Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Focus Group: Research

Around three or four weeks ago I politely participated in a wee on-line survey put together by the University of Guelph library. Many questions were asked and answered about the level of service provided to users like me of the library. I thought nothing of it, and it took much less time than the advertised "approximately 30 minutes".

Last week, I got an email from the same group of people, inviting me to a focus group session this morning (early, why are these deals always at 8:30?) as I'd checked the little box that said "yes - I can be reached for further comment" on the survey. So got up way too early this morning, and walked into MacDonald Stewart Hall 243.

Not an easy room to find, but I eventually succeeded. Apparently, this room was designed for this kind of face-to-face-to-one-way-mirror interaction, as there was a little booth attached to the room with a pretty blatant attempt at a one-way mirror part of the ajoining wall. Here's a public-service announcement: if you're hiding in the secret room, looking through the secret mirror, you need to turn the lights off in your little space or I can see you. Especially if you're wearing a white shirt.

The quiet men in the psuedo-secret booth weren't an issue at all, actually; this morning's exercises were somewhat fun, and not secretive in any way. There were only three of us - apparently others are more cautious with their sleeping hours - all grad students in various departments. The very nice lady from "completely outside the university" was very good at running our little focus group, and we went through various explorations of how we conduct research and what features of on-line databases and the like we find most useful. I use the term "research" here in its purest form - finding published information about a particular topic (re - search). I don't think I learned anything particularly useful, but I (as usual) enjoyed discussing what I do and how I do it. I can usually be counted on to say something at a meeting.

One thing that did come out of the discussion was a bit about the importance of networking - who you know helps you find what they know so that you can use that knowledge yourself. At the very end of the discussion, I mentioned this blog, Pharyngula, and Rosie Redfield's blog as examples of the form (pretentious of me to associate with such company, I know), that could be considered a primitive first step towards some form of on-line scientific discussion board. PZ runs a blog that his students must participate in, and WebCT was discussed in some detail today, especially regarding the discussion forum built into WebCT. More proper forums (fora?) were not mentioned; perhaps if we'd had more time, but free coffee and cookies can only sustain a conversation for so long.

In the end, I got $20 in gift cards usuable at most places on-campus (i.e. food), so lunch today and possibly tomorrow is "free". We were told $15 before the session, but apparently the gift cards come only in $10 denominations.

I've been thinking about the idea of a general scientific forum, where one could post technical or theoretical questions to experts in the field, and participate in the discussions that would be generated around the answers. I think this would be very cool, but I don't know how one could set something like this up - would a major journal publisher take on the administrative tasks, or perhaps a major university or research institute? How broad could such a forum be - all of science, or multiple forums (fora?) for multiple disciplines? Just an idea now floating around in my head.


King Aardvark said...

We have such a thing for the engineering profession, where we can post questions to a forum and other engineers log in and answer or point you in the right direction to get design codes etc. It can be kind of hit or miss sometimes as you need someone who knows the right answers to come along at the right time, but it often gets the job done.


TheBrummell said...

I just checked out eng-tips.com, and it looks exactly like what I'd like to see for scientists.

Cool. Hopefully other scientists will hear about this kind of thing, too.

Carlo said...

I think the scientific forum thing would be excellent. Several of them (in small scale) exist already. For example, I was trying to dilute an antibiotic for plating and clonig and went on such a forum to discover how to dissolve the powder (strangely, the protocol that came with the stuff said 'dissolve in dH2O' which doesn't work [without adjusting the pH of the water]).

I think the forum would be great, but it would have to be kept 'scientific'. PZ's site may be interesting, but I'm not sure about the 'professional' networking aspect. Maybe a flashier EvolDir?

TheBrummell said...

If EvolDir added a proper (and moderated) forum, that would be ideal - if one looks at the range of topic that come through the email pipe from EvolDir every day, it looks pretty broad and widely-useful.

PZ's site is interesting, but probably not very useful in this context. As an example of what can be done with blogs (I was particularly refering to his use of blogs in teaching), I think he offers some useful models (both positive and negative).