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Seeking Collaborators in the Facebook Age

Online tools to help scientists connect attract interest and skepticism

March 2009-- In the late 1980s, Hopkins’ Peter Agre went searching for a colleague who could help illuminate an intriguing discovery. He had found a protein in the membranes of red blood cells that he suspected was some sort of channel. But the search for collaborators to determine the protein’s function led nowhere until 1991, when returning from a vacation, he stopped at the University of North Carolina to visit hematologist John Parker, a former mentor. Parker made a novel suggestion: Perhaps the protein transported water. He also said he knew the perfect person to help test this hypothesis—a physiologist named Bill Guggino, who just happened to have a lab one floor above Agre’s.

With Guggino’s help, Agre demonstrated the protein’s role as a water channel, research that led to Agre’s winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Such collaborations are vital to science. But as this case illustrates, they sometimes are born through serendipity. What if the process could be more linear and more systematic? A host of new electronic networking tools tailored to scientists promise to do just that. There’s SciLink, NatureNetwork, BioCrowd, LabSpaces, and LabMeeting, to name a few. Some provide a platform for blogging, publicizing research findings and learning what’s going on in a field. And some aim to perfect the art of finding a potential collaborator, a sort of for the pairing of scientists.

In February, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions officially launched its own electronic database of biomedical experts. The system is produced and managed by the Columbia, South Carolina-based software developer called Collexis. Unlike Facebook or many other social networking sites where users must enter information about themselves, Collexis algorithms automatically generate member profiles by data-mining PubMed. (This process is overseen by staff quality checkers.)

Anyone with Internet access can use the database, which organizes information under two interfaces. Under the “Research Profile” tab, a user can search for a faculty member doing research in a particular field. Under the “Institutional Dashboard,” users can scope out broader research trends, such as where Hopkins researchers in a particular field tend to publish. For example, typing in the term “ribosome” shows that JHMI has 71 experts who have published relevant research, including 37 currently active in the field.

Vice Dean for Research Chi Dang and Vice Dean for Clinical Investigation Daniel Ford helped negotiate the final agreement with Collexis, which involves a $25,000 annual subscription fee to produce and maintain the database, and a $50 fee per profile.

The idea for the database emerged from a meeting of Hopkins basic scientists and clinical researchers, who came together in May 2006 to discuss ways of forging connections between their two research fields. “You might think it’s easy, but there’s a gulf between the basic science and clinical sides,” says Associate Professor of Biophysics Jon Lorsch, one of the meeting’s organizers. “There’s not nearly as much contact as you’d want.”

It may be too early to know whether Collexis is helping to stimulate such connections. When interviewed for this article, many faculty said they hadn’t yet logged onto the system, and several said they didn’t even know it existed.

Collexis IT specialists say they are continuing to fine-tune the software and develop new functions in response to users’ requests. In a recent project, they worked with Public Health’s cardiovascular epidemiology training program to generate a graphic display showing the network of collaborations and co-authorships among the program’s 22 clinical researchers and epidemiologists. Biostatistician Josef Coresh says Collexis simplified the process of showing these relationships. The team is submitting the graphic as part of a proposal for a $3 million Public Health Service training grant.

“I think the tool we created will be extremely helpful for junior faculty members, as well as senior faculty going into a new field,” Dang says. In theory, online networking tools for science could break entrenched patterns like the “old boys’ networks” and shatter “glass ceilings,” replacing them with a more open, vibrant and democratic system.

But how scientists will use online social networks—if they use them—remains to be seen. That question may spawn its own body of research. “This is a very new research area,” notes Titus Schleyer, an informatics specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, who has surveyed Pitt faculty on their use of a faculty research interest database established about 10 years ago. One trend he’s observed is a large generation gap. “Senior scientists do not flock to the system.” They have their established networks. But if Pitt didn’t have it, says Schleyer, “young people who are part of the Facebook generation would wonder why don’t we have a system like this.” 

–Melissa Hendricks

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