Open access… Canada?

Today marked a major milestone for open science. Specifically, the Obama administration announced a directive that all US federal agencies which receive over $100 million in funds for research and development work on creating a plan to ensure open access to all research outputs within a reasonable time frame.

To quote from the Obama administration memorandum:

“To achieve the Administration’s commitment to increase access to federally funded published research and digital scientific data, Federal agencies investing in research and development must have clear and coordinated policies for increasing such access.”

You can read more about it here, and here.

A number of other countries, including Canada, have mandatory open access policies for some of their taxpayer-funded research, but for the most part the policies apply to health-related research. And in many cases you can also find research stemming directly from federal scientists freely available on the web.

In some cases (e.g. the UK and Australia and a few others) open access is mandated for all federally funded research. And now that the US has taken this step to full openness, I think that it’s fair to say that there is a lot of pressure on countries that haven’t done the same to get moving down that track.

I’m looking at you, Canada!

Like many other countries on that list, Canada has some mandatory open access policies, but they mainly pertain to health sciences. There have been rumblings of more openness from the Canadian government, as noted by one of my Twitter contacts:

…but the steps taken by the UK, Australia, and now the US are good indicators that Canada’s steps so far have been baby steps at best. It’s time for that to change.

Why should we, as Canadians, call for a mandatory open access policy for all federally funded research? Here, in brief, are a few reasons that come to mind, and I know that there are more:

  • Fairness. Taxpayers paid for the research. Why should they also have to pay to access the results of the research?
  • Open access accelerates the pace of discovery. Although I’m at a small university, the UNBC library is well-stocked with many journals that the folks in my research program and I use. But we occasionally come across articles that we need that are unavailable. The choice then is to keep looking for the information elsewhere, pay up at the paywall, or go through the interlibrary loan process. Our librarians are superb at getting access to individual journal articles that we need, but not everyone is so lucky to be affiliated with a good library at a good institution. There are many scientists who do not have access to these kind of services, and they either have to pay or hope to find the information elsewhere. And most members of the general public have absolutely no access to such services at all. Open access removes those barriers and allows research to move ahead more efficiently.
  • Open access makes research more relevant and reduces the temptation to “hoard” data. Open access allows other researchers and the general public to look at research outputs in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Full accessibility lets the full diversity of interests see and think about the work and, hopefully, take it to new and unpredictable places. In addition, while my little corner of the scientific endeavor (forest entomology, for the most part) is generally not beset by researchers afraid of being “scooped,” this tendency is present to some extent in all fields, and to a large extent in certain fields. Hoarding of data in order to hopefully glean the research glory results in competitive, rather than collaborative, use of research dollars. Replicated efforts in several competing labs may drive research to move faster, but it also sucks up declining research dollars in identical endeavors. Open access, and particularly the tendency toward open data that comes along with it, erodes these tendencies and promotes collaboration instead. The rise of biological preprint servers such as PeerJ PrerPrints and the biological portion of Arxiv also facilitate the erosion of meaningless competition.
  • Open access makes research institutions more relevant. In an era when universities are struggling with funding and, in some cases, public perception, the ability to freely disseminate the useful products of research to the public provides incentive for taxpayers to pressure governments for better funding of postsecondary education. If research results are behind paywalls, they remain mainly unknown to the public and, thus, irrelevant. If the results are irrelevant, so are the institutions in which they were produced.
  • Open access allows the public to see firsthand the evidence-based results that should be driving public policy. Ideally, all governments should consult honestly with scientists about medical, environmental, social, and other issues as they create policy. Realistically, most governments do this only as much as is optimal for their own political agenda. By removing all restrictions to access to research outputs – combined with a growing tendency for scientists to explain their research results to the public – governments will also have to be more transparent in their consultations with researchers. Perhaps we can move to a time when research drives policy rather than seeing policy attempt drive research.

It is, indeed, fantastic to see the US take this big step. And, as noted above, the US is not the first country to do this. It’s now time for the Canadian public to ask our government to start to take this issue more seriously as well, too.

PeerJ, today!

Along with being Darwin’s birthday, 12 February 2013 marks the official launch of the first articles on PeerJ.

In case you haven’t heard about it already, PeerJ is a brand new open access journal, with a twist. Or, actually, a few twists.

For instance, instead of a pay-per-article fee, PeerJ has all authors buy a lifetime membership in the journal. There are several levels of membership, depending on how much publishing you think that you might do on a yearly basis. And there are no yearly renewal fees. Instead, you maintain your membership by taking part in journal activities. For instance, if you review one article a year, your membership will stay active. This fee/membership model allows for an ongoing revenue stream (when members publish with new co-authors who are not yet members), and also stimulates ongoing and growing involvement in the journal by a diverse group of scientists.

Another welcome innovation that some other open access journals are also embracing is the insistence that authors co-publish their data with their paper in a repository such as figshare. This concept is not new to many disciplines. Genomics researchers have been publishing data along with their papers for years using repositories such as those provided by NCBI. But with the growth of the internet, there is no reason that all data associated with a paper can’t be publicly and permanently available in a citable format. By making data public in this way it is easy to anticipate that others will be able to use and build on the data in new and exciting ways.

PeerJ also commits to publishing any work that is rigorous, no matter how “cool” or “sexy” it is… or is not. To quote: “PeerJ evaluates articles based only on an objective determination of scientific and methodological soundness, not on subjective determinations of ‘impact,’ ‘novelty’ or ‘interest’.”

And one last twist that I’ll mention (please see this launch-day blog post from PeerJ for more information), authors can choose to publish the full peer review documentation alongside their accepted article. Besides giving some great insight into the review process, it also allows readers to study other expert opinion on the work and come to their own decisions.

PeerJ has an impressive advisory board that includes five Nobel laureates. It also has a huge and diverse board of academic editors, of which I’m a member (no Nobel Prize for me yet, however). I also have the honor of having been the handling academic editor on one of the first thirty articles in PeerJ.

And, one last note. PeerJ PrePrints is also going to come online in a few weeks as well. If you are familiar with physics and mathematics, you doubtless have heard of preprint servers such as Arxiv. Researchers in those fields have been publishing their preprints (nearly final draft) papers online for years. This is a constructive practice as it allows the larger community to see and comment on results as they come out. This both strengthens the eventual manuscript for final publication and it allows the research community to use the results immediately instead of waiting for the final publication. Of course, it also helps the researcher to establish priority for the work.

Historically, many journals in biological fields have had issues with the use of preprint servers as they have considered such early deposition of a manuscript as “prior publication.” This, too, is changing and I expect that the growing use of PeerJ PrePrints, and others like it, will make the change final.

I am under no illusions that the shift to a more open publishing and data sharing paradigm will be completely smooth sailing. As with anything new, there are going to be challenges and opposition from some corners to doing things in a new way. But the internet has changed the way that we do everything else in our society, often for the better. There is no reason that academic publishing and dispersal of research outputs should remain in the era of the printing press. PeerJ, and other publishers, are working diligently to guide our larger research community through this process of continual innovation.

Exciting times!

—–

Update: Some great coverage here, here, and here.

Bark beetles on ice

Over the next while I plan to blog about various papers that have come out of our research program. I won’t get to all of them, obviously. But I do plan to pick and choose a few recent ones, and/or ones that have been highlights to this point in my career.

I’m going to begin with a very recent paper from my lab on bark beetle larval overwintering physiology. The paper is entitled “Global and comparative proteomic profiling of overwintering and developing mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), larvae” and is available in open access here.

Context: Mountain pine beetles usually spend their winters as small, young larvae under the bark of their host tree. In this location, they are exposed to extremely cold temperatures, sometimes ranging below –30°C and even pushing down towards -40°C. Mountain pine beetle larvae survive those temperatures by resisting freezing. Sometime in the autumn they begin to accumulate at least one antifreeze compound (glycerol) in their bodies, and then in the spring they presumably return that antifreeze compound (and perhaps others) to general metabolism for energy to complete their development

Cold temperatures have historically limited the range of the mountain pine beetle both in terms of longitude and latitude, and in terms of elevation. However, climate change has reduced the probability of cold winter temperatures – particularly the probability of extreme cold events fairly early in the autumn or fairly late in the spring. At those ‘shoulder seasons’ the larval insects have either not accumulated enough antifreeze compounds in their tissues (autumn, around Hallowe’en) or have metabolized most of it (spring, around Easter). Those are the vulnerable periods, and deep cold at those can cause populations to crash rapidly.

The lack of unseasonal cold events or of generally very deep cold in the heart of the winter over the past years has been one factor that has driven the dramatic outbreak that we’ve seen in British Columbia. In addition, historically colder areas such as the eastern slopes of the Rockies and central Alberta or high elevation areas in the Rockies have not been as cold either. This has allowed mountain pine beetles to survive winters and to move into hosts, such as jack pine and whitebark pine, that they have not historically used in the recorded past. In the case of jack pine outbreaks, the fear is that the beetle, freed from its main confine on west slope of the Rockies, is poised to move across Canada’s boreal forest. In the case of whitebark pine, the insect may further endanger already-threatened trees that are important to higher alpine ecosystems.

What we did: Up until now, the main known antifreeze compound in mountain pine beetle larva has been glycerol. We suspected that there was more to the insect’s overwintering physiology than just that, as most insects use several strategies to avoid freezing. So we conducted a proteomics experiment. That means that we surveyed the levels of all of the proteins in early-autumn larvae and compared them to levels of proteins in late-autumn larvae to look for changes. Similarly, we compared the levels of all detectable proteins between early-spring and late-spring larvae. Because we now have copious amounts of genomic data for the mountain pine beetle, we could identify which proteins did what in the insect and we could draw some conclusions as to which metabolic pathways and physiological processes were activated or deactivated in overwintering larvae at different times of the year.

What we found: In total we found 1507 proteins in all of our larval samples. Of these, 33 either increased or decreased in their levels between early- and late-autumn and 473 either increased or decreased in their levels between early- and late spring. Of the proteins that were present in either increased or decreased levels in one of the two seasons, 18 of them showed such changes in both seasons. This Venn diagram from the paper shows this general result:

 

 

These proteins can be classified into a number of general functional groups, as seen in this pie chart from the paper:

 

Of course, large groupings are not as informative as looking at individual proteins. So that is what we did, as I will write about in the next section.

What this means: In proteomics work like this, when we are dealing with hundreds of proteins, it is obvious that there is so much complexity that it would take untold pixels to explain everything. In fact, like may ‘-omics’ studies, the original authors (us, in this case) have to pick and choose things that seem interesting to them and then leave it to others wearing different research glasses to find other interesting trends. What follows are a few highlights that we noticed in the context of our research program. Our hope is that others will take our data and find other interesting things that we may have missed.

Glycerol: Our results confirm past work implicating glycerol as an important antifreeze compound in the mountain pine beetle. The data also confirm previous work in our lab (Fraser 2011, referenced in the paper) that shows certain glycerol biosynthetic genes being upregulated in the autumn and downregulated in the spring. Of particular note were the extreme variations in an enzyme called PEPCK (phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase) which likely indicates some level of nutritional stress in larvae heading into the cold of winter.

Trehalose: Trehalose is a major hemolymph (insect “blood”) sugar, and it has been found to be important in insect cold tolerance in other species. The levels of an enzyme involved in trehalose biosynthesis increased significantly in the autumn and decreased significantly in the spring, indicating that trehalose might function alongside glycerol as an antifreeze compound.

2-deoxyglucose: The largest autumn increases and spring decreases for any protein that we observed was for one enzyme that is involved in the biosynthesis of 2-deoxyglucose. By looking at what 2-deoxyglucose does in other organisms, we can make some guesses as to what it is doing in the mountain pine beetle. It is possible that 2-deoxyglucose regulates larval metabolism to direct energy flow appropriately toward overwintering in the autumn; that it acts in stress physiology as the insect enters a difficult period of its life; or that it is functional as an antifreeze compound. It’s also possible that it functions in more than of these roles. What is clear is that this metabolite, not previously detected in this species, is likely very important in mountain pine beetle overwintering physiology. So we have some work on our hands to figure out exactly what it’s doing.

Stress, in general: The levels of a number of proteins associated with stress physiology – for instance ferritin, superoxide dismutase and phospholipid hydroperoxide glutathione peroxidase – increased in the autumn and, in some cases, decreased again in the spring. The fact that winter is a stressful period in a mountain pine beetle’s life cycle is obvious from the basic ecology of the organism. We now have a number of stress physiology protein targets to investigate in further research.

Energy use during development: The increases and decreases of particular enzymes involved in basic metabolism indicate that mountain pine beetle larvae put most of their resources into overwintering preparation in the autumn, and only when they have survived to the spring do they begin to divert resources to ongoing developmental processes.

Detoxification of host defenses: A number of proteins commonly involved in detoxification of host chemical defenses were present in autumn larvae but, for the most part, showed reductions in the larvae as the spring progressed. Previous work in our lab has shown that larvae in the late-summer experience extremely high levels of host defense compounds. So autumn larvae are working hard to get prepared for overwintering while also dealing with a toxic environment. Once the winter is over, and the host tree is long dead, it is likely that residual host toxins have either been removed by the beetle’s symbiotic fungi or that they have naturally degraded or dissipated. In any case, the detoxification enzymes are seeming not needed to nearly the degree in the late spring that they were during the autumn. The larvae that survive living in a toxic wasteland in the autumn and that do not freeze to death in the winter are then free to use remaining stores of energy plus whatever they can glean from their host tree to complete their developmental cycle through the spring and early-summer.

Why this is important: This is the first comprehensive look at what is going on in an overwintering bark beetle. While there has been a bit of previous physiological work on mountain pine beetles and a few other bark beetle species, our work in the Tria Project has moved us into the post-genomic era for the mountain pine beetle. That means that we have an extensive genomic database and that we can conduct experiments like this that reveal the workings of a number of physiological systems all at once. We are doing other ‘-omics’ work as well on overwintering mountain pine beetle larvae, including transcriptomics (monitoring messenger RNA levels during different seasons) and directed metabolomics (monitoring specific metabolites related to overwintering) work. And we are doing experiments where we track the expression of specific genes and the activity of specific enzymes revealed to be important during this phase of the insect’s life cycle. Of course our lab, alone, can’t do all of the experimentation suggested by these results. In fact, the data are so extensive that we can’t even conceive of all of the potential experiments. That is what is cool about ‘-omics’ research – there’s no telling who will look at it and think “ah ha! I have a great idea!”

Ultimately we hope that this paper has blown the door open on bark beetle overwintering physiology. Further research is bound to uncover new and interesting results, and since winter cold and climate change play such a large role in the growth of mountain pine beetle populations, such results will help us to understand better where and how the beetles are spreading into new regions and new, susceptible hosts.

Where we are going with this: As I mentioned above, the amount of data from this one study is staggering. This is our lab’s first publication from the larger Tria Project and there are others in the works. Some of them will also produce similar copious data. Others have been designed to look at specific small portions of this study and of some of our other data. We are currently focusing in on some of the metabolic pathways and physiological processes that I mentioned above. And we hope that others are able to take our data and use it for different analyses. For instance, we have surveyed protein levels across much of the larval developmental period. Perhaps others interested in insect development will find and be able to use new information on development in the Coleoptera (beetles) generally, and in bark beetles and other weevils specifically.

This was a really fun study. We certainly hope that the data will be as useful to others as it has been for us already. This work has also moved our research program firmly into the realm of insect overwintering research, and it has been a great introduction for us into proteomics and the era of “big data” in the biological sciences.

ResearchBlogging.org

Bonnett TR, Robert JA, Pitt C, Fraser JD, Keeling CI, Bohlmann J, & Huber DP (2012). Global and comparative proteomic profiling of overwintering and developing mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), larvae. Insect biochemistry and molecular biology, 42 (12), 890-901 PMID: 22982448

Stress-free?

I am a professor. Specifically, I am a tenured associate professor at a small, Canadian, research-intensive university. And right off the bat I’d like to say that I love my job, and I love the place where I work. Since I was included as a co-author on my first paper about 17-years ago, this is the only job that I’ve wanted. I have spent countless hours in the lab and the field, with my nose in books, working as a teaching assistant, and wandering library stacks to get where I am today. Hard work was part of the equation, but there’s no denying that there was also an element of being in the right field and the right place at just the right time (maybe I’ll write about that sometime). But, in any case, I am where I am, and I love being where I am. At this point in my life, I wouldn’t trade this job for any other.

As a university professor I am granted a fair amount of research and teaching freedom, particularly now that I have attained tenure. I am able to interact with great people from across the continent and around the world in a field that I thoroughly enjoy. Working with some excellent students, postdoctoral fellows, and technicians, we have been able to build a productive and exciting research program in our lab here at UNBC. I enjoy my undergraduate teaching assignments because I find students to be inquisitive and full of great ideas. My department is very collegial and collaborative research and teaching arrangements spring up all the time.

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, this is a great job. It’s the job that I’ve always wanted. And I consider myself extremely privileged to be in this position.

That said, it is a challenging job and one that requires continual commitment. The stress level does not reach that of, say, an air traffic controller. But it is not at all stress-free. You would be hard pressed to find a colleague of mine at any institution who wouldn’t give you an earful if you were to suggest that being a professor went hand-in-hand with having no job-related stress.

However, it seems that the folks at Forbes Magazine, reporting on a Careercast.com survey, disagree. Careercast.com and Forbes report that being a university professor is the least stressful job out there, followed by seamstresses and tailors. I was made aware of this article via a series of tweets:

 

 

 

 

…and I went over to take a look for myself.

What I found there was the same string of misconceptions about this job that I hear over and over again. Having a father who is also a professor, I have heard these “facts” from the time that I was just a young fellow. So I’m not under any illusion that the following missive will finally set the record straight, but “facts” like those found in the two articles need to be addressed somewhere. So here goes.

From the Forbes article:

“University professors have a lot less stress than most of us. Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring.”

If I had a dime for every time that I heard this (plus a nickel for every time that I heard the “if I had a dime” cliche) I’d be able to independently fund my own research program. The fact of the matter is that university professors have pretty much the same amount of holiday time that anyone else has. I am currently allotted four weeks. Because class is in session for most of the rest of the year, I tend to take some of those vacation weeks with my family in the summer, although I haven’t taken my full four weeks in more years than I can remember. Just because class is not in session in the summer or at other times does not mean that professors are not working. The summer and reading break (Canada’s version of “spring break”) are the times that we use to get caught up on research, to write papers, to revise courses, and to read and assimilate some of the emerging literature from the past year. My research program is busier in the summer than at anytime during the rest of the year. The graduate students in our lab are not taking courses at that time, so they are free to get their thesis research done. We typically have several undergraduate summer research assistants in the lab as well. The lab hums during the summer and it’s often hard to keep up with everything.

By the end of the summer, professors need to have their course material for September ready to roll. Most professors take great pride in keeping their courses relevant and up-to-date, so summer work includes course updates and planning.

The notion that we have “a month over Christmas” is also hogwash. Yes, things do quiet down considerably between Christmas day and New Year’s. Yes, the university mainly shuts down and most faculty, administration, and staff are spending time with family for the holidays, just like most of the population of North America. But even then we need to be reachable. And most of us work up until near Christmas Eve and need to be on call during the break as well. For example, this past Christmas break I put the final editing touches on a student’s paper, I dealt with a few papers in one journal that I edit and another for which I’m an academic editor, and at one point I was doing crisis management over a fume hood in our lab that had decided to die just after Boxing Day.

I won’t bother to detail spring/reading “break” because the story is the same. Students might have the time off, but professors do not unless they use up vacation time.

“Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom.”

If you are simply tracking the time spent in the classroom, then this is correct. This semester I spend seven hours of my week “in the classroom.” But anyone who takes a few moments to think about it knows that time in the classroom is not all that there is to teaching. Every lecture requires preliminary preparation. There are assignments and exams to make up and then to mark. It takes time to design meaningful assignments and to provide high-quality feedback. Students arrive in my office with great questions or to inquire about the rationale behind a mark. Office hours now extend to all hours of the day because students, rightfully in my opinion, use venues like email or Twitter to ask questions. Beyond that, any course worth teaching also takes preparation time prior to the first class session. I have never personally tallied up the amount of time that I work behind the scenes per hour of class time (frankly, I have no time to conduct such a survey), but I would bet that it comes to two or three hours of prep time per lecture hour. In a lab or tutorial courses the prep time is even more substantial.

“For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles…”

This one is pure hogwash. There is not “some” pressure. Without publishing, a professor might as well be looking for a new job. My job performance (teaching, research, and service) is evaluated on a regular basis by my Department Chair, my Dean, and the upper administration. If I were to go a year without at least publishing a peer reviewed paper or two, I would receive a warning on my official report. If I were to go two years without publishing, job-related consequences would begin to kick in. And I’m speaking as a tenured professor. For a professor who has still to attain tenure, the consequences would begin to arrive much sooner.

“…but deadlines are few.”

I can’t use the word “hogwash” too much or you’d get tired of it. So I’ll stop and switch to “malarkey” instead. In most of my university committee work (service is part of our job performance evaluation) I am faced with continual deadlines. The university calendar marches on with or without me. Classes run whether or not I’m prepared. Exams are set, and final course marks need to be in within 72 hours of the final exam.

Beyond that, in my research, I am faced with deadlines in the same way that a small business owner is faced with deadlines. I do have some level of autonomy in my research program, but if I were to stop self-imposing deadlines, our lab productivity would drop, my collaborators would head off to find other colleagues to work with, and I would quickly find my research dollars drying up. Which brings up another set of deadlines – every grant that I apply for has a hard deadline. Miss the deadline, and I miss the chance at being funded.

“Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized…”

Well, I can’t argue with this one to any great extent. I am not out in the snow and cold. I am not in a sweatshop having my human rights exploited. I am behind a desk or out in the woods measuring trees and collecting specimens. So, the article got one right. But, that said, this is no different from a plethora of other jobs out there either.

“…and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two.”

True enough, conferences are “non-mandatory.” No one is telling me that I have to attend this or that conference. But if I were to stop going to conferences I would not be keeping current with my field and I would lose some degree of contact with my colleagues. In addition, my regular annual reports to my Chair and Dean (yes, I have “bosses”) require me to report on the number of invited and regular conference presentations that the folks in our research program or I have given. Particular weight is given to invited presentations, and I find it very difficult to turn those down. Science is all about communication, and despite the boom in social media, conferences will always remain the best way to hear about, and to tell about, the most cutting-edge results.

Besides conferences, I make several collaborative trips each year as well. Due to the growing complexity of biology, for which it is becoming harder to work in isolation, more and more research funding requires the cooperation of a network of collaborators working at various scales in the system in question. One of the major parts of our current research program includes dozens of researchers from a number of institutions. Writing up research grant proposals to do this kind of work, and then ensuring that the network is functioning properly while research is ongoing, requires regular face-to-face meetings in different venues across the country. Those visits can last several days and are highly work-intensive. From the time that we sit down at the table in the morning, through our working lunches, and until we head to our hotel rooms for the night, we are constantly planning. I do not get back home after one of those meetings feeling rested. I usually feel excited by the prospects of upcoming research, but it has certainly not been a weekend at the spa.

“As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.”

Let’s score another point for Forbes here. Well, perhaps half a point. A median salary of $62,000 (this is a US median, the Canadian figures differ) is not high by any means, nor is it low compared to many other jobs. It is livable in many situations, but not all. Forbes loses half a point for adding the clause “…especially in a university town.” Not all universities are in “university towns.” Talk to professors in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, San Francisco, New York City, or San Diego (to name a few) and ask them how far their dollar goes. Even in university towns, dollars don’t necessarily stretch too far. During a postdoctoral stint in which I was working at the USDA-Forest Service and the University of California Davis, our rent for an apartment in Davis – the epitome of an American university town – was $1300 per month. That was in 2003, and it got us what would be described as a small, modest apartment on a very busy street. An acquaintance of mine was working at Stanford University in the Bay Area at the time and was paying $1500 per month for a single room bachelor suite. This was before my wife and I had kids, so we could fit into a small apartment. Even then, it was sometimes a bit of a struggle to make ends meet on even an at-the-time decent postdoctoral salary, which was considerably less than $62,000 per year.
I realize that I’ve gone on for quite awhile here, so I’ll stop now as I’m certain that others will have more to say on this issue as well.

In summary, I love this job. There are few jobs out there that are like it. I have a great deal of autonomy to pursue interesting research and to teach courses that I enjoy. I interact with fantastic colleagues and students. I am able to spend my life learning new and interesting things about the world around us. I am continually challenged with new opportunities and exciting possibilities.

But, for the record, I do not sit in an oak-panelled office smoking my pipe after an exhausting seven-hour week of teaching. I wouldn’t even do that if my office were oak lined and if I had a pipe, because I wouldn’t have the time.

Twitter JAM

I just returned home last night after spending a few days in Edmonton at the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada and the Entomological Society of Alberta. It was a well-organized meeting with lots of great talks and posters. And, of course, lots of time to reconnect with colleagues from other universities.

A number of entomologists at the meeting, including myself, have Twitter accounts, so we “live tweeted” some of the sessions that we attended. The conference hashtag was #ESCJAM2012, in case you want to take a look at the Twitter record of the event.

From my perspective, live conference tweeting was generally a positive experience, although I say that with a few caveats. Here are my brief thoughts on the Twitter JAM:

1. I enjoyed being able to read about what was going on in other concurrent sessions. My fairly packed schedule this year did not give me much leeway to move from session to session. With so many concurrent sessions, I would have ended up missing interesting talks regardless. So it was good to have at least a taste of what was going on elsewhere. Some of the conference tweets encouraged me to talk to others about research presentations that I didn’t get to attend.

2. I can imagine how this practice is useful for professional and citizen scientists who are not able to attend a meeting. I know that if I were not at the #ESCJAM2012, I would have been following along from my office desk. I plan to virtually attend conferences like this in the future.

3. I noticed that live tweeting can be distracting in a number of ways. First, I often worried that I was causing distraction to neighbors when I would pull out my iPad to compose and send a tweet during a talk. Although I tried to sequester myself near the back edges of rooms (not great for face-to-face networking), I would sometimes get glances when my iPad lit up. Second, the act of composing and sending a tweet distracted me for a few moments from what was going on up front. There were a few times that I knew that I had missed an important point. And third, I know that a few of my followers found the stream of insect tweets to be a bit of a hassle. None of these are insurmountable, but all are issues that we need to be aware of.

4. Some tweets are better than others, including tweets at a scientific conference. Was every one of my tweets useful? I doubt it. Did every one of my tweets fairly represent the talk that I was listening to? Is that even possible in 140 characters? Obviously not. As Marshall McLuhan famously intoned, the medium is the message. Ultimately, is Twitter the best medium for science?

5. To expand on point #4, the best tweets were the ones that contained added value. A great example of this was a “toy” built by David Shorthouse that “caught” tweets with the #ESCJAM2012 hashtag and a species name and then pulled up a bunch of related references.

This is but one example of how Twitter can, in fact, punch above its 140 character weight.

In a much less technical fashion, in one or two instances I dug up new or classic papers related to a presentation and provided the URL(s) in a tweet.

Of course, that whole process took even longer than a regular tweet because I had my nose buried in Google Scholar; so we’re back at point #2. Some form of automation, perhaps similar to that also envisioned by David, could do what I did more effectively without me actually having to poke away at my iPad while only partly paying attention to someone who spent a lot of time putting together a good presentation.

6. Science is becoming more and more open, and that is a good thing. Journal articles and conferences were originally intended to increase the flow of information, ideas, and data. For many, many years both have done just that. But the web-connected world means that those vehicles don’t always do that as well as they used to in their fully traditional form; nor do they do it as well as they could considering the available technology. Just as paywalls at journal sites act to slow the flow of information compared to innovative open access options, conference travel and fees represent a paywall as well. We now have the technology to tear down those conference walls so that all of our colleagues and the general public can benefit and build on our ideas. Twitter might be part of the paywall wrecking crew, at least in the near term.

7. What if each session at a conference had a designated tweeter (DT)? Sessions already have a moderator and a projectionist, and I can imagine adding a DT to that mix. Each DT in each concurrent session would tweet into one unified conference account (e.g. @ESCJAM2012). Each session would have its own separate hashtag (e.g. #ESCforestry, #ESCbiodiversity, #ESCevolution, #ESCecology). The choice of DT for a session would be based on their interest and expertise in order to make the tweets as relevant as possible. In other words, thought would go into the choice of a session DT; the DT wouldn’t necessarily be the first available volunteer Others in the sessions would be encouraged to participate as well, but general participants would not feel like the tweeting burden was on them. General participants could maintain good focus – why even meet in person if your nose is in your device half of the time? – and could tweet from time-to-time if they felt a reason or had the expertise add value to the online conversation. But whatever the general participants decided to do, the session would be broadcast in an effective manner by an engaged and expert DT.

Do you have other thoughts on this practice? Where do you see this going in the future? Is live tweeting simply a road stop on the way to standardized full broadcasts of conferences? What, if anything, does tweeting bring to the table that is missing from face-to-face interaction or that couldn’t be realized through other non-electronic means? What hesitations to you have about this practice? How has live tweeting been a benefit to you or to others who you know?

Live tweeting, or something like it, seems to be the direction that we’re heading. It’s time for some frank discussion about the best ways to make scientific conferences more open to all. So tweet away!