bizarre, presenting anything to a room full of people staring at screens is not the best experience and I am not convinced that they were all discussing/live tweeting the actual talk. Don’t get me wrong, some of the in-event discussion on Twitter was fantastic and it was great to see it feedback to the panel but there has got to be a balance otherwise we might as well have all watched it at home and just popped in for networking at lunch.

The standout message from the talks I attend at SpotOn 12 was ‘if you like open science so much, go and do it’. All the talks were good about showing the huge range of tools, support and guidance available to anyone wanting to head out into the bright world of public discussion of science. I don’t think anyone can have left the conference in any doubt that greater science openness and communication is good for individual scientists and for the field as a whole. It was very refreshing to spend a day with people talking about these ideas. After spending the last 4 months fighting to get our crowdfunding campaign approved, I had started to get a more than a little down about it. Talking over coffee to current crowdfunding scientists like Ethan and to possible future crowdfunders was invigorating.

One thing I thought was lacking from the discussion at SpotOn 12 was about how open science is funded. It has been my experience (I may be lucky) that people are broadly supportive of sharing their work with a wider audience, and while the management of many universities are not always quick to embrace it, they are also sold on its value to science and to their organisation. However, where my efforts have got stuck in the past, is paying for open projects. Many grants do now include public impact but the more commercial nature of research is still driving us towards secrecy for fear of giving away vital intellectual property. While in some ways this IP protection is good as it stimulates investment in science, I do feel that there needs for there to always be an element of science that is transparent and public facing, especially in an organisation whose reason for being is education. Obviously our route to solving this problem is to ask the public for their help in funding an open project but there should be more grants with an open science focus. Things are moving towards this model with the discussion over the data produced in projects funded by public grants and more recently the announcement of small grants for open access publishing. I am very interested to see how all these pledges towards funding open science work out and I hope that we can keep up the pressure the see them happen. In the meantime – CROWDFUNDING!

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Categories: ErrantWritings


Brian Kelly · 15 November 2012 at 09:20

I was interested in your comment “I am all for social interaction and communication but I did think that it was a little bizarre, presenting anything to a room full of people staring at screens is not the best experience and I am not convinced that they were all discussing/live tweeting the actual talk“.

As I’ve described in a post about the Using Social media at Conferences session at Spot On 12 conference facilitated by myself and Tony Hirst (see event amplification through use of tools such as Twitter can enhance the discussions and associated learning at events with others in the sessions as well as those who can’t physically attend the session.

Curating the Twitter content using tools such as Storify or Chirpstory enable the participants (and non-participants) to subsequently access the wide range of discussions. As an example compare the Storify record of the session (at with the video recording at (especially the group discussions 15 minutes in) and see which provides the highest fidelity.

On the question of whether “presenting anything to a room full of people staring at screens is not the best experience” I like it when people are using their mobile devices during my talks – it often shows they are engaging in the ideas being communicated. But perhaps they may be reading their email, playing games, etc.? In which case the failing is with me, not them. And if they weren’t playing games they’d probably be dozing or thinking about what they’ll be doing when the session finishes.

    MCeeP · 15 November 2012 at 09:30

    You make a good point, I suspect that my own bemusement at the practice may just be because I’m not used to it. I certainly agree that the discussion that took palace on twitter was very insightful and enhanced the overall event. I think that the answers is that I should firstly attend more conferences as well connected as SpotOn and secondly I should try presenting in similar circumstances.

    Footnote: I didn’t see anyone playing games in the session I saw, although one person was looking at a page of angry bird tips 🙂

Brian Kelly · 15 November 2012 at 09:46

Thanks for the response.

I have been involved in the organisation of amplified events since 2005. Back then at the IWMW 2005 event, as described in Wikipedia, the ~20 people using IRC became aware of the London bombings which took place on the second day of the event. We’ve got a record of the discussions so you can see how people responded – which included an inappropriate joke when the scale of the terrorist attack was not known.

As a result of that incident – and other inconveniences such as train delays, floods, missing speakers, etc. – we realised the benefits of having a real-time communications infrastructure at events. When Twitter became established we realised it could be used to support the learning processes at events as will as providing administrative support.

Initially we had some concerns – such as inappropriate content being displayed on a Twitter wall – but this soon fizzled out. A conference organiser can help – in the early days at the start of amplified conferences I simply pointed out to the audience that if they tweeted a rude word or were unnecessarily rude about speakers that this would be likely to reflect badly on them.

Earlier this year we published a Greening Events II: Event Amplification Report which documents emerging practices.

You may also find the Event Amplified blog useful. This provides a number of case studies and discussions about issues related to the provision of successful amplified events/

Thanks for raising your concerns. These were also raised during the session Tony Hirst and I facilitated. I hope this response – and the links I’ve provided – help to address the issues you’ve raised.

Matt Hodgkinson · 15 November 2012 at 10:54

Hi Matthew,

I’m glad you enjoyed SpotOn, I was one of those tweeting presenters at the Assessing social media impact session. That was the first time I’ve been on a panel like that; I’m sorry if tweeting was off-putting and I hope it didn’t detract too much from being in the session in person.

I didn’t at all mind others using Twitter or Facebook – I think it’s not that much different to using a notepad – and I think it added to the session to be able to follow up points immediately from within the audience in the room and online. Many people traditionally make notes on paper that may then never be transcribed, and switching to ‘liveblogging’ of conferences may be a good alternative.



    MCeeP · 15 November 2012 at 17:59

    Hi Matt,

    Please be assured that I didn’t mean to imply that your tweeting was in anyway distracting, my only comment was really that it was very unusual compared to my experience of conference routine. As I mention in the article I was very please to see how the in-session tweets fed back to the panel during the session. If anything your ability to communicate with the group verbally and simultaneously on twitter is a credit to you.

    When It comes to the audience’s online focus I am more curious at the change in their relationship with the presenter. For me when presenting, having a visual feedback from the audience is very important. Seeing people’s reactions to what I am saying/presenting partially shapes my presenting style. I would be interested in how audience focus on their various devices affects this visual feedback (people on their various devices were far more focused on that than anyone with a notebook!).

    I was by no means criticising the connected model simply trying to understand how my presentation skills may have to adapt to fit. Presenting to such a online, connected, audience is something I have not yet experienced and I would be intrigued to see how I feel when in your position. It is certainly a great help to get feedback from presenters such as yourself on this changing medium.

    Thanks for the fantastic session, it was very interesting and has already changed some of my methods of online dissemination of my work.



Reflections on Event Amplification and the #SOLO12 Conference « UK Web Focus · 19 November 2012 at 20:24

[…] A more relevant concern relates to the dangers that participants at an event will fail to engage with others if they spend their time looking at the screen of the mobile devices. This issue was commented on by @MCeeP in his Notes on my brief time at SpotOn 12: […]

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