A networking resource devoted to biological soil crusts and the researchers who study them. We will provide a means for international scientists to communicate, share their research, share important news and announcements, ask questions and find collaborators. We will also provide a space for informal writing on research, opinion, and ideas (now seeking posters!).

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The web presence of the biocrust research community: a request for participation and ideas

It seems to me that right now, we are seeing an unprecedented interest in the science of biological soil crusts. There are more and more of us in more places conducting this research. Nevertheless, our field is still young and at this moment all of us are more like allies than competitors. We do what we do because we think it is important, fascinating and under appreciated and for the most part we are happy to see another succeed in the same area. In my opinion, we should channel this energy to coordinate our web presence as a research community. I think this can only benefit us as our science becomes "mainstream". I argue below for the value of blogging, online forums, researcher directories, and dynamic bibliographies.

Why not just build a really good static website like soil crust.org? Well, first, there already are more than one static site that are good. In addition to these good existing sites, we also need a dynamic platform with content that changes daily, and a mechanism for two-way talking (comment boxes). So we are talking about something dynamic and interactive. We are in a rapidly growing field and stuff changes all the time. I think of  a good static website and a good dynamic website as complementary, especially if they are cross-linked in a prominent location (for example, here I link soil crust.org on my top bar), which recognizes it as a sister site. What do others think?

So what web resources do we need?

1. A platform for non-technical dissemination of our work. I think that blogs are here to stay for a while and are a logical medium for this. Scientists has a very serious communication problem with people that aren't also scientists. Science blogging is emerging as a real, impactful medium to communicate science. It doesn't replace technical publications in journals, but complements it very well. Many journals now have excellent blogs written by the editors. There are aggregators which collect and repost blog entries about scientific research. This blog you are reading gets about 50-100 page views per day. Now, that is not exactly viral. BUT, that rate of viewing absolutely shatters the rate of traffic my actual papers get. This is an emerging element of scientific impact that we should take part in. Usually governments fund our research with revenue derived from taxes. People that pay the taxes deserve to be able to read about the science that gets funded if they wish to.

Let me illustrate the significance of communicating with non-scientists. Recently Alan Savory did a TED talk promoting his high-intensity rotational grazing method as a way to reverse desertification and climate change. His talk was simple, compelling, and easy to understand. Alot of intelligent people asked me what I thought about this "great" talk. The truth is it was unsubstantiated by data and evidence, plagued by logical flaws, completely wrong in my opinion, and maybe dangerous. He actually refers to "algal crusts" as a symptom of a cancer of the land. He got over 1 million hits, and miseducated about that number of people in my opinion.

How can we counter that? We probably can't now in that particular case, unless we get Jayne to do a TED talk, but it speaks to a need for us to create and disseminate freely available and understandable interpretation of good science and data on a regular basis. We can't complain that people are only picking up bad information if we don't put out good information that a non-professional can read.

The other nice thing about a base blog platform is that comments can be left on posts for anyone to read. This is a good space for researchers to discuss the topic of whatever a given post is about. Also it's a way to interact with members of the general public with an interest in biocrust science.

2. A networking resource. I suggest that a group forum that is viewable to the general public is the best platform for us to communicate freely with each other (see above and below). I currently have one embedded in this blog. Its new. Follow the link "Geodermatophilia Forum" above in the top bar or here. Anyone can select a topic of their choice, and leave a comment. You do not have to have a special account or anything. You will recall list-serves and probably still use some. That is a 20 year old technology, a forum is better.

3. An online, comprehensive biocrust bibliography that can be updated. Scott Bates, Jayne Belnap, Nichole Barger & I have all talked about some form of this at various times. Different people have somewhat different visions, but we all recognize how useful this would be. There is a static one on soilcrust.org, but it needs an update and maybe a format change which Jayne spoke about at BIOCRUST 2013 in Madrid. 

Here's another related idea. Wouldn't it be great if not only were this a bibliography, but a massive shared, searchable collection of pdfs. Maybe Mendeley is the platform? How can we do this, what ideas do people have and how will we accomplish it? This is a great topic for discussion on the forum.

4. A biocrust researcher directory. Currently I have a shoddy version on the right sidebar of this blog. It is not comprehensive, it is just what I had time to piece together. I can envision a standalone page where each researcher has a little bio, contact information, maybe a picture, and a set of links to their other pages if available. Are there other ideas? Leave them on the forum.

5. I dont know. What else do we need, web-wise? Let's discuss it here.

Why a blog rather than, e.g., twitter, facebook? 
Twitter & facebook are great ways to quickly share small snippets of information with lots of people. A blog can do this too, but in addition, a blog is a more complete platform for collecting and listing links and short articles. Also, this blog contains simple buttons at the bottom of each post that allows you to share posts on twitter or facebook. The posts here automatically aggregate to two science blog aggregators, Scienceseeker.org & natureblognetwork.com. With a couple extra steps, posts about published papers can also be published on my personal favorite researchblogging.com. Take a minute and look at these sites, don't you agree that this is a great way to get information out on the web?

When I established the blog you are reading, I did not envision it as "my" blog, I envisioned it as our networking resource. The only way this can actually work is for people to participate and engage. 

Ways to participate in this website (listed from most active to passive):
1. Be a poster. Write on this blog. A post can be as simple as a tweet, e.g. sharing a link,  that costs seconds or an in-depth piece that might require hours. All you need to do is tell me that you want to post, and I will get you set up and you can post as little or as much as you want. Not only can this help disseminate information to the public, but it can help you direct readers to your own work and establish you as a voice to listen to on the topic of biocrusts. So, it's a fun way to spend free time (i.e. a hobby) that can also promote your career. I enjoy bicycling too, but that doesn't promote my science, so I think this is a good deal.

What should you post?

Here's some ideas to get started: a. Share your photos, b. Discuss a paper or news story, c. Update us on your lab activities, d. Cross-post from your other blogs or lab webpage, e. advertise for jobs, books, conferences either in the blog page or the forum, f. review equipment or sell used equipment, g. promote and summarize your recent research, h. post radio or video pieces that you run across relevant to arid lands, crusts, dust, j. find a collaborator or partner on a proposal, k. post a link to your archived data, etc., l. post course plans or curricula for class activities involving biocrusts. m. write a tribute post about a prominent biocrust researcher that is retiring.

2a. Leave comments on blog posts. Commenting on blog posts leads to public conversations and discussions that can be insightful.

2b. Leave messages on the forum. For example, you can: a. enlist help from the crust community (e.g. "Someone please tell me the best way to measure Chlorophyll a using a Synergy HT plate reader", "How can I distinguish Fulgensia species in the field?", etc.)j. b. find a collaborator or partner on a proposal, c. post a link to your archived data, etc.

3. Share things that ought to be posted or linked with a poster. The poster, with minimal effort can share it.

4a. If you are a biocrust researcher & you have some form of website, check to be sure you are in the researcher directory to the right. Make sure the best possible link is used, otherwise give me the information to change it.

4b. If you maintain a website, please consider linking this one. The more links, the higher the site in Google.

5. If you like a post, share it using Facebook, Twitter, Google + other social media. At the bottom of each post there are buttons that allow you to do so easily - just push and enter login details. Also simply tell people about the site.

6.  "Follow" the blog, using your google ID. When you log into google all new posts of the blogs you follow will come up. If you use a blog reader, any new posts will automatically be forwarded there (it's like friending someone in Facebook). Also it is a visible "vote" that you like the content of this webpage, this encourages other to do so also.

7. Bookmark the blog & visit often. Traffic follows traffic, the simplest and most passive way to promote a biocrust website is to visit and read it.

OK, that's my pitch and it is especially focused on younger researchers (grad students, post-docs, new professors and the like). 

In summary please: Tell me if you want to post on the blog (you can tell me via email, the forum, or the comment box below). Use the forum to communicate your ideas about our community web presence. 

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