SpotOn 2012 – Or the Conference formally known as Science Online London

By Jack Rumble – ePublishing Specialist at the RSC
Twitter: @MrJackRumble

Science Online London, or SpotOn as it is now known, took place this year on the 11th and 12th of November. It aims to discuss and showcase current trends in online science communication. This attracts an enthusiastic and eclectic bunch of academics, writers, technologists and communicators. At this year’s conference there were three themes under the spotlight; technology, community and policy. The talks were varied, and reflected current industry trends and concerns in a thought provoking way.

This being the Technology blog, I thought it would be a good opportunity to go through some of my highlights and thoughts on all things tech from this year’s event.

If you’re really keen many of these presentations were recorded, and are due to be hosted on the SpotOn pages, so I encourage you to take a look.


There were a number of sessions this year dedicated to measuring ones impact online, in particular social impact. A recent article by the Scholarly Kitchen raises some important and valid points regarding altmetrics. At the heart of the matter being discussed at SpotOn was; how to demonstrate the impact of your research in the wider research community.

A panel discussion; on ways to encourage collaboration and build an online presence, touched on an important point regarding whether there is a benefit to investing time in building a strong social presence online to communicate ones research. Building an online presence takes time and effort, as does building a network of contacts anywhere. There is strong evidence to suggest that once this network is established that dissemination of content becomes much more targeted and therefore your audience is more likely to read, or engage with your content.

Initiatives run by universities to encourage researchers to discuss research online more openly have been embraced by many attending the session, but have also caused some concern. Many researchers in the audience expressed reluctance to communicate their research openly since they were concerned about exposing their research to competitors, or even inhibit their chances of publishing work since they’ve already discussed this online. I think this is a really important point, in any industry where you are actively encouraged to speak openly about your work; there is no guidance about what you should or shouldn’t say. And where there is ambiguity about the impact and repercussions for actions, it isn’t surprising that many attending the session challenged the notion that there is a benefit to being vocal about their research.

Personally I think that it’s more to do with the tools you are comfortable using. Research is often difficult to communicate to those in a similar field even, and finding a voice online is equally abstract, so maybe writing a blog post, or a few tweets, to some seems like time ill-spent, especially with all of the other tasks requiring attention. To others it has been a really effective way of targeting the communication of their research to a group of peers in the same field of research. An experiment conducted by Mellissa Terras from UCL documents using a twitter stream to increase downloads, the results strongly suggested a correlation, but what Dr Terras also states is that building up the network of contacts was no small task.

At the RSC we encourage the micro-publication of protocols on our ChemSpider synthetic pages. These protocols can be published as part of a subsequent paper so long as the original protocol did not discuss the underlying chemistry, this gives researchers a novel focused channel to communicate their protocols early on in the research process. Mark Hahnel from Figshare also remarked that users are frequently uploading different types of content such as Conference Posters, as well as the traditional article figures. In terms of social impact being able to communicate outcomes at all points of the research cycle could lead to a much richer dialogue. What are your thoughts? Are the correct tools out there to enable you to talk about your research effectively? What sort of guidance would give you more confidence to discuss your research and comment on others?

Tools and applications:

This year Digital Science also ran a Hack Day which I was unfortunately unable to attend – if anyone knows of similar events in the near future, please let me know in the comments below! The purpose was to try and build applications related to the research. The three apps presented were built using a couple of API’s and RSS feeds to deliver content in a more intuitive way. An API can essentially be thought of a way of accessing somebody else’s data, to use for your own purposes. Merging a number of API’s together often creates really useful applications since you are able to provide new context to your research.

The results of the Hack day were great, one group spliced the newly released ORCID API with a WordPress application to automatically update a researchers own homepage. Another used an API to deliver comments and highlighted data directly to the article landing page. It was inspiring to see that these applications were built by people from a non-developer background. They simply saw a problem and thought about how they could solve it in a simple and innovative way.

I’m really interested in finding novel applications and mash-ups, one of my favourites at the moment is the If This Then That which uses a plethora of API’s to allow you to set up your own bespoke notification services.

This got me thinking; we use a lot of API’s to deliver content across sub-domains on the RSC web pages, if we opened up data for others to use, what could developers build with it. What data are people trying to get hold of, or would like to get hold of? If you’ve any thoughts it’d be great to hear from you.

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