Leveraging Expertise from the Crowd

There is a reason why scientists tend to hold fast to the timeless mantra: “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”. If we’re not reinventing the wheel usually (hopefully!) it means we’ve found ourselves on the precipice of the unknown. There is good news for fledgling biologists like myself: Much of what we need to learn to stay competitive is “old hat” for someone else…and more than ever before that someone is a few clicks away. Grad students increasingly represent the millennial demographic and are therefore strong in the ways of Google Fu…read on to see some novel solutions. 

Free-Form Support

Need help on a statement of purpose or similar essay? Mine went through multiple crowdsourced revisions on /r/biology. After posting, a benevolent commenter continued to help me fine tune it. Here’s a smattering of like-minded folks getting similar feedback.

Stumped by a research roadblock and need highly-specialized advice? Sometimes posting a question on a somewhat-related subreddit is enough to point you in the right direction (which may be a different subreddit). For example, I was once tasked to draw circles around E. coli cells on thousands of time-lapse microscopy images. /r/Biology to the rescue!…kind of…let’s just say we opted for a more undergrad  labor intensive solution.

Technical Support

R is the “industry standard” for most grad students….and its hard. As a result, we’re no strangers to finding dismissive and borderline-spiteful “answers” from bona fide experts in the R-help archives (not linked for your sanity).

StackOverflow is a robust Q&A site for all things programming that has elegantly sidestepped the snark-factor by leveraging an up/down vote reputation system, merit-based community moderation and…/drumroll….badges!

So the next time you’re about to fling your laptop out the window in frustration, try adding “StackOverflow” to your search terms. If you’re still coming up blank, bite the bullet and post a thoughtful question. If you’re a guru, then I implore you to join the crowdsourcing community…depending on your field it could be a valuable “Ace in the Hole” for job hunters.

I’ve had great luck finding support with the graphing library ggplot2 for R. It is not uncommon to find Hadley Wickham, ggplot2’s creator, answering questions directly and clearly. I’ve had similar experiences with Mike Bostock, the developer of d3js. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the flashy NY Times interactive infographics?

On a tangentially related note:
ATTN Green Thumbs: Check out PlantVillage. It’s a DIY agricultural community that shares the merit-based and open source ethos of StackOverflow.

About ellscubed

A computational biologist whose passions lie at the nexus of evolutionary theory, epidemiology, and public outreach.
This entry was posted in Professional Training and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Leveraging Expertise from the Crowd

  1. I recently found #PhDChat on twitter to have some good information on grad school topics in general. A tweet I came across this morning by @jonathancairns (who i don’t follow, but used #PhDchat) shared a link about how to read and understand scientific papers. There’s a lot of information about this on the web already, but it introduced me to a website that has several publications on similar topics such as working with media. Here’s their published work for more information: (http://www.senseaboutscience.org/resources.php).

    Additionally, they do occasionally have people asking questions, which do get answered.

    Hm, now I’m wondering if there’s a list of useful hashtags…(googling)..
    Apparently there is, appropriately named #phdadvice.
    Few others I found: #phdforum, #socphd (social sciences), #acwri (academic writing) & #ecrchat (early career researcher).

  2. ellscubed says:

    Thanks Daren, this will be helpful in building a general resource for finding these sorts of materials.

  3. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    Don’t forget crowd-funding parts of your research. If you get it right, you can raise funds from people interested in your work and have them provide you with data or process your data.

    A reasonable round-up is available at:
    Crowdfunding Science: Kickstarter Imitators Fund Innovation, With Research Budgets Slashed Across Academia And Agencies Like CDC, NSF And NIH, by Roxanne Palmer at International Business Times on 5 July 2013

    PS: Thanks for subscribing to Research Whisperer.

    • ellscubed says:

      Thanks for the suggestion. We’ve already had one CIDD’er go this route and had great success so it’s certainly “on the table” so-to-speak. You can check it out here

      My research group is ramping up the crowdsourcing efforts when it comes to research as well. Though we’ve traditionally stuck with AmazonMechanicalTurk, I’m eager to push my agent-based (infectious disease, naturally) simulations to javascript and outsource or processing to the user’s browser.

      PS Likewise.

  4. Pingback: Publicizing your blog articles | Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics Graduate Student Association

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