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Some First Thoughts on Online Science and Digital Preservation

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The following is a guest post from Trevor Owens, a Digital Archivist and Abbey Potter, a Program Officer in the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

When historians look back on late 20th and early 21st century science they will undoubtedly be interested in understanding how the web has facilitated, altered and otherwise shifted scientific inquiry and the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

These shifts in practice involving openness, collaboration and “citizen” participation are recorded in the activities and outputs of scientists online. In addition to access for historians, scientists, policy makers and members of the general public are going to want continued access these novel works of science and science communication which exist on the web.

As noted in an earlier post, we had the opportunity to talk about digital preservation at last week’s Science Online 2012 gathering. We were also excited to have the chance to get a better sense of the work scientists and science communicators are doing on the web.  Below are some examples of projects and activities that are significant contributions to the field but are not captured in the traditional journals and texts that libraries collect and preserve.

Scientists Blogs, Open Notebook Science and Open Science Writ Large

Open notebook science is an emerging approach that involves scientists sharing their entire lab notebook publicly on the web. We heard from physicist Anthony Salvagno (here is his notebook) and Chemist Jean-Claude Bradley (here is his notebook) about each of their respective open notebook projects. While there still may be few individuals that commit to sharing all of their research notes and data online, it was noted that Open Notebook science itself is best thought of as an extensive form of the kinds of blogging that thousands of scientists engage in.

A screenshot from Anthony Salvagno’s Open Notebook
A screenshot from Anthony Salvagno’s Open Notebook

We were excited to hear more about some of the large science blog networks, like and the Scientific American Blog network, as well as related methods for aggregating these kinds of blogs in mathematics, like We were also intrigued to hear about sites like Math Overflow, which act as online forums where top mathematicians ask and answer research questions.

It is intriguing to think about how these mechanisms for discussion between scientists, the public and the broad array of science writers are shifting and opening up an array of questions for exactly which of this content is valuable to preserve for the long term and how could they fit in with existing cultural heritage collections. The blogs and forums have interesting parallels with archival material, like the letters and papers of scientists, but at the same time, as publicly accessible websites they are similar to the kinds of serial publications that libraries would often subscribe to and maintain.

Citizens, Experts and Science on the Web

We were also thrilled to have the chance to participate in a session on citizen science. For a bit of background, citizen science projects generally leverage the web to recruit amateurs and the general public to help participate in the process of scientific discovery. The session involved a substantive discussion of the extent to which citizen science projects exist as outreach efforts to engage and communicate science to the public and how they are actually tools that help create and generate networked scientific knowledge and discovery. In this respect, citizen science project web forums are serving as critical points of interaction between professionals, amateurs, students and enthusiasts engaged in scientific discovery, while also serving as tools for doing outreach. These kinds of online exchanges are of value to future historians of science and anyone interested in tracing changes in scientific discourse.

Screen shot from the Galaxy Zoo discussion thread in which “green pea” galaxies were discovered
Screen shot from the Galaxy Zoo discussion thread in which “green pea” galaxies were discovered

We left the meeting with a much better sense of the kinds of scientific work happening on the open web, as well as some ideas for great points of contact to engage with in as we further explore how this valuable science discourse and data can be safe guarded and made accessible now and into the future.

We would like to hear from you about what kinds of online math and science projects you think the cultural heritage community should be thinking about collecting and preserving.  Beyond that, we would also love to hear your ideas for the kinds of stakeholders who might be interested in taking action in this space and what might help to catalyze action.

Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for the notebook mention! I would love to get involved in the project in any capacity that I can, but admittedly wouldn’t know where to begin or what I can do. You have my email though so if you can think of any way I’d be helpful then by all means shoot me an email. Open Notebook Collabo?! Yes please!

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