Browsing for researchers

[Crossposted at SpreadingScience]

I use a RSS reader and read feeds because it is part of my writing process. Lately, my RSS reading habits have changed. I haven’t given up on it completely, but my process has changed. My feeds are organized into folders and the folders ordered by priority. Like a farmer tending his crops, I’d scan through each folder, each feed, bookmarking and annotating what caught my eye, and looking for patterns and connections. This scan, capture, analyze patterns, and write a blog post is a part of my routine.

It still is, but I now use other methods for scanning. It’s more like hanging out in a village square or a pub — conversations, news, and resources come to me. I’m finding new links and posts either through twitter, comments on my blog post, or through people who have linked to me.

So, it’s like I have a left brain, orderly, linear way to scan and a right brain, wildly creative way to scan.

RSS and newsreaders present an incredible set of tools to filter through a lot of information very rapidly. It is like you are directly hooked into to a diverse group of communities in real time. You can see how different items spread through a linked community and drive communication.

And the orderly vs crazy approaches to connecting help one’s own creativity and innovation by interacting with our tacit information, producing the opportunity to alert other communities.

I like how Chris Brogan describes his reading goals.

1. Reading what friends write.
2. Reading about the “new marketing” industry and the tech industry (fishbowl).
3. Reading what people recommend.
4. Reading off the wall stuff that inspires new thoughts (outside the bowl).

This sounds very much like an early adopter, who has connection outside to other media outlets, but uses trusted insiders to decide what things to use.

Michele Martin wrote a post summarizing a paper titled How Knowledge Workers Use the Web and pulls out some the classifications referenced in the paper. My RSS reading is mostly information gathering or browsing.

Finding–Looking for something specific, such as an answer to a specific question.
Information gathering–Less specific than finding, this is research that’s focused on a particular goal that’s broader-based than simply getting a specific piece of information.
Browsing–Visiting personal or professional sites with no specific goal in mind other than to “stay up-to-date” or be entertained.
Transacting–Using the web to execute a transaction, such as banking or shopping.
Communicating–Participating in chat rooms or forums (remember–this was done in 2002, prior to Facebook and the explosive growth of blogs, etc.)
Housekeeping–Using the web to check or maintain the accuracy and functionality of web-based resources, such as looking for dead links, cleaning up outdated information, etc.

One of the major aspects of scientific research and innovation comes from browsing, from reading about something not directly related to a specific problem but which may provide valuable insight for the problem. This used to be relatively easy by doing things like sitting in the library once a week going through the table of contents of all the journals that came in that week, carefully writing down the bibliographic information on note cards, so they could be examined later at leisure.

Serendipity could raise its head. But the Internet made searching so much easier. So too many scientists spend their time on the first step, finding. This is, of course, very important but you will really only find what you are looking for. Serendipity is reduced.

A personal example. Many years ago, I was working on inducing protein production in E. coli from specific gene segments. We typically did this by shifting the temperature, which resulted in the inactivation of a repressor and the expression of the gene.

However, for large scale production (think 1000s of liters) this was not a tenable solution. It was really impossible to raise the temperature of the vessel quick enough to make it a viable solution.

I happened to be reading the Table of Contents of the Journal of Bacteriology and saw a paper which discussed some of the biological effects on the bacteria when the pH of the media was shifted to a more acidic condition. I recognized some of the bacterial proteins involved as being similar to the repressor we used.

So I went out and did some experiments and determined that by dropping the pH, large amounts of the specific protein could be produced. Dropping some acid in a large vessel and stirring quickly can rapidly expose all the cells to the same conditions and induce protein production.

But it could also be done under some different conditions, resulting in up to 15 times more recombinant protein being produced.

So, for me, the really important aspect of RSS/newsreaders is bringing browsing back. Every journal has newsfeeds now. I can typically go through several thousand titles in an hour, bookmark the ones I want to examine later and even post the links to a blog, where I can add comments.

My blog becomes my online note card file for interesting articles.

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