Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Monday, 26 October 2009

Science enters the age of Web 2.0

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Laboratory, Eyewire
Scientists are not always the first to use new web tools

You might think that professional research scientists are at the forefront of what the newest tools of the internet can provide in terms of collaboration and the discovery of knowledge.

After all, they're frequently plonked down in front of their computers, with all that the web has to offer them easily at hand, right?

Well, sort of.

"Scientists are all about doing new things but actually we're very conservative about the way that we do them," said Cameron Neylon, a senior scientist for biomolecular sciences at the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

"That's right and proper if you're making big statements about how the world works - so they're relatively slow to take on new kinds of tools."

Slowly, though, that cautious approach to the opportunities provided by Web 2.0 is giving way to new software, and new ways to use the services more familiar outside the research world.

'Herding cats'

It's worth remembering that the currency among professional researchers is in publications - research papers. They are the manifestation of a research group's work, a reference document, the bar by which a researcher is measured and the stock-in-trade of the knowledge that they produce, use, share, and archive.

The problem has always been that those research papers are on paper.

"They're generally stored in read-only formats, meaning that you can't easily annotate them to highlight regions of interest for your team without printing them out, which rapidly becomes impractical," said Duncan Casey, a chemistry researcher at Imperial College London.

"You'll also have to work through several hundred of these when writing an article yourself, which is a challenge of both organisation and memory, as remembering which ones go where and why can be a major headache."

Research papers, Eyewire
Web-based tools are helping scientists organise research data

Of course, searching and indexing research papers has been made vastly easier by the mere existence of the internet, and services such as Google Scholar and PubMed have gone right to the heart of the problem of searching through academic literature.

A number of retail software packages for juggling research papers such as EndNote and Reference Manager have aimed to address the problem of managing and indexing references for the research world, and in recent years have migrated some of their services to the web.

But much research happens across time zones and disciplines, meaning researchers often struggle to collectively put together a research paper.

"Writing one is often an exercise in frustration, as you'll typically be working with half a dozen co-authors - all of whom are at different stages in the writing or reviewing process and each of whom has his or her own opinion about how the finished piece will look. It's like herding cats," said Mr Casey.

Recommendations, please

A number of services are arising to begin to leverage the power of Web 2.0 to help researchers along.

Mendeley is first and foremost a reference management package which automatically extracts bibliographic data from a researcher's library of research papers.

That in itself makes it a labour-saving tool, sparing researchers the trouble of manually typing the data in when using the reference, for example, in footnotes. It also allows users to "mark up" the documents with comments on specific sections.

But its real power lies in what it does with the collective data from users.

Science always builds on what's gone before and sharing results and data and ideas is a core part of that - it's just that in the past we haven't been able to do that as efficiently as we can today
Cameron Neylon, Science and Technology Facilities Council

"We give scientists the tools to manage their documents, so we can aggregate anonymously what documents they're working with," said Victor Henning, Mendeley's founder and director.

"Based on that data, we can tell you which documents people are working with in, say, biological sciences, so you can find out up to the minute in real time what are the hottest papers and authors and topics in every academic discipline. You can go to the site for a specific discipline and you could find the top five papers for that given week."

The service also aims to make recommendations based on the works present in a given researcher's library - along the lines of Amazon's "customers who bought this item also bought:" recommendation service. It is this automation of the literature discovery service that stands to aid researchers who may be new to a given field.

Free value

But web tools, both research-specific and far more general, can also chip in to the process.

"The manner in which you become 'literature aware' can be slow and is limited in scope to the views and criticisms of your physically immediate peers," said Ali Salehi-Reyhani, a researcher in single cell proteomics at Imperial College London.

"Web 2.0 throws that open to a global community of experts with tools like f1000 and Twitter."

F1000 is a tool that highlights high impact papers and allows scientists to subject them to post-publication peer review.

"The viral nature of Twitter allows information to be rapidly and critically spread to an audience thousands to millions wide," said Mr Salehi-Reyhani. "Tweeting scientists can exploit this to quickly pass on that hot new paper to their peers with minimal effort yet maximum effect."

Screen shot of Google Wave
Google Wave combines IM, e-mail and social networking features

The imminent release of Google Wave could also be a boon for the cat-herding exercise of collaborating on a research paper, as each participant in a given conversation - or "wave" - using the service can add, delete, or change a given document, with a live, most-current version of a document in progress visible to everyone in the wave, no matter the time zone.

However, Dr Neylon said Wave's power went beyond that.

"Where it really wins for science is that these documents or waves can be made automated so we can connect up documents and ideas with each other - a particular chemical compound for example could be labeled and linked back to a database, so that lets us start to link up all the references to that compound."

As is the way with social network dynamics, services like Mendeley will reach their greatest utility when the most people are participating. But as with Wave, the key is that the services offer value without adding much to workload.

"Mendeley clearly solves a problem that people already have, which is managing their research literature, then it offers as a result of doing that the connections with other people that are a powerful part of what you can do on a social web," Dr Neylon said. "It offers [users] new information and new value out of what they're already doing.

"Science always builds on what's gone before and sharing results and data and ideas is a core part of that - it's just that in the past we haven't been able to do that as efficiently as we can today."

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