Interview: Ian Mulvany, Product Manager, Nature Network

Scientists and developers are a match made in heaven, says Ian Mulvany, the product manager of Nature journal’s Nature Network. He explains what Nature is hoping to achieve by working with the developer community, what it can offer them, and the first steps it is taking to build connections.

Ian MulvaneyWhy is Nature, a journal, interested in developers?

Nature is well known for the journals we produce but it is increasingly important to be able to provide services to scientists and be able to provide objects which go beyond or transcend a journal so we have introduced various experiments for creating web applications for scientists, including Nature Proceedings; Nature Network; and Connotea, a kind of Delicious for scientists.

Nature Network, which has tens of thousands of users, is for people with a large investment in being scientists – it is domain-specific and we have a lot of researchers who use it on a day-to-day basis to explore the process and sociability of what it is to be a scientists, from issues with grant proposals to glitches and successes in experiments.

I know from even just talking to developers without a physical science background that there is a lot of interest in science in the hacker/geek community – people are interested in helping science, they think it’s cool. We’re hoping to be able to tap into that and that by hosting this network and allowing  developers to provide tools for that segment of people we will find a good match.

What steps are you taking to hook up the scientific and developer communities?

We’re adopting the Open Social api and releasing it into Nature Network in a month or so. We went for Open Social because it already has a high level of take up (it’s supported by Linked In, iGoogle, Orkut among others). Introducing the api will allow us to do two things: firstly, we will be able to host tools on the  site so that if you are a developer and have a good idea for a web-based tool that scientists will find interesting then you can upload it for them to use. It will enrich the experience of our users and give developers access to our high quality social network of scientists. Secondly, it allows us to make the activity on our network federated, so we can create feeds and let other people use the feeds and do interesting things.

One thing I’m hoping will happen is that we can get a better idea of what scientists do, in the round as it were. At the moment scientists more or less only get credit for publishing academic papers but that’s such a small element  of what they actually do. There are many other contributions, from producing and curating datasets to teaching and peer-reviewing, but these things are hard to see as they cannot be as easily identified. The longer-term vision for Nature Network is that we want to be able to aggregate around a person all the activities they think are important to them and in which they have participated. It’s the first step to having a web that understands what a person is doing and their integrated contribution and doesn’t simply identify research papers. I’d love to be able to get to the point where if someone is conducting an experiment they can hook it up through our api and have an update which says what they have just done and point to a URL for the results.

What history does Nature have with working with developers?

We’re only just staring in the process but we’ve created a couple of Wave robots, and we run a two day conference every summer, Scifoo, with O’Reilly and hosted by Google. We gather a whole range of science people together and throw them together to see what happens. Last summer all the Scifoo attendees got early access to Google Wave and that’s how we got interested in it. It’s not a Nature project harnessing Google Wave but a lot of people at Nature think it’s really interesting so have been hacking around it.  We should be able to host Waves on network if we wish.

What is Nature hoping to achieve from collaborating with developers?

We’re very keen to work with people who have good ideas about how to improve the process of scientific communication. I’m interested in seeing how technology can go from the lab to being productionised. I see all these cool ideas at conferences and cool JISC-funded projects that end up having an  impact at a local level and not going beyond that. I’m interested in ideas that we could take and roll out into our larger platform. We’ve been looking at entity extraction – and we’re now starting to mark up in our papers so that users will be able to go to a page and see links to all the papers that mention to that entity – and it’s been work from Peter Murray Rust’s lab showed that was a viable possibility. I’m also interested in getting to a point where we can start to embed data mining. Obviously, our articles are a very interesting data set but we don’t do much data mining on it at the moment. Our archive goes back to 1869 and  it’s a snapshot, of course, but it represents the top end of what happens in science at a particular time. I’m interested in what terms rise in importance or disappear in importance over time. For example, the  first paper to mention the  electron does not mention the term electron. I would love to be able to map the flow of ideas through science and if someone had a compelling project we could arrange access for them.

And what can Nature offer developers?

We can offer three key things: access to an interesting network of people who can give good feedback; access to a lot of very interesting data;  and, if we find something that is interesting, we can offer the ability to promote those ideas.