How the internet changed science

Prof Dolores Rodriguez talked about the history of communication in research. Photo by Anne Osterrieder
Prof Dolores Rodriguez talked about the history of communication in research. Photo by Anne Osterrieder

Every year at the Society for Experimental Biology’s (SEB) annual meeting there is a special networking event: The ‘Women in Science’ dinner – which in fact is attended by both genders, as many issues such as combining a scientific career with having a family can affect men as well as women. Last night’s speaker was Prof Dolores Rodriguez, Professor in Plant Physiology from the University of Salamanca. Prof Rodriguez took the audience on a tour through the history of communication in science starting with the 80’s and 90’s, a time without computers or the internet. A lot of the things we now take for granted did not exist at the time: Google, websites, electronic journal Table of contents , paper PDFs and PowerPoint. “If you were lucky, you could get an overhead projector and add things the same day!”

The older more experienced delegates nodded wildly when Prof. Rodriguez asked her bemused audience: “Did young people know that we used to submit a manuscript by post?” It took months to get a reply, whereas now researchers might hear after a couple of weeks if their paper has been accepted. “You are in the right era for research”, Prof. Rodriguez said. All of these major advances in technology had a big effect on science. We now can access data and papers much quicker. We can share resources online, such as the brilliant Teaching Tools in Plant Biology. Social media sites such as ResearchGate, Scoop.It or Facebook give science and scientists an online presence. All of this electronic convenience comes with its own issues though. The main problem is that now there is more data than we can progress. We need to learn to handle data efficiently and Prof. Rodriguez emphasised how collaboration with other disciplines such as Bioinformatics and Computer Science are key in achieving this.

But internet technology also helps female scientists as it has made it easier to work more flexibly, both regarding location and time. Women can work from home and work around their family. Furthermore, “email is genderless”, Prof. Rodriguez said – you are a just scientist requesting information or materials. Email is impersonal but in fact this can also be an advantage.

Online communication still has its downsides. People feel like they need to be connected all the time and reply instantly to email requests. With a myriad of electronic distractions just one click away, how do you manage your time as a not yet established researcher? “Forget your phone for eight hours, concentrate on your research and reading papers, and you’ll do very well.”, Prof. Rodriguez advised the audience. “PhD students, be careful with your Facebook use or you might only end up with a FbD!”

I think that Prof. Rodriguez’ advice for young female researchers applies to all young scientists regardless of their gender. “The problem is that there isn’t work in science for all of us. You need to spend many years in research and be lucky to get a position in science. The important thing is to go for what you like to do. Work in the area you get enthusiastic about every day. Work very hard, be persistent and you will get what you want. You need to be happy.”