Hypothesis at Society for Neuroscience

By memartone | 19 November, 2015

At long last, I’m able to sit down and summarize my thoughts and experiences on Hypothesis at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, Oct 17-21st. First of all, a hearty, gigantic thank you to my colleagues at the Neuroscience Information Framework, a Hypothesis partner, for featuring Hypothesis at the NIF booth and for helping to man the demo station. With a meeting of 30,000 attendees, it is a herculean task to meet and greet the many people who came by to find out about Hypothesis. We were busy 8 hours a day for 5 days with few lulls in traffic!


First, congratulations to the winner of our “Annotate to win an Apple Watch contest”, Dr. Elissa Chesler of the Jackson Laboratories, and thanks to all who participated. Dr. Chesler annotated one of her own articles, as a way to update content and provide more context for the work.

In many ways, the SFN meeting was an historic occasion for Hypothesis. I believe it was the first time that Hypothesis was featured at a biomedical conference. As Director of Bioscience, my job has been to understand how web annotation can benefit the biomedical community. I’ve done a lot of exploration myself and I see annotations of biomedical content coming through the public stream. And, of course, I’ve enjoined all of my colleagues to use the tool as well (thank you!). But this was the first time that I interacted directly with the “hard core” biomedical community, i.e., those that spend their days in the laboratory rather than trying out the latest and greatest digital technology.

So what were their impressions of Hypothesis?

Everyone loved the idea of using Hypothesis to organize their research notes while reading material on the web. They were happy that H works on PDF files and that, if the PDF contains the appropriate referents, the PDF and HTML versions sync. Their main questions concerned the fluidity of the web and companies that serve it: “What happens if I annotate something like Wikipedia and the content changes?” and “What happens to my notes if Hypothesis goes away?”

For the first question, we plan to add the capability of saving a copy of a web page to the Web Archive. But what happens if Hypothesis were to go away? Hypothesis is being built on an open source platform designed for a standards-based annotation format, and for conference goers, this was a key selling point. Researchers were happy that they own their annotations and Hypothesis does not wish to exert rights over their content. But they did want an easy way to download their annotations to a spreadsheet or text file so that they could keep a local copy of their work.

Researchers clearly saw the value in incorporating Hypothesis into the scientific workflow, particularly during the peer review process, where the ability to use targeted annotations of particular phrases or sentences was seen as a very valuable means to improve the review process for authors, reviewers and editors alike.

Researchers were also excited by the educational and collaborative opportunities of web annotation, and asked whether one could annotate in groups with their colleagues. I am happy to let everyone know that the private group annotation launched on November 3rd. Thanks to our program in education, and our educational director, Jeremy Dean, Hypothesis is, in fact, enjoying robust use in the classroom.

But all of the above activities are carried out privately or semi-privately. What about “the Internet, peer reviewed”? This tag line brought people to the booth, but the possibility of putting a public knowledge layer over the scientific literature and related materials both excited and concerned many neuroscientists. Many recognized that our current methods for reporting scientific findings would benefit from an interactive, public layer where questions could be asked and answered and where additional information could be provided. Those that blogged liked the idea of “blogging in place” on articles or news articles that fell into their area of expertise.

Many did, however, express skepticism that biomedical scientists would annotate in public wholesale, pointing out the lack of uptake of commenting systems. I am well aware of the conservatism and lack of time for uncredited and unrewarded activities exhibited by biomedical scientists (myself included), but did point out that annotation is, in fact, different in character from comments. It is very targeted, in that it is anchored to a particular phrase or sentence and takes less effort to compose than comments. Also, having a single account from which you can annotate the entire web is a lot easier than having to log into many different sites to render an opinion.

They did have questions about public annotation, though. If thousands of people annotate a single web page, how would we be able to filter or sort them? If a competitor chose to savage a paper in public, how would the reader know it was a competitor? Who moderates these conversations, if anyone?

All of these are excellent questions. Visitors who knew about ORCIDs were very happy to hear that ORCIDs will soon be linked to annotations, in order to help readers evaluate the expertise of the annotator. Group annotation, preferably moderated, was again seen as a positive feature.

But I was honest in saying that I don’t have all the answers. Web annotation is a new paradigm. We can’t anticipate all its uses or abuses, any more than the first users of Mosaic could have predicted the nuances of Google or Twitter. But I do think that neuroscientists appreciate that Hypothesis offers the possibility of amazing new capabilities for connecting researchers and research objects alike. As one visitor said, “it gave me goosebumps”. We invite the biomedical community to come along for the ride (biosciences@hypothes.is).

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