Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

December 7, 2005

‘Thin blogs’, RSS and ‘social bookmarking’

Filed under: avian influenza,Blogging — admin @ 7:45 pm

Journalists are information professionals. We handle, and select, huge amounts of information every day, and add to it through our own investigations. That’s what we are paid for. But can we use new technologies to help us share our research better, rather than leaving it in notebooks and on our hard drives? I think so; here I kick off with just some personal reflections on bookmarks and web resources.

As a journalist, I want to keep tabs on a wide range of topics, including many that I’m not currently working on but will be at some point in the future (as well as subjects I’m interested in personally). I’ve around 200 or so RSS feeds, covering science journals, news, and blogs. That’s quite a firehose, but I find that with a few tricks it can be managed. And ‘social bookmarking’ is one trick that really helps you to domesticate RSS, and quickly build over time what is basically a very large cuttings folder, which is easily searchable for those nuggets you came across months ago.

The ideal RSS reader has unfortunately yet to be invented, but I find Rojo and Newsgator both reasonable. They are also both online services, which means you can access them wherever you are. I have them set to deliver items simply as a long list with the latest first, as I *hate* subfolders. I consult it a few times a day, and can scroll quickly the list to spot possibly interesting posts/articles/resources.

I right-click entries whose titles suggest they might be of interest, to open each in a new tab in Firefox. That way it’s easy to quickly scan each individual item, and judge their interest. Some get read in full, others get skimmed.

Here’s where social bookmarking comes in. With one click, I one can post the interesting items to the social bookmarking service Connotea, store them, share them publicly, and find them again quickly. Ok, that’s a bit of a plug for Connotea, which, after all, was developed by my colleagues and buddies at Nature’s new tech group, but it is open source and I am putting my mouse where my mouth is — have a look at Connotea and you’ll note I’m its most active user ;->.

Connotea is a “social bookmarking” service, like its ancestor, but it has a few tweaks which make it more tailored to scientists, doctors, engineers, and science reporters. If you post a link to Connotea from a science journal for example, the software runs off, interrogates remote databases, and automatically adds all the bibliographic data for you, which saves a lot of typing.

Back to how I use it. During my main early morning scan of what’s new in the papers, journals and blogs, I post the interesting ones to Connotea, tagging each with keywords as to what — for me — they are about . This takes seconds, but you quickly build up a very decent cuttings folder, a personal archive; a continually evolving little subset of the web, with the tags organizing the archive.

I’ve accumulated a whopping 5859 cuttings since starting to use it last Spring; that may sound like a lot, but hey, information is my business, and its a hell of a much smaller corpus to search than Google’s 10 billion, or whatever — when was the last time you tried to find a key paper or item, that you knooooow you saw somewhere on Google a few months, or even a few hours, ago but suddenly now can’t find again, search as you might…

Searching your own archive get’s around this problem. Connotea has a search engine, which allows Boolean searches. The tagging system also means that when I return to a subject, eg the use of geographical informations systems in disaster relief, I can easily find relevant articles I spotted earlier, by searching posts including tags GIS AND disasters. See:

An aside is that others sometimes also find these collections useful, as in essence you are sharing the effort you put into researching/watching a topic – see the Connotea refs in Kathryn Cramer’s Pakistan earthquake web links .

Another utility is that most of my articles in Nature, now carry a link to all the the relevant web resources collected through RSS and web searches during my research. This is something I think more journalists should be doing; any story now involves much web research, and most leave that on their hard drives, never used or exploited again by themselves, let alone others, whereas others could find that research useful to them. You can share the effort that you put into researching a topic, by providing starting points that are an alternative, and more select, starting point than a Google search.

An extreme of this are my posts on avian flu. Because of my long interest in avian flu I need to watch what’s happening daily, so I thought I may as well share my research with others, and use RSS to generate a sort of daily newswire that is a bit like a feed aggregrator except that I first select only those posts/articles that seem interesting; see tag avian flu.

Here my Connotea posts function like ‘thin blogs’; mainly links of stuff I find interesting, with little or no comment — indeed I should add a bit more comment to at least say why I think this post is interesting. This is firehose in the extreme, as I post a lot. But think about the nature of the web; such detailed lists will interest few, but the web is made of many microcommunities, what Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, has coined the ‘long tail.’ Scientists and others who are deeply interested in avian flu sign up to the tag’s RSS feed. That’s the easiest way to use it, as a way of keeping up to date, as otherwise the volume could overwhelm.

But then again, say you are starting out to search information of avian flu vaccines; as well as searching Google and PubMed, a quick look at all posts on a given subtopic of avian flu, say + avianflu +vaccines will bring up some great starting points, and many key recent articles and reports. The number of hits my Connotea avian flu tag gets every month has surprised me!

That’s what’s makes the blogosphere so interesting. While I know a thing or two about avian flu, and can share this with others, in other areas I’m a complete amateur. Take geographical information systems, which is quickly becoming a sort of hobby of mine, while its data-analysis aspects appeal to me as a former scientist. Here, there is a vibrant GIS blogging community, whom I rely on to keep me informed of the latest software, tips and tricks. So if you check out my GIS tag on Connotea, most of the information there is not my original selection, but a subselection of what these GIS bloggers have selected.

A parting thought; this was mainly about journalism, but scientists are information professionals too; apply that same model of sharing to science and what might you get? Instead of keeping their bookmarks, literature searches, and web resources private, on their own machines, how much more fluid might the flow of information and ideas be, if scientists, blogged more, and adopted “social bookmarking.”

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