A missed opportunity

I received a very tempting offer today: A friend of mine, who’s faculty at a major research university here in London, invited me to become a guest lecturer for the next spring term and take over a class in consumer behaviour. It would have been seven sessions, three hours each.

I always enjoyed teaching, and the study of consumer behavior (with all its ethical, cultural, and economic implications) was what got me interested in a career in academia in the first place. So I really struggled with myself before turning down the offer. The classes are scheduled to start in January, hence I would have had to begin preparing the lectures in November at the latest – and there was no way of doing that if I still wanted to submit my Ph.D. thesis this year and work on Mendeley at the same time.

Luxury problems, I guess, but I still feel a little sad over this missed opportunity. Well, maybe in the fall!

If scientists were tabloid fodder

And now for something completely different. Do you know 14? 14 is an artist who satirizes celebrity culture on her blog Gallery of the Absurd. Here’s my favourite of her paintings:

For months the world has been anticipating the arrival of the Brangelina baby. Tabloids and bloggers have been speculating that this baby is destined to be the Most Beautiful Child Ever. New York Magazine ruffled feathers when stating “Not since Jesus has a baby been so eagerly anticipated.” What I’d like to speculate is…..what if the offspring of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt isn’t as stunningly gorgeous as everyone assumes? What if she’s just a regular looking baby….maybe even a little goofy looking? It could happen!

Now, did you ever wonder what would happen if scientists were tabloid fodder? I actually didn’t. But 14 does:

I’ve always wondered what our culture would be like if we obsessed about the private lives and accomplishments of scientists, researchers and great thinkers the same way we obsess over celebrities. Would we follow closely the scandals of scientific study the same way we follow the scandals of Britney or Madonna? Would certain appealing scientists be given their own reality shows?

… and her answer is hilarious:

Unfortunately, my scientific achievements are not yet colossal enough for me to be included in the science tabloids. I still hope to win the Ig Noble Prize one day.

Via Gallery of the Absurd.

An excellent EuroScience adventure, Part II

After writing so much about the other fun speeches, sessions, and things to do at the ESOF2008, I didn’t manage to talk about our own session, “Euroscience’s Interactive Workshop: Development of a virtual network custom designed for scientists”, which took place on Monday afternoon.

The sessions was started off by Professors Peter Westh and Roberto Poli, who each presented their vision for an interdisciplinary network for researchers. In their view, ontologies and semantic knowledge will play a key part in establishing a useful network that is not merely a “Facebook for scientists”, but helps to connect researchers through highlighting common areas of interest or – as Prof. Westh emphasized – possible new applications of existing knowledge.

That, of course, was music to our ears. We’ve talked about our “Mendeley = Last.fm for research” vision before on this blog, but the EuroScience workshop was the perfect venue for tossing the idea around a bit further. After all, Last.fm has managed to create the largest ontological classification (and the largest open database) of music in the world, by aggregating the musical tastes of its 20 million users and then data-mining it for similar musical genres, artists, and songs.

So our presentation was aimed at exploring how these principles could be applied to research. You can find an abridged version below! I tried my best at voiceover narration, but doing it in front of my computer at midnight just doesn’t turn out as lively as standing in front of an audience:

After the talk, we got great feedback from the audience. The panel moderator, Jens Degett, even wondered whether we just might have solved the major problem of Open Access – the researchers’ lack of participation: With Mendeley, researchers have an increased incentive to post their articles online, because it enables them track the evolution of their readership in real-time!

One of the audience members who came up to us after the presentation was Anders Norgaard, a Ph.D. student from Denmark who had some cool suggestions for future features. We also talked about open sourcing Mendeley Desktop, and I mentioned to him that we had three KDE developers on our team. This is the dialog that ensued:

Anders: Oh, really? What are their names?

Me: Well, there’s Mike Arthur…

Anders: Mike Arthur? I know him, he’s quite famous in the KDE scene!

Me: …and Fred Emmott…

Anders: Fred Emmott? The guy who’s doing Slamd64?!

Me: …yes, and Robert Knight will be starting next Monday…

Anders: Robert Knight?! He’s famous, too! How did you manage to get those guys?

Well, the credit goes to Mike. I knew that we had brilliant engineers on our team, but I was clueless that they were actually famous… Mike, Fred, Robert – I tip my hat to you guys!

Defending fair use

I wanted to write up Part II of our EuroScience Adventures today, but unfortunately, I didn’t manage to – look out for them tomorrow! However, I came across a very interesting (and, at the risk of sounding pompous, important) video today.

It describes how Chris Boulton‘s thesis was repeatedly turned down for publication because its data contained copyrighted material (excerpts from fashion ads), the use of which should have fallen under the “fair use” doctrine.

For scholars who study media, the internet has broadened research horizons and expanded the reach of teaching and publications. But powerful gatekeepers remain. From academic journals seeking to control our intellectual property to lawyers crying foul when we quote from copyrighted material, we are bombarded with a myriad of confusing and dubious restrictions. In short, the implied threat of legal action creates a chilling effect that impacts us all. Some have pushed back, arguing that our educational activities are protected under the “fair use” statute. But this is a risky game to play. The rules aren’t always clear. And when it comes to fair use, we either use it, or lose it.


Via Open Students via A Blog Around the Clock.

An excellent EuroScience adventure, Part I

Well, what can I say! The EuroScience Open Forum 2008 in Barcelona has turned out great so far. Due to its considerable greatitude and excellent greatishness, Jan decided not to let me have all the fun by myself and joined me yesterday.

On the downside, the heat and travel stress didn’t exactly help me get rid of my still-persisting cough/throat inflammation. I was barely able to sleep again for the first two nights in Barcelona, and I will need some more days rest at home when I return to London. Nonetheless, we attended some very inspiring sessions and received enthusiastic feedback on our presentation today (more on that in a later post) – let me recapitulate.

Saturday, the most interesting session was on “Open Science” or “Open Notebook Science”, on which Prof. Peter Murray-Rust from Cambridge gave a very spirited talk…

…followed by a not-so-spirited talk given by he-who-shall-not-be-named and in which every slide looked like this:

Anyhow, “Open Notebook Science” is a fairly recent idea which has gained more and more exposure in the past few months. The basic premise is that researchers should not only share their publications through Open Access outlets, but also freely publish their raw data alongside it so that it can be validated, re-purposed and aggregated.

This, of course, entails some problems: Academic careers and tenure decisions depend on publications, so how can you incentivise researchers to lay open their data before they’re certain that they have “wrung” all possible publications out of it? I believe that our “Last.fm for research” model, i.e. the chart-like tracking of which papers are being widely read, which authors are up-and-coming etc., could also be extended to raw data – thus giving credit to people who have created the raw data that others are successfully using.

Two other highlights yesterday and today were the keynote speeches by Prof. Marcus du Sautoy from Oxford and by Physiology/Medicine Nobel laureate Dr. Richard J. Roberts. Both described how they had discovered their love of science and the fields they wanted to dedicate themselves to. Little known facts:

Prof. du Sautoy originally wanted to become a spy (to get a nice black gun like his mum, who had worked for the foreign office) and thus tried to learn many different languages. By his own admission, he failed miserably because he did not find languages to be logical enough. Fortunately for him, Mathematics – and especially Symmetry, his field of expertise – offered him a way of describing and understanding the world in more logical terms. Finally, despite his obsession with symmetry, he had this wonderful quote from the 14th-century Japanese Essays in Idleness:

In everything […] uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth… Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished.

This reminded me strikingly of the Law of Closure in Gestalt psychology which describes how the mind will try to complete figures if they are unfinished – hence deliberately leaving something incomplete will engage the mind’s creativity.

Today, then, Dr. Roberts spoke about his way from unruly, almost-expelled-from-school teenager to molecular biologist and Nobel laureate.

Dr. Roberts had actually wanted to become a professional snooker player – back in the 1960s, he was West England snooker champion. That was also when he received what he described as one of his most profound life lessons:

During a snooker tournament, he had sunk an incredible “lucky shot” – but then failed to make the next one. After the game, an old man came down from the audience and said to him:

Listen, if you sink a lucky shot like that, you have to concentrate twice as hard on your next shot. Everyone can be lucky, but if you get lucky – don’t feel bad, instead work extra hard to take advantage of it.

Seems to have worked out alright for him! After the talk, I hopped onto the stage to give Dr. Roberts a brief pitch of Mendeley, since he’s now actively involved in the Open Access movement. I’m sure that he gets loads of requests like these, but if we’re lucky, who knows – he might just find our idea interesting enough to give us some feedback.

Finally, here are two pictures of me wearing a brain helmet, looking at my brain activity (and oddly, not seeing any?!):

Phew. I should stop writing now. Must sleep. Will tell more of our exploits later. Adios!

Moving forward

The last couple of weeks have been pretty exciting. We moved offices just in time to have enough space for all the new people who have started working for Mendeley recently. They have been working hard to optimize the software architecture, databases, interfaces, integration and usability of Mendeley Web and Mendeley Desktop.

Some of you are probably wondering why you haven’t received an invitation code yet. Well we have been working non-stop on many new features and we can’t wait to release them; so we’d rather hold off the invitations until we can present you our shiny new version. Also some major refactoring work has been done in the last weeks so we want to ensure that the version we give out is working as perfectly as possible.

Just to give you a short teaser of stuff to come…

  • Linux and MAC versions of Mendeley Desktop
  • Auto-installer of updates
  • Shared Groups (working on tags and notes of articles collaboratively)
  • Improved synchronization interface of Mendeley Desktop
  • Publication handling in Mendeley Web
  • Re-design and usability improvements of various areas of Mendeley Web
  • Personal statistics of your library
  • Speed improvements

Although there is still a reasonable amount of bugfixing left, we are trying our best to not keep you waiting too long…  as you can see, there is a lot to look forward to! 🙂

Mendeley at EuroScience Open Forum 2008

Well, my voice is slowly returning at last. It’s a race against time, because I’m invited to give a presentation at the EuroScience Open Forum 2008 in Barcelona next Monday afternoon! If my voice doesn’t hold up, I’m determined to croak and gesticulate wildly instead. The session is titled “Euroscience’s Interactive Workshop: Development of a virtual network custom designed for scientists”:

The purpose of the workshop is to discuss and give input as to how to develop a trans-, multi-, and inter-disciplinary (semantic) network for scientists on the internet. Very often it is the combination of knowledge from different fields or the borderline between different scientific paradigms from diverse research cultures which creates new ideas and knowledge. It is relatively easy for a researcher to know what is going on in their field and to have contact and exchange of knowledge with his peers. It is much more difficult to find trans-disciplinary fora for discussion.

I’m really, really, really looking forward to this! Not only will it be my first time in Barcelona, but also my first ESOF conference, and the programme looks fantastic. The talks and presentations are grouped into the following topics:

The human mind and behaviour
The Very Big and the Very Small
Open society, open science
Engineering the body
What should we eat and how should we look?
Enhancing energy security, fighting global warming
Science and Innovation Policy
Science and Art
Screening: burdens and benefits
Communicating Science

The science nerd in me will have a hard time deciding what to attend… I’ll arrive in Barcelona on Friday night and I’ll stay until Wednesday morning – so if you’d like to meet and hang out at the conference, just