Gruppo di discussione italiano sulla ricerca faunistica
E-communication among Italian zoologists
Two years of experience with the "Vertebrati" mailing list
by Claudio Gnoli
Paper to be also published in the proceedings of the International conference on scholarly communication and academic presses (Florence: 22 March 2001), Florence university press.
Byelorussian translation by Martha Ruszkowski
Electronic communication is well spread yet in some disciplines, like e.g. physics and biotechnology, with a wide use of tools like e-journals, preprint servers, web sites etc.; while some other disciplines, like e.g. agricultural sciences, veterinary, and field zoology, are less strictly related to information technology, and generally slower in developing an everyday use of its tools. Spreading of access to the Internet among population also varies in different countries. So, some communities of scholars sharing a common field of study may be potentially interested in getting in contact, though being not yet organized in networked communities. Vertebrate zoology in Italy can represent a good example of a scope where communication is capable of being improved by Internet tools.
Birth of the list
For such reasons, some members of Centro Studi Faunistica dei Vertebrati -- a research section of the Italian Society for Natural Sciences, based at the Natural History Museum of Milan --, who possessed experience with electronic mailing lists, have imaginated to apply the consolidated technology of list servers to create an Italian discussion group on Vertebrate zoology. Such an idea became real in early 1999, thanks to an agreement with CILEA (Consorzio Interuniversitario Lombardo per l'Elaborazione Automatica), which provided its list server, working with PMDF Mailserver, to host the group.
The list was christened "Vertebrati", to clearly express its precise scope, its scientific approach, and its Italian base (even postings in English, anyway, would have been accepted). As the basic setting, it was decided that:
The main way to promote the list was collecting email addresses of zoologists, who were publicly available in the web sites of most zoology departments of Italian universities, and of some other zoological and environmental institutions. Addresses of mailing lists devoted to related topics were also looked for, but the main Italian resources of this kind appeared to be limited to the birdwatchers list "EBN Italia", plus a recent network between nature parks. A single announcement was sent to such addresses, and although it was unsolicited, only one person out of several hundreds protested for it. Instead, some tens of people, included well-known researchers from several universities, followed the instructions to subscribe in the following weeks, and the list began to effectively work since April 1999.
Progress of the list
First postings were some calls for petitions and congresses, and requests for information on the Italian distribution of Felid species. There was of course no guarantee that the group would have been viable and the subscribers would have found it worth. However, the list passed the critical threshold of the first weeks succesfully, and stabilized around an average of some messages per week. The dimension of the choiced scope (Vertebrate zoology on a national scale) turned out to be adequate to produce an amount of traffic consistent enough to keep the list viable, but at the same time not so high to become hard to follow for most subscribers. As a proof, without any more promotion on a large scale, the number of subscribers has slowly grown along the life of the list, to reach about 300 at the beginning of 2001.
Such a delicate equilibrium is not granted at all: a great number of discussion groups instead evolve either toward an almost complete absence of participation, or toward an exceeding abundance of messages, many of which are off-topic, offensive, or unoriginal. Eugenio Gatto, owner of one of the most successful discussion groups in our country with now more than 2700 subscribers and a regular traffic ("AIB-CUR: Italian librarians" <http://www.aib.it/aib/aibcur/aibcur.htm3>), reports that the trend of its first years was similar to that of "Vertebrati". The experience of the mentioned group proved also very useful to manage several technical issues for "Vertebrati" (see below).
Among the most relevant subjects emerged during the first year, there was a prolonged thread about the management of the Grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis, an alloctone species whose presence in North-Western Italy is threatening the survival of the related autoctone one Sciurus vulgaris: the National Institute for Wildlife (INFS) had planned an attempt of eradicating the former by trapping and killing animals, but had been sued by animalist organizations for that; the question was having a big echo on newspapers. In such situation, "Vertebrati" acted as an important place for getting non-sensationalist information on the subject: some researchers explained the scientific reasons for such unpopular plan, and discussed it with other subscribers. The list owners agreed with researchers from Turin University to publish on a web server some documents concerning the project and the following action <http://www.cilea.it/vertebrati/doc/sciurus.htm>, and a motion in support of the involved scientists, subscriptions to which were collected by the list owners and sent to INFS. Some other petitions for important questions of environment management were also spread through the list.
Other topics often discussed concerned news on the distribution of some species, especially large mammals like the Wolf; poaching; common errors and distortions by mass media in giving information about wildlife; management of alloctone species with special reference to freshwater fishes; requests and answers about the use of software for statistics, geographical information systems, and other technical instruments like radiocollars and traps; announcements of congresses and other events.
Technical issues and management
As a typical feature of mailing lists, some technical problems occur even in "Vertebrati", which need to be managed by the list owners, in order to keep communication as efficient as possibile, and avoid a progressive loss of subscribed addresses for casual reasons.
To process such issues, a small mailing list ("VertAmm") was also activated, allowing for quick communication among the owners, who are qualified as list secretariat. Secretariat board currently includes Carlo Biancardi, Anna Rita Di Cerbo, Claudio Gnoli, Achaz von Hardenberg, Edoardo Razzetti, and Paolo Zubiani. They work mainly to decide about problems like those described above and the development of the list. Decisions must be taken in relatively short time (within some days after the problem originated), but at the same time in a non-rash and well-balanced way: so secretariat members generally discuss before acting, but in urgent cases each of them is also allowed to directly intervene, while other members can be temporarily far from their email access, by writing to the list or by sending commands to the server. The list for secretariat board was realized with one of the best mailing list services freely available on the Net ("OneList", later merged with "eGroups", later merged again with "Yahoo!"), as the advertisements automatically included in messages by such services are not a problem in this case. Subscribers of "Vertebrati" are encouraged to write to the "VertAmm" address, for technical help or other questions about the list.
Survey on the use and impact of the list
In early 2001, subscriber Armando Nappi suggested to the secretary board to do a survey on subscribers' satisfaction and opinions about the group. The secretariat adopted the idea and discussed details of the possible questions. Eventually, a questionnaire was released and sent to all addresses subscribed to the list, asking to send answers to an address of the owners. 112 people replied before the deadline, and their answers and comments were analysed and published <http://www.cilea.it/vertebrati/inchiesta-l.htm>.
The sample of subscribers resulted to be mostly:
Professional composition of the subscribers sample resulted to be quite various: 17 university students (most in Natural Sciences), 6 graduated, 6 owners of grants, 10 researchers or employed in university, 9 researchers in agencies other than university, 6 working in parks, 5 working in naturalistic or scientific museums, 3 wildlife managers, 2 collaborators of universities, 3 school teachers, 13 privately employed in the environmental or zoological field, 17 others.
Most people (47%) think that 75-100% of discussed topics fit the list, and (63%) would prefer not to receive only 0-25% of them; "messages scarcely relevant for the main aims of the list, like asks for addresses or literature references", should be sent anyway according to 53%, and "only if really one was not successful with other ways" according to another 44%. So subscribers generally seem to be quite tolerant about the content of messages.
However, out of 24 people having sent suggestions for the management of the list, 16 were concerned with ways to control it more; among them, 4 would want the default reply address to be only that of the sender, and 2 would want the list to be moderated. Other wishes were concerning a more wide range of discussed topics, a systematic discussion on topics suggested from the owners, and the use of standardized prefixes in the subject field.
Most people (63%) think that such kind of lists are very useful to support the exchange of opinions about Italian wildlife. Someone (18%) has even developed useful cooperations with other people contacted through the list. A specific question about whether mailing lists can "make it simpler scientific communication by avoiding the long path of publication in specialized journals" had well distributed answers: many people think that they cannot, "because there is no filter on the quality of information (peer review)" (51), and "because researchers are not willing to share knowledge that they could rather publish" (35), while others think they can (29). But many highlighted that we should not look at these two tools as competitors, as mailing lists are more devoted to exchanging opinions and practical information, even if of uncontrolled origin; while traditional paper publications are slower but public, and they involve accuracy, quality control, and persistence of information; "the equivalent of a peer-reviewed journal can be realized by web rather than by mailing list: <http://www.oikos.ekol.lu.se/we/we.index> for an example", an expert user points out. Another side of the question is the risk that researchers get tired of reading amateur questions; although until now some expert researchers are actually participating actively in the group.
Two people suggested in the survey that most interesting information posted to the list could be collected and kept in a web site. Selective archiving would be indeed one of the most interesting developments of "Vertebrati".
Some programs for list servers or web forums allow authomatical creation of archives, which can be then viewed by date, sender or subject. However, many messages contain information not worth to be preserved for a long time, or off-topic, or sent by fault. Another problem is that great amounts of old postings can prove useful only if arranged by subject in some way; but experience showed that a large majority of people is inaccurate in using standard ways of summarizing the contents of their posts in the subject field: even in discussion groups for librarians, who by their profession should be especially aware of such techniques, and have been explicitly recommended to pay attention to it, subjects are found to be far from standardized... The various personal systems for email add more confusion, by inserting additional prefixes ("Re:", "R:", "Fwd:", ...) in different forms.
All this suggests that, to be useful, an archive of posted messages should be selected and organized in some way by hand. "Vertebrati" owners are currently planning to create an archive of the discussions of more general and durable interest (avoiding of course any selection based on opinions), and arranging them by some system of classification. This clearly involves a considerable amount of human work, and hence can be realized only gradually in time.
When made available on the Web, postings would become public at any effect; while discussion mailing lists are not completely public, as postings are sent only to a community of subscribers, even if it can be an open one and the sender can be unaware of the identity of most receivers. So assent by the original senders should be obtained before publishing their postings.
The variety of job situations of the participants can be a value, making the group an interprofessional channel alternative to the traditional and hierarchical communities of university and other institutions. However, it seems desirable that the list keep its character more oriented toward scientific research than toward amateurs (there are other popular channels, like newsgroups, which are more devoted to hobby communication). The number of students and people not related with zoological research among subscribers could grow quickly, as email is becoming a very spread tool in these years, and is no more a privilege of university people. For these reasons, it seems especially important to promote in future the list among those researchers who are still unaware of its existence, for example by leaflets distributed at congresses.
The survival of "Vertebrati" to the critical phases of its infancy, its consolidation and two year long experience, which even in the light of the survey results can be viewed as positive, mean that it represents now a precious resource, worth of investing renewed efforts, and of producing valuable information for the scientific community.
E-communication among Italian zoologists : two years of experience with the "Vertebrati" mailing list / Claudio Gnoli -- CILEA <http://ospiti.cilea.it/vertebrati/doc/paper.htm> (2002.03-2012.01-)