Speeding up Science

So little time. So many fish waiting for a name. Brian Sidlauskas, an ichthyologist, was in Guyana charting the biodiversity of the distressed Cuyuni river. During a two-week trip, he discovered many endangered species. But to obtain a permit to export these unusual fish, he needed to provide the Guyanan authorities with a name for every specimen, many of which were unknown to him and his student assistant.

That meant work. Radial lines, scales on the lateral, rays in the dorsal fin and rows of teeth – all needed to be counted in order to come up with an identification for each of 5,000 fish. The length and colour patterns of each fish had to be examined, compared with known species and classified.

Thanks to the broadcast power of social networks, Brian did not have to do this on his own. Instead, he turned to Facebook. He posted photographs of each fish and asks his friends on Facebook, who happen to be the world’s community of ichthyologists, to help. They identitied the majority of the fish in less than 24 hours.

“In terms of speed and efficiency, this was an order of magnitude faster than I could have done on my own,” Sidlauskas said later in a short video about this story. “This virtual meeting of the minds is really speeding up how we do science.”

At Knowinnovation we like to create environments that encourage virtual meeting of minds. Every Sandpit and Ideas Lab has its own online space where participants start sharing ideas before the event, and continue conversations afterwards. We have found that these online networks help maintain the momentum and energy around the projects that spin out of our events.

But this fish-naming story excites us because it illustrates how online social networks can accelerate problem-solving and discovery. You may not choose to use Facebook to connect with colleagues in the way that Brian Sidlauskas does. But there are many other ways social networks that can speed up your work. You can share bibliographies on Mendeley or Zotero. You can broadcast questions to colleagues in your field on ResearchGate, a fast-growing social network dedicated to science and research. Using Google+ hangouts you can have online video chats with groups of collaborators for free, and you can organise your contacts into circles, making it easy to post ideas or provocations to a specific group.

Online networks like these make it easier to connect with strangers. No longer are we confined to swimming into the small sea of connections in our own discipline. You can discover and tune into the conversations of strangers on Twitter, and – if you are willing to invest time into building personal relationships online – you can turn strangers into friends and collaborators. And that is good for creativity, because it means we are exposed to more diverse thinking. Ron Burt‘s research on structural holes and good ideas showed that the most innovative ideas come from people with links into disconnected social worlds. It is becoming easier to cultivate a diverse social network in which online connections with friends and strangers extend and deepen one’s connections in the real world.

But most exciting for us are the ways in which online tools can help you think purposefully about your social network as a resource for creativity. Academic communities are becoming increasingly specialised, and specialisation can mean fragmentation. We need ways to keep our networks fresh and energetic, maximising the flow of new ideas. If you use LinkedIn you can use Socilab, to visualising the creative potential of your network, and similar tools exist for Facebook, such as TouchGraph. These tools make it possible to see clusters and communities in your social network, and to reflect on where there could be benefits – such as those Burt talks about – from bridging ideas across communities.

The most juicy challenge in designing your ideal creative network, is finding people you don’t yet know you need to know. By this we mean people with ideas that could combine in exciting ways with yours, but who are invisible to you amidst of the huge shoals of people swimming in the online sea. How to find these might-be-interesting people? It can be helpful to look for people with something, but not too much, in common with you. In a recent conference talk, network thinker Valdis Krebs, proposed a way  to map Twitter lists to find the serendipity that is submerged in the relationships around us. He thinks productive collisions are most likely where we aim to connect based on our similarities – where there is some common ground – but always attentive to how we can benefit from our differences. You might call this a managed approach to serendipity.

By looking out for future friends and collaborators, seeking to benefit from differences, you can start to design a creative network and look out for ways it might help to accelerate problem-solving. You never know, just as for Brian Sidlauskas, an ‘order of magnitude’ change in the speed of scientific discovery might be yours too.


Know Further: Some digital tools for scientific research. How Twitter is changing research and teaching. Scientists can use social media to enhance and communicate their research; they can even use social networks to get funding. Yet they may be slow to adapt social media. A brief history of social media. More about social network analysis. A blog about network thinking, and creating genius networks.