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Ask a Biologist: Bringing Science to the Public

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In the early days of the Internet, before Google-powered searches retrieved information on even the most arcane subjects with a single keystroke, inquiring minds sought the advice of experts directly. A critical online intermediary between seekers and experts was the “Ask a (fill in the blank)” website. “Ask a” sites put users with burning questions to solve in direct contact with experts on everything from hornets and cures for rug burn to stellar explosions and baseball trivia. Recognition of the “ask a question” tool's potential in the rapidly evolving electronic frontier led to Web offerings such as The Mad Scientist Network, Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Ask a Scientist, and Scientific American's Ask the Experts.

Ask A Biologist (1askabiologist.asu.edu) was an early adopter of this approach. Although conceptually similar to the expert phone lines established by libraries and universities across the country prior to the creation of the Web, “Ask a” websites can provide 24-hour service without requiring 24-hour staffing while reaching a global audience. Users need just Internet access and, in some cases, an email address, to enjoy streamlined information retrieval, often getting answers within days or even hours. The “Ask a” sites changed the relationship the public could have with experts, and with cutting-edge science.

Via PLoS Biology
 
 

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