¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In 2008 Ian Mulvany, then based in the technology group at Nature Publishing Group and now technical director at eLife posed the question1 “What would it take to make Connotea a Killer App for scientists”. At the time Connotea was one of a small number of bookmarking tools that helped researchers to collect references and to share the libraries that they created. Around this time two things were evident that have not changed very much. The first was that the idea of a “Facebook for scientists” was compelling enough that many were trying to build, or were willing to fund, the development of such a thing. At one point roughly one a week seemed to be announced.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The second thing that was becoming obvious was that most of them were failing. Sites that focussed on sharing data or methodology, that built communities around research articles or tried to behave like online journal clubs were struggling to achieve critical mass and most appeared to be ghost towns. For most of these services, despite claims of massive user numbers, not a lot has changed since. With a lot of services starting the number of researchers simply doesn’t add up to enough to reach a critical mass across all of these services. No critical mass means no network effect and in turn none of the potential benefits of a social media service.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 So what would it take to persuade researchers to make more use of social web based tools? What does it take to get enough people involved so that the network effects become apparent. I asked Jamie Heywood, the founder of Patients Like Me, why it was that people with chronic diseases were willing to share detailed and very personal information in a forum that is essentially public. His response was that these people have an ongoing and extremely pressing need to optimise their treatment regime and lifestyle. While the numbers were relatively small the engagement with the services is very deep.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The challenge is therefore to articulate how to achieve the maximum numbers alongside the deepest possible engagement. So here are my five rules. These are framed around the idea of reference management tools like Connotea, Citeulike and Zotero, and were later cited as being an influence in the early design of Mendeley. Despite this focus I think the principles are sufficiently general to apply to most web services.
- ¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0
- Any tool must fit within my existing workflows. Once adopted I may be persuaded to modify or improve my workflow but to be adopted it has to fit to start with. For citation management this means that it must have one click bookmarking from where ever I am but will also integrate other means of marking papers such as favourites on social media or other bookmarking services.
- Any new tool must clearly outperform all the existing tools that it will replace in the relevant workflows without the requirement for network or social effects. It has got to be absolutely clear on first use that I am going to want to use this instead of e.g. Endnote. In the case of a reference manager this means I have to be able to format and manage references in a word processor or publication document. This is a technical nightmare but an absolute necessity to get widespread uptake. This needs to be clear the first time I use the system. That means it will be useful before I have built up my local social network and before there is a large enough user base for network effects and sharing benefits to emerge.
- It must be near 100% reliable with near 100% uptime. Web services have a bad reputation for going down. People don’t trust their network connection and are much happier with local applications still. Don’t give them an excuse to go back to a local app because the service goes down. Addendum – make sure people can easily backup and download their stuff in a form that will be useful even if your service disappears. Obviously they’ll never need to but it will make them feel better (and don’t scrimp on this because they will check if it works).
- Provide at least one (but not too many) really exciting new feature that makes people’s life better. This is related to #2 but is taking it a step further. Beyond just doing what I already do better I need a quick fix of something new and exciting. My wishlist for Connotea is below.
- Prepopulate. Build in publicly available information before the users arrive. For a publications database this is easy and this is something that BioMedExperts2 today got right. Frequently pre-existing social network and pre-existing library information are available. Populate ‘ghost’ accounts that users can claim with public information. In the case of a reference manager both bibliographic and co-authorship information is available3. This will give people an idea of what the social aspect can bring and encourage them to bring more people on board.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 So that is so much motherhood and applepie. And nothing that Ian didn’t already know. But what about features? Again I would take a back to basics approach. What do I actually want?
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Thinking about what I want in a reference manager leads me to a service that will do three quite different things. I want it to hold a library of relevant references in a way I can search and use and I want to use this to format and reference documents when I write them. I want it to help me manage the day to day process of dealing with the flood of literature I need to track. And I want it to help me be more effective when I am researching a new area or trying to get to grips with something (offline search). High quality discovery and search tools remain a problem that even the biggest players haven’t solved. The basic library management and document writing functionality are a given and the first priority. But the third problem is one that I think would benefit from some new thinking.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 What I would really like to see here is a way of pivoting my view of the literature around a specific item. This might be a paper, a dataset, or a blog post. I want to be able to click once and see everything that item cites, click again and see everything that cites it. Pivot away from that to look at what a semantic search or taxonomy system thinks the paper is about. To see what it has that is related and then pivot back and see how many of those two sets are common. What are the papers this review isn’t citing? Is there a set of authors this paper isn’t citing? Have they looked at all the datasets that they should have? Are there general news media items in this area, books on Amazon, books in my nearest library, books on my bookshelf? Are they any good? Have any of my trusted friends published or bookmarked items in this area? Do they use the same tags or different ones for this subject?
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Essentially I am asking for is to be able to traverse the graph of how all these things are interconnected. Most of these connections are already explicit somewhere but nowhere are they all brought together in a way that the user can slice and dice them the way they want. My belief is that if you can start to understand how people use that graph effectively to find what they want then you can start to automate the process and that that will be the route towards real time search that actually works.
- ¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
- The question was posed at the now defunct social website FriendFeed. Thankfully the page was captured by the Internet Archive https://web.archive.org/web/20150406201030/http://friendfeed.com/ianmulvany/843063fc/we-are-having-serious-think-about-connotea-what. Many of the conversations that crystallised into these posts started on FriendFeed and much of that is now lost. ↩
- Ironically BioMedExperts is now long defunct. ↩
- This is one guideline I’d be less confident about today. Pre-populating with information from other sources makes people quite uncomfortable in a world much more focussed on privacy and concerns about the aggregation of personal information. While this was strictly about gathering publicly information, it might leave a sufficiently bad taste in people’s mouths today to actually hinder adoption ↩