Research Blogging

Time to talk briefly about other uses of blogging. Some time ago I spoke about the idea of using blogging as a sharper tool for exchanging and even developing research ideas. The conversation about the suggestion degenerated into vapour, at some point, and having floated the idea and learned from the conversation, I left it alone. In public at least.

In private, I continued. The fact is that I have other blogs on the go. I’d like to tell you about one of them, since it might be a useful tool for you too. The way I use it is simple. I run my “lab” with it. It’s my virtual lab-space. I have about five students working with me, and a million and one projects, and not enough hours in the day. The students all are working on several projects with me, with each other, and alone…. but all under the umbrella of being part of my little “subgroup” of the larger high energy theory group here at USC. I want us all to have conversations, point at new papers, throw out ideas, show partial computations to each other (and definitely to me) for comment, share drafts of papers with each other, etc.

So far so standard. Normally, this is all done with emails back and forth, one on one conversations, etc. Sometimes those conversations can be supplemented by one or other person from the group (me, or anyone else) dropping in and setting the whole thing straight with a comment. Sure, you can do this with email in the “reply-to-all” mode, but….

A blog is the perfect tool for making this all work seamlessly. On the “cvjlab” blog (that’s not its name), which is well over a year old, there are cvjlab snapconversations going on all the time on a wide variety of projects. It does not matter where we all are on the planet, we can just log in and read what is going on… leave a question, pick up an answer… report on progress on a collaboration… share an idea. It is fully equipped with LaTeX for writing technical things, and it is trivial to upload figures and files for everyone in the collaboration to have access to. We are in a sense meeting all the time, but on our own schedules. And we can use it to coordinate real face-to-face meetings too. It is fully searchable, and so it is easy to refer to old conversations/ideas, and it is also a sort of diary of our progress on various projects too.

In short, I think that this can a most useful coordination tool for research collaborations, and for advising students, running short or long-term working groups, etc. I’m not claiming to have invented this. I’m jut not aware of anyone in physics (or any science field) doing this, and so I thought I’d tell you about it in case it might be of interest to you to implement for your group or subgroup.

Logistics? WordPress is what I like to use, just like for this blog. It takes a short time (less than an hour) to set up on a computer and tailor to your needs (minutes if you are using vanilla settings). I have it set up so that only a restricted set of users –those in my lab- can post, and nobody can modify each others posts (except me of course). Nobody can comment unless they are part of the group. An outsider -if they found it by accident- can see *some* of the content, but there is whole layer of protected posts that they cannot even see… that’s where we have the juiciest stuff we’re working on. It is also the place where everyone (including me) can say silly things and ask silly questions if we want to, without the whole world watching. That latter is a very important feature, in fact. I learned that from those earlier conversations I talked about.

Let me strongly urge you to consider using a setup like this to help with your own research group. You might be surprised how useful it can be.

-cvj

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26 Responses to Research Blogging

  1. Jeff Hodges says:

    That is a damn good idea.

  2. Scott H. says:

    Since I’m suffering from insomnia tonight (schedule all wonky — I spent last week in Australia), might as well do some more quality internet time …

    I’ve been thinking about doing something similar to this for my group, but more on the lines of a wiki. Did you consider a wiki type arrangement? If so, what made you choose a blog format rather than a wiki?

    I’m still early in my thought process and have not committed to any particular arrangement, so any thoughts you can share would help me.

  3. Clifford says:

    I think that the things I wanted to be able to do and achieve sounded more to me like a blog than a wiki, but that is almost certainly because I know more about the former than the latter. I have heard of another project which is more of the wiki format, and I will be finding out more shortly.

    -cvj

  4. Plato says:

    Well, I hope you will keep in touch with the “public bloggery” you have here?

  5. Amara says:

    That’s funny, You talk about the value of blogging in exactly the same way I talk about the value of wikis as collaborative tools. One colleague (him in Germany) and I (in Italy) just finished our editorial duties for a conference proceedings book, and the wiki (pbwiki.com) was immensely helpful for him and I to synch up our work. So I wanted a wiki environment again for my latest project for my colleagues and I, who are stretched over a 9 hour time-zone in three different countries. (I chose schtuff.com, in my latest project.) Wiki farms, companies that provide wiki spaces, are everywhere now. The quality of software for even the free service component of what they offer is high. For people like me who have zero budget for such a thing, and limited computer capabilities offered by my research environment, such “Wiki Farms” are a godsend.

    And upon skimming the projects hosted by wiki farms, the Internet seems to be teeming with collaborative projects. Forget Time magazine’s “You” (You Tube) for Man of the Year. The blooming of wikis give us “We”!

  6. Supernova says:

    I’ve switched over to using a private WordPress blog for my personal research notes. It’s nice because I can access it from any computer, so don’t have to worry about whether I have the right notebook with me. Sorting, categorizing, linking to web resources, and searching past notes are all much much easier than with either paper or static electronic files. I have it password-protected and unlinked from any other page, and comments are disabled, so maintenance is nil. I don’t have Latex, though; still have to keep equation-heavy notes on paper (but at least I can write in the blog which notebok they’re in, or make a PS or PDF file and upload it). My office mate, who is much more of a techno-geek than I am, turned me on to it, and it’s working out great.

    Love the idea of a group blog/wiki for larger projects. Thanks for the details!

  7. Bee says:

    Hi Clifford,

    you know, this is really interesting because I’ve thought along similar lines recently. I’m about to set up a discussion group on the institute, and I have started to put some info together, some topics, literature, questions I want to discuss etc. I plan about putting these on a blog as well (actually, I’ve already done this). One reason why I can imagine this might be useful is that it’s sometimes just good to have arguments written down. But then, I’d also like to make the discussion available for people who can’t be here, like friends and colleagues on other institutions, or those who are travelling for some while. I’m not sure if it works out though. It depends on what the others think of the idea, we’ll see. Best,

    B.

  8. Warren says:

    It’s a sad state when professors can’t meet in person with their own students. Do we have to video conference with people who are just down the hall? We still have legs (or @ least wheel chairs), don’t we? What’s next — will you also teach courses by blog? Why even bother to come in to work? Why even bother to get out of bed? Don’t tell me: You’re one of those people who can’t walk without one hand holding a cell phone (while the other is holding a cup of coffee). Email is fine for papers being written, or collaborators in other cities, but is scheduling times to meet really that hard?

  9. Moshe says:

    Hey Clifford, as you know this subject is close to my heart. I put on hold my experimentation for various reasons, but will be back to it shortly.

    For collaboration on a specific topic, or set of topics, I find the wiki more efficient than a blog, for various reasons. One of them is that I think of blog posts as essentially Turing machines (with noise), easier to have simultaneous conversation on many topics in the wiki format. Another thing is that in wiki it is easier to erase mistakes and otherwise edit, so in the end you get a more or less coherent document.

    For a virtual group meeting, I think either blog or forum are adequate. Forum may be a bit better in that it is more natural for any member to initiate a discussion, though I am sure that could also be done in a blog. Some sort of privacy is the key issue there, and I may seek further advice from you at some stage.

  10. Pingback: The n-Category Café

  11. DancingBear says:

    Although I’ve experimented with blogs as lab notebooks for theory (and I began to do this in 2000, I would proudly point out…), I now prefer wikis. Indeed, I’ve become an evangelist of sorts for their use in collaborative research…

    In the end, it’s a choice between emphasizing a linear temporal structure that makes progress evident, and a tree-like structure that renders logical structure more obvious. It is possible to recover some of the temporal structure in wikis by pairing them with RSS feeds that report updates, although so far I haven’t found any way not to be alerted to the fact that somebody was disturbed by a single comma somewhere, and changed it.

    Where both blogs and wikis are sorely lacking, so far, is in document management à la CVS; my dream wiki/blog, at the moment, would be CVS (even better, SVN) integration, so that I could upload a new version of a paper section, blog about the changes, and have an easy way to link to the new file and to its diff with the previous version.

    Warren—: of course meeting in person is irreplaceable! But even at those meetings down the hall, somebody has to take notes, or copy the content of blackboards… and then probably displace those dateless notes anyway, or bury them between thousands of e-mails! It’s the (relative) permanence of research blogs and wikis that makes them so useful, as a record of achievements and thought processes, as seed material for papers and lectures, and so on.

  12. donna says:

    My husband uses a wiki for this with his group at work and also with his professional association LOPSA. The wiki helps keep things better organized than a blog can, I think.

  13. Steffen says:

    DancingBear: Did you have a look at Trac (http://trac.edgewall.org/)? Not that I tried it myself really thoroughly, but it is a combination of Wiki, SVN and bug tracking. It is obviously more aimed at programming projects, but it might be useful for scientific project managment aswell.

  14. spyder says:

    Thanks for this thread and the input of the commenters. It is very helpful for our group who has been researching a variety of interactive web strategies for future events. Will keep checking back for updates.

  15. DancingBear says:

    Hi Steffen,

    I did look at Trac, not least because my projects have a strong computational component, and even went as far as installing it (which is hell, by the way; it was a 20+ step process on a stock RedHat installation, and I did get through only with some suboptimal choices).

    By the way, Greg Wilson at U. Toronto is spearheading a Trac derivative (https://www.drproject.org) adapted toward teaching software development in the classroom.

    But I’m a bit skeptical about applying a software-development paradigm (tickets, bugs) to research (which has derivations and datasets). If we had the resources to create from scratch a system comparable to Trac to develop research papers, how different would it be? What features would it have? (Ability to annotate CVS submissions, to link directly to targets within the paper, to track and perhaps even notarize the appearance and massaging of datasets on different file systems, to keep TO DO lists and delegate them, and on, and on…)

  16. markb says:

    Would be interesting to hear which Wikis people working in math/physics are using, possibly commenting on pros and cons.
    I’ve tried myself to find a Wiki among the multitude of available ones, but was unable to singel out one which looked particularly well suited for reserachers collaborating in math and physics. Is no one aware of any ongoing open source project to develope such a software?

  17. Amara says:

    schtuff.com does not have CVS, but they _do_ provide a default record of the last changes by the relevant member (who made the changes) of the wiki. You can find it in the Index part of the wiki, for example:

    geochemical.tex changed Tue 12/19/2006 at 1:08 AM by amaragraps
    consistency.tex changed Mon 12/18/2006 at 6:05 PM by amaragraps
    simulations.tex changed Mon 12/18/2006 at 6:05 PM by amaragraps
    introduction.tex changed Mon 12/18/2006 at 6:04 PM by amaragraps

  18. Garrett Lisi says:

    I also prefer using a wiki for my research notebook, for all the above mentioned reasons There’s also the subtle reason that in a wiki one can follow references both ways — seeing what an idea is based on as well as following “referenced by” links the other way to see how it is used. This is very useful for hopping around in idea space, as well as for propagating changes — like factors of 2.

    The wiki format caters to ideas that rapidly interconnect and build on each other. Here’s mine:

    physicswiki.org

    It’s all open source, with many tweaks. If anyone would like to play with a copy, drop me an email. The whole thing consists of one html file and the supporting javascript math rendering files. The downside of this particular wiki is that it’s set up as a personal notebook, not for collaboration.

  19. Clifford says:

    Dear All,

    Some of the discussion spilled over to the n-Category Café, which you can visit if you follow the trackback link below.

    -cvj

  20. Plato says:

    What differentiates blogs from webpages or forums is that blogs can be part of a shifting Internet-wide social network formed by many links between different blogs.

    This linked paragraph to the source? A whole new culture.

    I have been at this while as well in terms of developing ideas about how we communicate. I knew who Gavin was and what they did as well. Haelfix.

    It does not take a scientist to know that we can intuitively ignite minds to think of other things and to bring them into a discussion. Let them go on their own and develope further.

    I have used these types of software for social change. Political changes in the current systems. About how capitalisms overtakes humanistic values. About heath care and the distinctions of two levels in society being treated different, because one has more then another.

    Indymedia, by understanding that getting the news out there at a local level can fuel perspective on a much larger level. Things that are censored.

    Youtube a fascination of real time information getting out there for the bloggers and the general public. Youtube another name of what had been going on and is a revision of something that began before media was controlled by capitalism and their agendas?

    And then their is science of course. I would have to respect the privacy of those young students “finding their way” and the tutelage under which they might develop. Why that type of blogging for your students would be appropriate. The Wiki is interesting.

    I know most of the commentators over the years on the different forums/blogs and some have helped tremendously even with the “arrogant attitude” by putting it out there. Censoring of the Brilliant ****pots and all, saids one:)

    But yes the future is changing and a whole culture exists about the types of software being developed and how this GNU line of thinking spread from what open communities should be? Copyleft?

    How we might be protected, knowing the IP addresses are out there for moderators.
    How do we protect privacy if you know our IP? How we can treat people respectfully without stereotyping people.

  21. Pingback: Musings

  22. Clifford says:

    Folks:-

    Jacques has posted about Wikis -his preferred collaboration tool- over at musings. From what he, and several of you have said, I’d like to learn more about Wikis too.

    …but before we decend into a silly “A is better than B” type discussion, I’d like to advocate for also entertaining the possibility that “a little bit of A and B” might work for some people too.

    -cvj

  23. Alejandro Rivero says:

    I have jsut remembered an issue… How do you avoid to get citations into a wiki? Actually there was a PhysRevD article, early this year, citing a missed page of my wholy missed wiki section in physcomments.

  24. Scott H. says:

    I’d like to advocate for also entertaining the possibility that “a little bit of A and B” might work for some people too.

    Following this discussion, I think this is the direction I’m going to look into. Wikis are probably better for the “research bulletin board” (I had experience administering one while helping run a KITP program last summer, and use one to help organize a big project i’m involved in), but blogs are probably better for the “research diary” side of things. A mixed tool might be perfect for me.

  25. Risa says:

    Research wikis are great –been using them for various purposes for about 2 years. Have done both wikis and blogs, and I agree it depends on the purpose, but for me the wiki is a bit better for the group site, including sharing resources, and posting and commenting on results. I keep meaning to keep a regular research blog for my own purposes, but I have a hard time being consistent…

  26. Amara says:

    Someone on another list pointed out Thinkature as a tool that could help with collaborative projects. A kind of visual instant messaging, so it is wrong for the purpose to which you write here. Instead, it fits those cases where a group needs to meet at a particular time, but cannot, so this might help with eliminating some of that long-distance traveling. This looks to be rather new, and it would bump into Skype which can already do some of this. Does anyone have experience with Thinkature?