Sharing the results of publicly funded research

Scientific social networks are the future of science

March 20, 2012 in Uncategorized
“@ccess to knowledge is a fundamental human right “ Peter Murray-Rust

Since ancient times, information has always been passed on orally or on paper. In terms of information technology, information on paper is compartmentalized. Finding information is often synonymous with finding the right book or publication. Books mostly give a more or less complete picture, and any links to other works are often just there for reference purposes. This is fundamentally different from information contained in the internet, which is hyperlinked by nature. Rather than finding information, it is the filtering of relevant information that is hard to do on the Internet (David Weinberg 2B2K).  

An enormous amount of information is stored on the net. Open access to this knowledge is critical if it is to be shared between individuals and groups. But sharing alone is not enough. Knowledge only becomes useful when we can distinguish between relevant and less relevant information, when we can discuss aspects of the information, when we can annotate and improve on ideas, when we can devise new approaches and collaborate online. This is what I mean by  “open science”, where scientists have free and unrestricted access to information and use interactive media to collaborate online.

For scientific research, this means that open access to publications is necessary to create opportunities for sharing, and that the social interaction of scientists and citizens in online scientific communities is necessary to both filter the information and do something (useful) with it. 

Online scientific communities come in different flavours. I want to divide them here into two categories: broad interest communities and specialist communities. Examples of the former are found with open access publishers like Frontiers, BiomedCentral, PLoS, Intech, with LinkedIn and with the Google service Google+, which all provide platforms for online (scientific) communication and interactivity (blog, forum, interest groups). Independent academic internet community platforms like Mendeley,, Connotea, ResearchGate, MyScienceWork and UnitedAcademics provide in addition online reference managing facilities including real time annotation, repository facilities, working on shared documents and managing of collaborative projects. The filtering of publications in all these cases is mostly done by group members using specially developed tools like Papercritic. A new type of academic social media network, GoingOn has been developed specifically for students as most students aren’t attuned to old forms of information like handbooks on paper and online portals anymore.

Examples of the second group of specialized online communities are MalariaWorld (malaria scientists), the OAD ( Open Access Directory with members interested in Open Access) and BiomedExperts, but many more communities exist. MalariaWorld consists of a community of >7000 malaria scientists who receive weekly updates on new malaria publications by mail. Providing interactivity online is an important aspect of the site. 

Because the students of today are the scientists of tomorrow, I am convinced that open science communities are the future of science and that they will continue to grow and incorporate existing social media like Twitter, Youtube and others in the process. One of the aims of the @ccess initiative therefore, is the formation of @ccess specialist communities where scientists and citizens can share, discuss and collaborate on information in defined areas of interest. We have chosen to start building this by choosing a few areas to begin with. As a first step towards this goal we needed to have at least one motivated specialist community with information to share: MalariaWorld volunteered to be that  first @ccess community. In collaboration with the @ccess initiative they will soon be providing comprehensive open access information on malaria (publications and data) using innovative bibliographic databases, self-archiving, a dedicated open access MalariaWorld Journal (self-publishing) and ultimately also novel tools for impact assessment.  We plan for many more communities to be modeled on this example.

In my view, the future of science will ultimately depend on the formation of many such interconnected scientific communities covering all possible areas. Making optimal use of the internet and social media, scientists and citizens within and between these communities will collaborate to produce more useful knowledge than ever before and to store, maintain and provide information for those who seek it. Especially for medical scientists in the developing world, these communities will provide vehicles for innovation, health improvement and development in their respective countries. Following this line of thought, the only hope of winning the battle against malaria, aids, neglected diseases and other tropical infections will lie in free access to and sharing of information, and in joining forces by way of social media and open science communities. It is for these reasons that a research community like MalariaWorld will be our best hope to win the ongoing battle against malaria. 

The concept of scientific networks and their role in changing the way we do science has been described best by Michael Nielsen in his book “Reinventing discovery”, by David Weinberg in  “Too Big To Know” and by Cameron Neylon in an excellent blog on Networked enabled Research.   I owe a special thank you to these three authors for sharing their thoughts


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