A month in the life of a Panton Fellow: April 2012

To what extent does the ethos of our first research group – that is, the one we’re part of throughout our doctorate – influence our development as a researcher?

You may wonder at my interest in this question. As it happens, it’s been a recurring thought throughout the past month, which has also seen the start of my Panton Fellowship with the Open Knowledge Foundation. Some of you may have previously read my fellowship application statement, in which I proposed to establish a graduate training initiative in open science here in Oxford, with plans to extend the scheme further afield on conclusion of the initial pilot.

Over the course of April I’ve therefore been able to start putting my plans into action. The training scheme already has a well-defined structure: what I’m doing at this stage is developing more specific descriptions of the content and the training exercises/methods that we’ll be using. Rest assured that I’ll be posting a full version of the course outline once details are finalised: for now though I’ll be providing (at the very least) monthly blog updates on my progress so that you can watch things evolve. Much of the last month has involved exploring various projects within the open science community, both as a source of inspiration and as something of a reconnaissance mission to find out what other training is already out there – and to determine whether they might have something to bring to my OSTI (Open Science Training Initiative) pilot scheme.

One of the most interesting discussions I’ve had on this front is with David Shotton, of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford. He’s introduced me to a series of twenty data management planning questions that he and his colleagues have been developing, aiming to guide graduate students through the various processes of data (and metadata) handling. Vitally, the questions address the issues of long-term data maintenance as well as the more obvious short-term storage/processing during the immediate period of the project. I’m really looking forward to integrating these into the OSTI pilot – particularly since I’m aiming to encourage the students to adopt an integrated approach to data, coding and documentation, viewing them as distinct facets of a cohesive process, rather than completely separate and unrelated ‘research objects’.

I’ve also enjoyed some good discussion with David de Roure of OeRC, and Neil Chue Hong of the Software Sustainability Institute. Both David and Neil directed me to the material detailing the Software Carpentry initiative, which aims to increase the productivity of scientific researchers by providing training in a variety of programming skills (you can view the 90-second introduction to Software Carpentry here), through a combination of on-site and web-based exercises. The SSI is currently assisting with scaling the project up: as far as I’m aware, they’re in the middle of impact and scalability studies and hoping to make the project self-sustaining in the next 2-3 years (for which see their blog). This initiative interested me both for its combination of in-person teaching with self-tutoring, and for its current approaches to expansion. I may not be running my OSTI pilot until November of this year, but I’m trying to anticipate how to approach the issue of sustaining the scheme and expanding it further afield. It’ll be interesting to hear the results of the Software Carpentry review later on this summer…I’ll be listening out for further news!

Jenny Molloy and I have also had the chance to meet up and discuss some shared interests in open science. Jenny’s been in discussion with the leaders of digital collections at the Bodleian Library – there seems to be a certain amount of interest from them in graduate training and in the promotion of open approaches across Oxford, so hopefully we’re going to arrange a meeting with them in the not-too-distant future and take things from there…

So: back to that question I asked earlier. The idea behind my training scheme, as I mentioned in my Panton application statement, is that if we’re to propagate open science approaches across academia as a whole, we need to provide appropriate training for upcoming graduates as well as changing the practices of existing researchers. It’s crucial that we reach students before they enter the research environment, and if my OSTI pilot is to be of use to these students and to serve a useful purpose in the research community, it makes sense to understand some of the social factors involved in the genesis of a researcher. Certainly such insights would be a valuable addition to the OSTI evaluation report at the end of this year. Undoubtedly the group we pitch up in as a young graduate is going to shape our future development in manifold ways, whether through the people it introduces us to, the work/life balance it imposes on us or – the factor that most interests me – the extent to which it shapes our research methodology through a sort of “social bias” in the practices we observe in our colleagues (social scientists beware: I’ve made no attempt to couch this in rigorous terms, please feel free to formalize this as you see fit!). I’ve had a good dig through the literature but haven’t yet been able to unearth any existing studies of this nature. Typical papers I’ve come across have examined such dependencies as productivity on lab size, but I’ve yet to find one addressing research style and group ethos. If you know of any studies like this, please do get in touch or leave me a message below – I’d be really interested to hear from you!

As a brief window into a few other thoughts, I’ve looked into the idea of streaming the spoken presentations (to be held after the group rotation phase, at the very end of the training course) online and inviting questions from any interested parties who are watching…this may have to remain on my wishlist for now, decision pending. I had a good chat about this suggestion with Peter Murray-Rust when he visited Oxford the other week and we both agreed it would in principle be great, but might not be a practical addition the first time I run the course (given that we need to maintain the quality of training, rather than dissemination, as the main goal this time around). Certainly streaming will go on the to-do list for future years, even if we don’t end up exploring it as an option in November’s pilot.

Aside from the OSTI development, a couple of other goings-on:

OKFest: Ross Mounce and I added our talk proposals to the exciting list being drawn up by the OKFN to be sent for consideration for OKFest 2012, scheduled to take place in Helsinki this September. It would be great to have the chance to discuss our respective Panton Fellowship projects with the community at large, particularly since my training course will be all set to go by the time we hit the end of September. I’d really appreciate the chance to gather some general opinions and feedback from other scientists across a wide variety of disciplines. Still, we’ll have to wait and see what happens… On a related note, Ross and I are also hoping to build on those video/presentation filming and post-processing skills we acquired during the second round of our Panton Fellowship applications and put them to good use in creating a 5 minute intro to the Panton Principles. Nothing concrete to report as of yet, but watch this space…

Oxford Open Science (April 23rd): I also had the chance to talk for a few minutes at the second meeting of the Oxford Open Science group, formed in the wake of the highly successful Evolution of Science debate at Rhodes House back in February 2012. This time we all met at the Oxford e-Research Centre, housed in the same building as the Department of Computer Science. I had been hoping to blog a few thoughts about the evening at the time, though unfortunately didn’t manage to (we covered some fairly diverse topics, so definitely requires a separate blog post in itself).

Will leave it there for now – next on the agenda is a trip to London this Thursday. I’ll be joining Peter Murray-Rust and Laura Newman for a meeting with Ben Prasadam-Halls of the Association of Commonweath Universities, to hear about some of the distance learning initiatives they’re developing for virtual education in South Africa. Will let you know how things go!