“Dark social” or “Who is afraid of email?”

Heathrow. Dark social? Threat? I’ll get back to that. I am writing this wrap-up post for the SpotOn 2013 meeting overlooking the British Airways planes on their way to take-off. In the last two days, we caught a glimpse of what online science communication is about. On Saturday, we had our own session #solo13blogs on using blogs for peer-to-peer science communication. As a science communication newbie, I am happy that our session was well received and stimulated quite some discussion. I have taken away three things from this meeting – a new understanding of our readership, an appreciation for Open Access and data sharing, and finally, a fear of the destructive power of dark social that also applies to epilepsy genetics research. But first things first.

#solo13blogs. There are many more science bloggers than blogging scientists. This distinction is crucial, as the Channelopathist is meant to be a research blog for communication between peers, i.e. clinicians and researchers in the field. I personally believe that we need communication channels (pun intended) like this, as there is so much data and information floating around. We basically discussed five issues relevant to research blogging including (1) audience, (2) motivation, (3) ownership, (4) managing self and others, and (5) interaction. We were joined on the #solo13blogs panel by Jean Adams from the fuse blog, a research blog on social sciences and Lauren Tedaldi, who has started her own research/career blog as a chemistry PhD.  Nicole Slavin (psychiatry genetics) and Sian Owen (science communicator, Oxford) covered the session on Twitter. We even trended on Twitter for a short time. Trending is a measurement of “hot topics” on Twitter, competing with the proverbial Justin Bieber haircut. Large parts of the discussion in our session revolved around to what extent a blog should adapt to its audience and try to expand to new audiences, again raising the issue of science bloggers versus blogging scientists. We also raised the issue that research blogging is not only outreach, but also helps in curating and expanding your own knowledge base, conceptualizing novel ideas, and helping you think in “narratives”.

Supplements are data graveyards. Data sharing was another big issue during this meeting. In life sciences, data sharing or availability of data is an ongoing issue. In contrast to the centralized data generated in High Energy Particle Physics at CERN, genomic data is generated in many centers and is not always available in a way that is useful for future studies. When our recent publication on CHD2 was under review, one of the reviewers pointed out a patient with a CHD2 mutation hidden in the Supplementary Table of a prior publication. Even though I had read the publication, this fact was completely new to me. Supplements might seem like a good idea at first glance, but they are often non-searchable “data graveyards” that are difficult to navigate. There are some strategies to overcome this problem. Many journals already expect submissions of data to public databases prior to acceptance. Large organizations like the NIH require open access to publications generated with their funds. These are top down policies that will not change attitudes and might even be perceived as punishments. One alternative might be to encourage data sharing through microattributions and data curation contests. What about a 10,000€ prize for the PhD student who has done the most for reviewing or curating genomic data, handed over during an official ceremony at a major epilepsy congress?

Dark Social. In July 2013, the RES consortium agreed on a data sharing policy, which was a major step forward in building mutual trust for sensitive research data. In the wake of this agreement, we started introducing the internal “RES updates”, which included analysis results, policy updates, and teleconference minutes. We circulated these updates by email to the RES consortium members. By doing this, I made a huge mistake (not really, but let me tell you why this was a step backwards conceptually). At SpotOn, AJ Cann led as session about email as the dark social medium that will never die. Email provides a contact between two people; it can be curated and saved but cannot be easily shared after the communication happened. A few weeks after establishing the RES updates, one of our collaborators approached us wondering why he had not gotten any information over the last two weeks. In fact, there was nothing communicated at this point, but tracing back that the collaborator was included in the earlier emails and communicating back that there was in fact no communication breakdown took at least 20 minutes. A mailing list would have helped but a large number of e-mails exchanged within research consortia do not take advantage of this. Also, the recipients of a mailing list are sometimes not transparent, which is difficult for sensitive data. The term “dark social” was first used in an article in the Atlantic, referring to almost 50% of referring links to a website that cannot be traced since they come from emails, documents, or supplements. While we sometimes believe that Facebook and Twitter cover most of the social interaction through electronic media, this is not true. Much our communication is “dark social” through email or other tools, which makes sense for personal communication. However, using the same tools for communication between groups of scientists generates parallel universes. Therefore, improving communication within groups of scientists is crucial. Otherwise, we might get swallowed by dark social.

Science communication is personal. Let me end on a positive note. A final thing I took away from my first science online conference was the impression that science outreach is highly personal. It was interesting to see the different, highly specialized ways of outreach that individual scientists have developed, ranging from storytelling to school programs to stand-up comedy. Many of these outreach strategies are concise, but highly effective, both for a lay and peer audience. In a nutshell, if it is our intention to provide education about the epilepsies and their genetic basis, we should not shy away from unusual outreach strategies.

Roland Krause contributed to this post. All sessions of SpotOn 2013 are archived and can be viewed online.

Ingo Helbig

Child Neurology Fellow and epilepsy genetics researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), USA and Department of Neuropediatrics, Kiel, Germany

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2 thoughts on ““Dark social” or “Who is afraid of email?”

  1. Pingback: Five questions you should be asking the ILAE Genetics Commission | Beyond the Ion Channel

  2. So, Ingo, what do you suggest as a mean to end dark social communication? A RES consortium forum, where you log in to participate in active discussions or data sharing, or will the real scientists never do this, ’cause e-mail is the easy way?

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