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Keeping Science Connected the Web 2.0 Way

The rise of scientific social networking is paying dividends for users and entrepreneurs alike.

By Allison Proffitt

March 24, 2009 | "If we could get people to work together, we could really change medicine. We could change discovery, we could speed up the rate of treatments, and new targets coming to the market. And it’s a little bit more altruistic, I think, than just normal social networking.”

Collexis COO Stephen Leicht and many others may be taking advantage of the social networking trend started by MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and their ilk. But in customizing it specifically for scientists, they envision dramatic benefits, from driving research to searching for career opportunities. There are myriad offerings. Some, like ResearcherID and Elsevier’s 2Collab, are focused on identifying potential collaborators. Others—Harvard’s Catalyst, Hershey (PA) Research Park’s KnowledgeMesh—manage the research network and skill sets within a set boundary. And still others are trying to take the best of the web, and make it work for science.

Leicht’s project is, launched in April 2008. The community applies mining technology from the parent company, Collexis, to profile documents and experts within organizations. BiomedExperts boasts some 1.8 million profiles in the system based on mining of PubMed literature, and more than 10,000 registered users, 80% of whom are life sciences researchers. When a researcher logs into the application, “we already have a profile for him,” Leicht explains. “And if he wants to know why we think he’s an expert in ventricular tachycardia, he can see the specific articles [that] we’ve linked to him.”

The pre-populated community brings value to the user, Leicht says. “We take the coauthors of each expert and use them as a proxy or starting point for a social network... Even if [a researcher] never joins, I can see 50 people on here that he’s connected to, so I’ve got a preliminary social network for [him] based on the people that he has done research with over the course of his career… I can connect any Ph.D. student who has written two or three papers within five or six steps to anybody. You can connect them to the head of NIH; you can connect them to the last three people who won Nobel Prizes.” 

Members can visualize these networks by strength of association (first vs. second level coauthors), chronology, area of interest, and geography. Scientists in the network can message each other, track their connections, and find experts by topic.

BiomedExperts’ registered users represent more than 1,800 organizations and institutions from 137 countries, totaling more than 21 million connections made through the site. The site attracts more than 60,000 unique visitors a day. Currently the data for the public network comes from PubMed, but Leitch says that soon the company plans to add grant information and patents to the mined resources.

Invited to the Party

Brian Gilman, founder and CEO of the online network SciLink, thinks of his online network—tagline: “Science. Connected.”—like this. “Here’s the party, we set up the room, we put the drinks out, we set up the stereo and it’s up to the scientists to come in.”

Similar to BiomedExperts, SciLink also mines the data for publications and connections. When a new user signs up, he or she claims their profile and publications, “and then we show you who you’re connected to—auto-magically, if you will,” Gilman says.

SciLink members include scientists, clinicians, journalists, venture capitalists, and others interested in the community. “The first community to get in here is biology types,” Gilman says, “because I think they’re sort of ready. The physics community, we’re not offering all of the tools the physics community could use, but they’re not as huge as the clinical and bio med community. But there are physicists in here. It’s kind of neat.”

The site started in August 2007 (see, “SciLink Scours the Web,” Bio•IT World, Oct 2007). Today, with 10 million profiles in the database mined from literature and 120 million connections, Gilman claims it is the largest scientific social network. “We definitely want to foster the kind of interaction [a researcher needs when] thinking about their next great idea. People spend a good deal of time on the site. It’s fully customizable to them. We do a lot of really fun Web 2.0-y things… and it’s about networking, it’s about connecting with people.”

Asset Management

Epernicus, another scientific social networking site, aims to connect researchers with “very specific expertise or skills” within their networks, says Vivek Murthy. “[The four founders] were researchers who actually decided to create this platform to solve a problem that we and our colleagues had,” says Murthy. “We brought to it a very intimate understanding of science, scientific networks, and how scientists think and what their workflows are like. A lot of that familiarity with the scientists is reflected in the design and the interface itself.”

Epernicus uses automated networking rather differently than SciLink and BiomedExperts. Instead of mapping publications and author relationships, Epernicus connects people based on location and advisor relationships. “If I join and I indicate that I’m in the Department of Microbiology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital that fits within Harvard University, and that my advisor is Jack Smith, my network will automatically pull all of the people that are advised by Jack Smith within the Department of Microbiology, within the Brigham, within Harvard,” Murthy explains.

Epernicus’ real distinguishing feature is its asset management tools. Assets “are the topics and materials and methods with which a person has expertise,” Murthy explains. “They’re self-designated items, but they give people an understanding of another scientist’s skill set. That, unfortunately, is not information that is easily gleaned if you just look at their publications, or their LinkedIn profile, or their resume even. A lot of it has to do very specifically with their experience has been, and that’s not easily captured.” The asset cataloging makes the search feature in Epernicus quite powerful, Murthy says.

Epernicus rolled out their beta solution last summer. Currently the network hosts 10,000 members, and, based on the company’s own research, claims to have the largest representation of researchers at top institutions including Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSF.

Selling the Network

All of the networks seem to agree on keeping the networks free for users, but that doesn’t help the bottom line. The audience for these types of applications is small, says SciLink’s Gilman. Networks are “vying for 2 million people tops,” and competing with the non science-specific offerings of Plaxo, LinkedIN, and more.

“There are a large number of smaller players,” Epernicus’ Murthy says. “A lot of these players have changed their business models and offerings over time.” With a web-based product it’s easy to adjust.

“We made some assumptions about what they might want, but we’re learning from our users every day,” Gilman says. “That’s why we started this site, because we want this for scientists, by scientists, and so that they can represent themselves using their own language.”

There’s the altruism Leicht was talking about. But Gilman is acutely aware of the bottom line: “The question is, how are we all going to make money?”

For SciLink, the answer for now is to focus on the job market. “Many people are doing an internal assessment right now,” Gilman says, figuring out what their skill set is, and how and where they are represented on the Web. Gilman is seeing SciLink being increasingly used for recruiting and job hunting. “There’s no cost to the user,” he says. Recruiters pay to get into the network and hiring managers search the membership. Two of SciLink’s full time employees are dedicated to facilitating the job search offerings, and the company did break even in 2008.

An alternative option to making the “altruistic” venture profitable is to sell the solution to companies and other groups who want their own network. Collexis’ mining technology, upon which Biomed­Experts is based, is already in use. For example, Johns Hopkins University uses it to profile 3,000 researchers in its schools of medicine, nursing, and public health. The state of South Carolina uses the technology in its Health Sciences South Carolina initiative to link the half-dozen largest hospitals and universities in the state. Leicht estimates that Collexis does custom expertise profiling for 25 to 30 of the nation’s academic medical centers.

SciLink is also selling a private channel package, using the Amazon cloud. Within the custom-created white labeled solutions, SciLink and the institution own the customer jointly.

Epernicus hopes to capitalize on the same need, and is running a pilot program with Genzyme. Murthy recognizes that pharma and biotech companies have internal networking needs and would like to do many of the things for their internal scientists that are currently featured in Epernicus, such as “helping them understand each other’s skills, helping them communicate through tools like Bench Q, which is a communication tool we have, helping people understand each other’s assets and search efficiently.”

Epernicus is also “considering partnerships” with companies that want to serve scientists, “lab supply companies, recruiting firms,” but the company isn’t looking to on-site advertising. “Our goal is to create a really clean experience for people on the site,” he says. Altruism again. 

This article also appeared in the March-April 2009 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine.
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    Thanks for your article highlighting the important problem of developing tools to help scientists collaborate effectively.
    I am the co-founder of a start-up, Quartzy ( that tackles this problem from a different angle. On Quartzy, scientists can manage and maintain their reagent and chemical inventories and share them with their lab-mates. They can also send orders to their lab-manager with a few clicks and lab-managers can respond to orders from all lab-mates in a convenient fashion. Quartzy allows scientists to find things quickly in their lab, save time while ordering, avoid duplicate orders and more.
    We also have similar functionality for managing shared facilities and protocols.
    Quartzy has been active for more than a year and has thousands of scientists using the site to manage their labs!

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