PLOS Podcast: Big Data in the Social Sciences

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How big is ‘big data,’ and what role does it have in today’s social science? Those are some underlying themes explored in this half-hour PLOSCast podcast episode. In it, PLOS staff researcher Elizabeth Seiver interviews Ian Mulvany, who opens their talk by describing his journey from Ivy League astrophysics researcher to head of product innovation for SAGE Publishing.

Mulvany details his passion for finding ways to develop technology to support the research process, and how he sees big data in the same way that a physical science might see new measurement devices. “Looking at other disciplines,” he says, “breakthroughs have happened when new instrumentation was made available.” That technology allows us to see the world in new and different ways. “It won’t displace existing instruments,” he adds, “but will add power to the way people look at the world.

Ian Mulvany

Ian Mulvany (Photo: © Katie Metzler)

“What we observe is that this vast explosion of data around the world is creating new opportunities to understand the social aspects of the world in a way that was previously not accessible to us.”

Having shown the similarities in big data research between the social and physical sciences, Mulvany then outlines some of the key differences as social science only recently has started, in a widespread way, trying work with data at scale or work with data in computational sophisticated ways.

He discusses how the number of people directly involved in computational social science is much smaller than the pool of academics who want to get involved in big data research but lack the skills, tools, techniques or the experience creating the kinds of collaborations that will allow them to bring their ideas to life. One particular challenge, he adds, is a skills gap for many social scientists in even getting started. This is where Mulvany’s own role at SAGE – which is the parent of MethodSpace – comes into play as it rolls out SAGE Campus, which is a direct attempt to bridge this skills gap.

The podcast concludes with a Mulvany detailing of applications that handle big data, and a discussion of the changing face of academic publishing.

To learn more on what SAGE is planning to bridge the computational social science skills gap, click here.

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