05/20/2010 12:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Science Goes Social

Anyone that has worked in a research lab has at some point or other typed in a dozen combinations of key words in a Google search box to find a source for that elusive but crucial reagent, and sifted through scores of irrelevant page results before finally giving up.

Despite the exploding world of Web 2.0, scientists have so far relied too heavily on published papers and per-chance meetings at conferences to share laboratory reagents, scientific know-how, and innovative ideas. Restricting alliances to this one avenue often tends to preclude organic partnerships where both sides can benefit from and complement each other's research. In addition, in groundbreaking areas, where science often gets old in a matter of weeks, the extended timeline of publishing in peer-reviewed journals doesn't help.

Researchers are finally waking up to the fact that they are not as well connected as they should be in the interest of scientific advancement. Not surprisingly, there has been an explosion of socially aware science-based search engines and social networks in the past year.

Sites like as labmeeting, ResearchGate and MyNetResearch almost function like "Digg for science," with features to manage and organize one's literature searches, and options to recommend papers to friends and colleagues. They also allow scientists to share protocols and edit and comment on articles through social bookmarking tools.

In addition to creating a searchable database of scientific literature, sites like use Web metrics to track and provide anonymized information about which articles are being read by whom and where, and also showcase the most popular papers at any given time. Taking science networking to a whole new level, the application also uses a "matching algorithm" to connect like-minded scientists and researchers. It enables people to sync their profiles with other networks such as LinkedIn, and updates users on files uploaded and shared by friends, much like a Facebook news feed.

The site has been described as a " for research," and rightly so. Victor Henning, founder of Mendeley, admits that the idea was inspired by the popular music network, in that his site is primarily about connecting data as is about connecting music. Connecting people comes as a consequence of that.

In fact, what science networks do across the board is offer a scientific incentive to the researcher before building social layers over it. Let's face it, scientists are not ideal candidates for hanging out at a social network to share YouTube videos or send virtual teddy bears.

Mendeley builds on a concept first implemented by CiteULike, a reference tool, which lets users make public lists of their literature searches, and enables others to find them. These sites work as "recommendation engines," as opposed to search engines, which becomes important when scouring not only huge volumes of literature, but also in finding the right literature when dealing with specialized subject matter. Such tools would demonstrate more judgment than, say, a Google search for hypothalamic GABAergic neurons.

That the field of science is taking networking seriously is clear from the fact that the NIH awarded $27 million in funds last year toward the development of networking tools to better connect researchers with each other, and more importantly, with resources through each other. One of the two teams that received these funds has created VIVO, a kind of LinkedIn for researchers. The tool, which is being developed by a team at the University of Florida, will allow scientists to customize their information based on their interests and objectives, and hence ensure that the right people find them, and vice versa.

Harvard University medical researchers are working on the other ARRA-funded project, which is attempting to create a directory of resources for scientists, one that would encompass everything from animal models to antibodies for use in research labs. Scientists are coming to realize that they often spend years recreating materials that other labs in the country already possess; hence, investing money in creating such an index makes a lot of sense since it would ultimately save time and resources. Cleverly named eagle-i, the project aims to launch with nine institutions in the US, and expand further over time.

Perhaps, the most expansive and ambitious of social networking projects currently underway is Scitable, a social network from Nature Publishing Group, which could well be the grandfather of scientific literature itself. Scitable not only aims to connect researchers from around the world, but also has facilities to improve access to science education through interactive multimedia learning.

The idea behind it, as Crunchgear reports, is that scientific education in high schools and colleges is more effective when it comes from real people (even online people), rather than printed words in a text book. In addition, this can alleviate problems with lack of resources - such as educational aids and teaching personnel - in the developing world. With that in mind, Scitable even has a mobile site in the works, which would be especially beneficial in countries where computer access is sporadic. Instructors can create virtual classrooms and students and amateurs can ask questions of experts. Users can participate in scientific debates on the site's blogs and discussion forums.

As online networking in science grows, however, it is bound to encounter the same issues with regulation as social media use has in other fields. How much sharing is too much sharing? Researchers should be careful with revealing information on proprietary and unpublished work, and be wary of making premature conclusions based on ongoing research. This is no reason to shy away from social media, however, which promises untold benefits in scientific collaborations. The more scientists begin to use it, the more they will begin to resolve not just challenging science problems, but also questions about social media etiquette.