Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Democracy on the biology department website.

My frustrations with the biology department website have come to a boil, and the safety valve is this blog. So here comes some steam... which might be put to some good use in powering change?

What brought my hissyfit on this time is that I was trying to advise someone who will be visiting Lund, who he might want to talk to while here. He does not know this department by heart, and, like everyone else, has a busy schedule, without oodles of time scouring the website.

Which is what you would need to figure out who all is here and what they are doing. Our department website is, as a matter of fact organized by the politics of research groups very much like ancient Greece was divvied up in city states. To find people in our group, first you'd first have to click on 'research' from the main page of the biology department, then on a tiny little link called 'research groups', then on another tiny little link called 'phenotypic evolution'. I'm not saying that's a bad way to describe what we do, but hardly the only one. Further more, if you'd be interested in finding, say, me, you'd have to know intimately what kind of research I'm doing in the first place.
Right now, this website is reflecting political associations, and if you look very carefully, with 20 years of history of this department in mind, you can see political strife, where people do and don't want to be put in a certain box (read research group names).
That, in my humble opinion, is not what a website is used for, or should be used for. Political associations within a department are NOT interesting to anyone outside this department, and should not be known intimately in order to be able to navigate this website. Which, as Erik pointed out, may be a slightly naive way of thinking about a website. Well....

Ok, that was my rant. Here comes the constructive part. Let's break out of the tyranny of the city states and have... democracy (yes, I have been reading up about ancient greek history, can you tell?). Let's be more fluid, let's stop playing hide and seek with visitors to the biology department website. I envision two ways of finding people/research:
1) By a person's name, which will link to their personal website.
2) By list of keywords which will link to a list of people's names who have indicated themselves that they want to be associated with those keywords. Yes, multiple. We all do diverse things. Let's celebrate diversity.... power to the people.. (ok, I get carried away..).

So if you were to surf around on the biology department website, and you'd click on 'research' you'd find 2 tabs: one labelled 'people', the other 'research subjects'. I would be listed on the people page with my straightforward name 'Machteld Verzijden', and on the research subjects page, I might be listed under a number of keywords, like 'evolution', 'behaviour','sexual selection','damselflies'... The research subjects page would show lots of keywords, maybe they'd be clickable themselves, then showing a list of names, or it could simply be a header with names of people under that word. Get creative, I think this could work well in a number of ways.

And so, the outsider visiting the department website would get an immediate overview of who is here (people site) and what kind of things we study (keyword site), and have several ways of finding people or research groups. This way, we don't have to remember who is (and who is not) associated with which small or large research group, the name of which might not make a lot of sense to outsiders. This way, no one will have to spent 1.5 hours finding where Anders Hedenström's webpage is, as was the case for Shawn, and me spending an equal amount of time where Jan-Åke Nilsson's page is located, without having to resort to mr Google. Also, if you don't know who is working in Lund, but you have a research interest, you might actually be able to find some people working in your area of interest.

There, glad that's off my chest. I'll get off my soap box now.


  1. 'I think, therefore I am' was Descartes, by the way. Kant would never have come up with such a short take home message.

    And to clarify one of my points, the keywords are not necessarily meant to be powering a search engine (though they might be), but just to categorize visually and verbally some of the research people do in this department. Think of the keywords as venn-diagrams, where you may belong to several keyword sets, all on the same web page... so no-one will be put in one box, and we can all start thinking out of the box (sorry, couldn't help myself there).

  2. I completely agree that the departmental website is poorly organized and that it's hard to find people. I always use Google now because I've learned after a couple of tries that it's hopeless trying to find people via the departmental website. Machteld's suggestion sounds fairly similar to the solution I used for the Plant Ecology and Evolution website in Uppsala:

  3. I like your ideas and think that they would work very well and would definitely improve the websites of the Department. The way it is organised now seems indeed way too complicated. I have actually decided to put my own page up very soon, and then I can link it to my University page, since I have almost given up on it-which is sad and reflects how badly it is organised. I hope they will listen to your constructive criticisms…..Best, Maren

  4. I just wrote a long email and some web issues lost it all...

    Anyway (again), this was in interesting read for me! Thanks for the plug for our departmental web page Erik, but I think our web page is terrible! But the problem is less about internal struggles and more about abject neglect and poor design. So I'm in the process of re-designing a web page right now. I'll post a link to this new web page when it goes up in a a few months, for anyone who looked at our current page (it'll make a interesting comparison, I hope).

    In this new web page, I will keep the focus on faculty (like Erik likes), including a single web page for each faculty member. We'll link to lab web pages from here. However, we are also planning to use Machteld's ven diagram idea, which I think is excellent for investigating research groups (actually, it would be cool to set this up as a real ven diagram!). Here, everyone can belong to as many categories as they like (ecology, morphology, paleontology, conservation, etc).

    I did just make a new web page for our Ecology and Evolutionary Biology group ( It is a small group, and the web page is mostly geared towards potential graduate students. I made it using CSS, which was new to me. It isn't great, but I'm still a bit proud of the creation. In the future my goals are to replace many of the photos, and to keep it up to date (at least that much).

    One difficulty is that a good group web page requires member participation. I've asked for new photos and have received exactly zero. For the departmental web page, most people have not replied to a couple emails asking what groups they want to be included in. I'm offering to make a web page for every faculty member in the department. It doesn't seem too much to ask that everyone take 10 minutes to gather the necessary information for me. I suspect this is a big problem everywhere.

    Anyway, I agree that a departmental web page should be simple, and make it easy to find people. It should not reflect internal paperwork or internal struggles. The web page is the department's face to the world. It is where most everyone goes first. It is your first impression. It should be done well.

  5. I’m sorry that you feel like this about our web site, but I fully understand you. I really like your ideas about keywords, Machteld. That’s how I wish the whole Lund university web site would be constructed. All the material easy findable by keywords. Here is an example how that could look like (in Swedish). But it will not be like that, that’s already decided by the project for the redesign.

    One of the problems with constructing our web site is the size of the department. And like Shawn says, to get the material from people. We have around 300 employees. Right now we are discussing how to maintain a list of people on the web site too ensure that it is up-to-date. With our computer systems, both cms and databases, we have to do that manually. You can’t just fetch the data from the personnel-database and display it on the web site. And make it sortable it’s really out of the question. We’ll have to do everything manually.

    Because we have these old systems, there is no chance that a research sorted by keyword will work today. How would you do that manually? If I understand everything right this is something that will work in the new cms that is scheduled for next year.

    I know that it will not help you by just blame our systems, but I’ll try to make my best with the resources I have.

    /Inger, creator of the crappy web site

  6. I am glad that this provocative post by Machteld sparked off some discussion, with outside participators like Shawn and Inger. This is what I would like this blog to have more of, i. e. more active participation and a forum for discussion, and not just one-way communication.

    There were thoughtful points raised by both Shawn and Inger, and I briefly comment upon them here. Please do not hesistate to continue this discussion, it is very interesting and important. My post becomes too long, so I have to split it in to two, starting with Shawns points.


    I did not imply that your web-page is perfect at ohio, but only that the focus on individual faculty and their labs (PI:s/Professors) is preferable, as opposed to the strange "group" structure in Lund. I have nothing against groups, but ideally they should form below and upwards, and not become too big and centres of power and platforms for personal egos. That is, unfortunately, the situation in Lund, for various historical reasons:

    a/The fact that our Biology department is a merger of several different (sub)departments, and the process of integration is far from over

    b/The fact that in the Swedish research funding system, grants are small, external funding is heavy and PI:s have to cover parts of their salary and PhD-student salaries largely on these small grants. This lack of resources among PI:s weakens individuals in the Swedish/Lund system, and almost automatically favours those who join large coalitions or "groups". In my opinion, the leadership of the department should minimize the power of such large coalitions, just like clever politicans and leaders of states should care more for small company owners and be suspicious of large companies, oligopolies and monopolies who reduce healthy competition and dominate the markets. Thus, wise governors are needed who care for individual PI:s, rather than large entities.


    The more I think about your suggestion of "Venn Diagrams", the more brilliant I think her idéa is, and an excellent complement to the tradition ("American") way of presenting individual PI:s as entry points to the department.

  7. I did an interesting experiment. I googled "Machteld Verzijden", and as you know Google sorts webpages based on their popularity and number of readers. Guess what? This link came up as No. 1, i. e. the one with most visitors:

    I wrote this blog post when Machteld got a VR-grant to welcome her in to our group. The fact that it is most popular, shows the power of blogs, as compared to static web-pages. I think this says A LOT about the power of social media, and why we should utilize them in our research and teaching in a systematic fashion.

    P.S. Link no. 2 went to Leiden (where Machteld did her PhD, quite many years ago now) and No. 3 went to Lund University...Readers can draw their own conclusions about this...D. S.

  8. I think that it would have been better to publish the comments on the department blog. If the blog is worth its name. To start "a thread" (is that what you call it?) you may have to ask Inger to post the first post. But that should be no problem. At least this is what I think. The Blog is a suitable forum for this kind of discussions.

    On the contrary it is not very productive to discuss these things on a research group blog. Nothing good will come out of that.

    I agree with many of the things said in this discussion. But I think that you may not be aware of some of "the limitations" - and I am personally in favour of people acting together in more or less formal groups. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with functional research groups. But apart from that I have since two years been asking for a possibility to present the the professors, PhD students, post docs, technical and administrative personnel on "the front page" of the department web with links to personal web pages. And there should be a way to search the persons. As a matter of fact Anders Hedenström was asked to work out such a solution during the "web meeting" the day before yesterday. Maybe Mactheld would like to join Anders in coming up with a solution? I think that it would serve the department well. "Don´t ask what your department can do for you, ask yourself what you can do for your department!"

    I do not accept the limitations of LUCAT (crap!). We need to maintain our own list of coworkers but in addition to that there is nothing wrong with presenting the functional research groups on the web. Functional groups are those that have weekly meetings, maintain laboratories, recognize birthdays and celebrate when a manuscript has been accepted. Such groups are not forever but work as long as they work. Preferably these research groups should not be too formal but part of an open department atmosphere.

    Apart from that: Thanks for refreshing comments and suggestions but please make sure that they will be productive and not just turn out as complaints.

    Christer/department head

  9. Hej
    I agree this is an issue, when I try to find people in the department in Lund, it usually takes so much time to access their own websiTE. If you try the CEES at oslo, you find a list of people by their position, and then some keywords and summaries of their research. They are strongly preventing groups and sub-groups to be formed, specifically for these reasons mentioned above. As for what Christer is saying, there is nothing wrong with having an more internal organization and structure with meetings and such, I agree with him, but for "outsiders" it is not useful at all I think, so it can be kept internal, and not on the official website of the department. But i dont see why nothing good can come out of discussing something on this blog and not on the department blog... I mean of course this discussion can be taken on the biology blog, but still, no "crime" has been comitted on this blog as far as I am concerned... Sometimes you want to discuss an idea with people you know better at first to see if it is worth taking it forward or not, that is a logical process...

  10. I was not talking about "crimes". I think there are many types of discussions and many different fora. But if you want to make a difference you have to make sure that your comments reach somebody who can take action or make a change. In addition I think that the issue brought up here (Democracy on the biology department website) is of interest to many other groups in the department - not only the followers of this blog. Because of that it is a pity to hide the discussion on the blog of a research group ( ;-)) rather than bringing it up on the "Biology Blog" for common sharing of ideas.

    That said I would like to add that I am fully aware that it may not be clear to everybody how you can start a discussion on the Biology blog. This is a shortcoming that we have to do something about. The current Blog is more like a place to submit "news" from the department - but I hope that this will change. Mactheld or whoever has something important to bring up for public discussion: I suggest that you contact Inger who could arrange for the publication of the first post - then anybody will be able to make comments.

    I have also asked Inger to invite people to make use of this opportunity.

  11. fair enough Christer, I see your point and i might have used strong words, but did not mean it in a bad way... and I agree that this could be more efficient if taken to a bigger audience...

  12. No problem on my side. And as a matter of fact I think that some good things may come out of this discussion.

  13. To round up this discussion, I would like to say that I agree 100 % with Christer in his statement:

    "I do not accept the limitations of LUCAT (crap!)"

    I think this is a message Inger and other IT-staff need to take to their hearts: We, as researchers and teachers, demand certain things from the web-page for it to be useful. These things include (among other things), easiness to find people (especially professors and PI:s), and a logical navigation system. If LUCAT makes this difficult, it is no excuse not to try to create this kind of web-structure, only to work harder. I do not, like Christer, accept excuses based on blaming somebody else (e. g. LUCAT), neither if it is researchers or IT-staff. There is an unhealthy tradition at Lund University to always blame the central administration, and thereby use this as an excuse to not do the necessary reforms at the local level, i. e. at the department levels.

    If we decide that it is crucial to implement some reforms of the web-structure, such as having names of individuals and links to their webpages early, then it is Inger's job (alongside with other IT-personell) to either 1/fix this or 2/make a realistic time plan (and budget) how to this can be fixed and present this to the Department Board. If it requires a lot of working hours (=money), it is still your job to take this in to account and present a realistic time and cost plan, that we can then make a decision about, e. g. at the department board. I do not, just like Christer, accept statements like "we cannot make anything about this because of LUCAT", it is completely unacceptable and a troublesome attitude from the IT-staff, in my opinion. Problems has to be solved, in some way, and this can usually be done, as long as the monetary and budget issues are clearly laid out in a transparent fashion.

  14. Wow, just back from a holiday weekend in NL, and surprised to see the list of comments.... this is the most discussion I've ever caused on a blog! (=great!).

    Glad to see that we for the most part agree that we can improve things, and who knows, with all this brainstorming, then we might come up with a workable solution.

    Christer, I will talk to Anders soon about this, for sure if there is anything that I can do to make the dept website better, then I will.

    Also, good to know we all can post to the biology blog, I had no idea.
    See... this blogging-discussing really is great.

  15. This blog have now been put up on "Biologibloggen", with a few people commenting there, among them Nils Cronberg (Plant Ecology & Systematics) and Christer Löfstedt (The Prefect):

    Both Nils and Christer did criticize my comment regarding Plant Ecology & Systematics and Honour Prentice above for having a too hard and offensive tone. I agree these words were unnessary harsh, even stupid, while at the same time my general message should still be clear: we need a focus on individuals, rather than groups in this department. That said, I do apologize for the formulations above, and I would be willing to remove that comment entirely, if it is perceived as too offensive. I decide to let it stand as it is for a few days, as I do not want to hide it (for now).

    Otherwise I disagree that the tone in general in this discussion was that bad, as indicated by the two responses sofar on "Biologibloggen". Apart from my too harshformulations above (for which I hereby apologize), I think it has mainly been quite constructive. But this is up to others to judge, of course.

  16. Update & Disclaimer:

    I have removed the offensive post by me above, because it was righly criticized by several colleagues outside the group as incorrect and pointing fingers. I do once again apologize for the harsh tone in the comments, while re-iterating that the dicussion in general has been rather constructive. I do especially apologize to Honour Prentice, Bengt-Olle Bengtsson and Ulfur Arnasson for being offensive.

  17. But this apology is not really reflected in what you published on Facebook Tuesday 12 40, - the same day!?

    "Erik Svensson
    förvånas över alla dessa "småpåvar" i universitetsvärlden som grälsjukt bevakar sina imperier."

  18. Enough is enough. I have apologized for some inappropriate formulations and very rude comments. I stand by that. But I have the right to express frustration and express opinions that are disliked, even wrong and unbalanced. I am allowed, like any citizen, to have bad days and say things which might be offensive. I have not, to my knowledge, broken any law, and if so imform me about which one and my rights. Yes, I was frustrated. Yes, you can interpret it in a way you do, as inconsistent with this apology. Or you can interpret it differently.

    What started as some approriate comments has now become bigger than I think it is reasonable, the next step I guess is censorship of thoughts and witch hunt. I am allowed to maintain an opinion that there are to many special interests and powerful substructures in our department, as long as I do not insult people or use use inappropriate and insulting comments against individuals as I unfortunately did above. If that is not the case anymore, I guess it is some new rules which should make us really worried.

  19. ...and to add some more details to these implicit accusations of inconsistency with my apology above:

    My "Blogger" account is somewhat screwed up in terms of time, as the above comment was certainly NOT made 7:17 AM. Consequently, the time for my formal apology above cannot be trusted either. Therefore, if somebody wants to keep track what I say and when, it should be kept in mind that one cannot trust the time for my blogger account. I certainly hope that this side-tracked discussion is now over, so that we can move on to more important topics.

  20. To hopefully finally end this discussion about inconsistency:

    The "Apology-comment" that have the time above as:

    November 29, 2011 10:41 PM

    Was in reality made 9 hours later at Wednesday morning:

    November 30, 2011, 7:41 AM

    Since then, I have not said a single word on this topic, neither her nor on Facebook. I hope this is chrystal clear now, and no misunderstandings remain. The above apology was my last word on the issue, apart from these explanatory comments above.

  21. I stand behind Erik on a few points here:

    1. As an outsider who tried to learn about the Biology department using the web page, I fully agree that the department web page at Lund isn't very useful. Take that for whatever it is worth. (I'll add that the Biological Sciences web page at Ohio University, where I am, is quite badly designed, too, but I am taking an active role in it's re-creation. I believe this to be the spirit of Erik's and Mechteld's posts; to be critical yet ultimately constructive).

    2. It is not only Erik's right to express his opinions, but he is right to express them. The same goes for everyone else who has contributed.

    3. Erik has apologized for being too harsh. There is no reason to believe he isn't absolutely sincere in this. If anyone is still upset, that is that person's problem, not Erik's.

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