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Biomedical research resources get personal

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From the traditional search and discovery tools to the latest in social networks, there's a host of online resources available to bioscience researchers. But do they actually want them, asks Rebecca Pool

If you’re a life scientist, medical researcher or biologist, what is your most precious commodity? Time. As Sue Thorn, executive director of the Society of Endocrinology and UK publisher Bioscientifica, says: ‘These sciences have rather rapid development and when it comes to their work, the researcher needs to know what’s current and what’s not.’

Accordingly, research tool providers have developed resources, increasingly online, to help this busy community carry out its work quickly, efficiently and with minimum hassle. But what does the researcher really value?

Thorn says the search and discovery of articles is of paramount importance and, for this, a host of online tools now exist. One hot favourite is PubMed, provided by the US National Library of Medicine and hosting more than 17 million citations for biomedical articles from life-science journals dating back to the 1950s.

‘Publishers will send the header, abstract and metadata to PubMed on the day the article is accepted for publication – it means researchers will be able to cite that abstract very early in the publication process,’ she explains.

The full text will soon follow and, when the definitive article is ready to publish, that text is replaced. ‘You could go onto Google but, as a researcher, you want to refine your search to recent papers from peer-reviewed journals so this narrows it down,’ she adds. PubMed isn’t acting alone. Elsevier and Thomson are constantly updating their respective databases, Scopus and the Web of Science for example. And, more recently, Ovid has launched Ovid SP, which promises a ‘simplified, streamlined search experience’. Meanwhile US-based WebMD, is showcasing Search CME on its Medscape portal.

Online movement

The transfer of research tools to the internet has altered practices. For example, Simon Ralliison, editorial director for biomedicine at Springer, believes that the advent of online journals has unleashed new opportunities to researchers and also spawned a host of new resources: ‘Peer-reviewed articles are the most authoritative and reliable source of information, and [with the availability of online journals] users now read more articles, use a wider range of journals and are actually reading older articles,’ he says. He also describes how publishers are now under pressure to publish full underlying datasets alongside papers. The internet can make this easier but, as he says: ‘A major obstacle is the lack of interoperable standards – at least 20 different systems are used in repositories.’

Rallisson also highlights how several publishers now provide online preprints and host preprint servers. One example of this is ‘Nature Precedings’, recently launched by Nature Publishing Group (NPG). Here, scientists can upload non-peer-reviewed documents for early citation (see page 25). Many publishers also provide podcasts, blogs and social networking sites. ‘Some people see this as promoting collaborative research in which a ‘collective intelligence’ gathers to push back the boundaries of research,’ says Ralliison.

US-based Collexis is one software provider hoping to capitalise on the community’s wish to collaborate. Its life-sciences social networking site, http://www.biomedexperts.com/, was jointly developed with SyynX Solutions of Germany and is scheduled to launch in January.

Unlike many existing networks, this website is already home to more than 1.4 million profiles of biomedical experts. The raw data is sourced from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with the network boasting 12 million pre-established ‘connections’ between researchers.

Collexis’s chief operating officer Steve Leicht says ‘This is the first fully-loaded, pre-populated social network ever launched. All researchers have to do is sign up to the website and they will see their details.’

But how will a researcher use such a resource? At its simplest level, the website can be used to glean information about fellow researchers, such as number of publications and co-authors. Registrants can also identify potential collaborators via institution or geography, while virtual research teams can be created in which members post information to each other.


The world at your fingertips: Collexis' new networking site hopes to help life scientists collaborate with anyone, anywhere

The website also has the capability to send information. ‘Researchers can alert us to their interests and we can send them relevant information, in real time, as screened by their research profile,’ explains Leicht. ‘For example, if the American Cancer Society puts out grant funding information we can alert researchers who are most likely to be interested.’

Undoubtedly, the website offers a sophisticated means of online collaboration, which Leicht says is superior and more robust than versions from the company’s competitors. But is such a tool in demand?

Leicht says demonstrations at universities have led to comments such as ‘this is the coolest thing’ and ‘I’m flabbergasted’. But, while the company asserts that social networking is ‘an enormously powerful trend’, it will be spending the next few months busily promoting the network to ensure that potential users agree.

Competitive edge

So why might life scientists, medical researchers and biologists be reticent to add social networking to their suite of research resources? Try competition. The relentless speed of development in this industry fuels rivalry amongst researchers. And, because of this, Sue Thorn of the Society of Endocrinology questions whether social networks will be welcomed. ‘I could see them being popular, but we have the issue of competition and you wouldn’t want to use such a website to demonstrate all of your work,’ she says. ‘Researchers could well say, “actually, I get on well just as I am”.’

Indeed, social networking wouldn’t be the first online resource to fall foul of the cut-throat competition rife among this community.

Between June and October last year, the journal Nature invited its authors to take part in an open peer-review experiment. Authors could choose to have their submissions posted on a preprint server for comments, in parallel with the conventional peer-review process.

Of all the scientists approached, only five per cent agreed to take part. No papers were posted in the fields of biochemistry, chemical biology, chemistry, genetics/ genomics, medical research, microbiology, palaeontology or zoology. Not surprisingly, the project has been shelved.

Maxine Clarke, publishing executive editor at Nature, puts the disappointing results down to competition. ‘If you think about it, the biological sciences are much more competitive,’ she says. ‘If you place your research on the web, people will see it earlier, and this could cause problems as the speed of publication in this community is so fast. You also run the risk of your manuscript being reviewed by a research group working on the same problem.’

So, while researchers have embraced online versions of their traditional resources, the mass uptake of novel online tools remains uncertain. But these resources present one crucial benefit: they can save time, which Collexis’ Leicht is keen to highlight.

‘Large organisations, such as the NIH, have recognised that inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional research is important. But for collaboration to take place, researchers must seek out other researchers, which involves a lot of phone calls and reading,’ he says. ‘Quite frankly, these people are a little bit busy, so this is a tremendously good time to introduce social networking to them.’

Open access: are you ready?

The biomedical sciences tend to be mentioned whenever the topic of open access (OA) is raised. The public-interest nature of much of this research has sparked lively debate about the ethics of restricting the published results to those who pay to read them.

Simply put, OA literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. Depending on your viewpoint, it will either speed research progress or prove to be economically unsustainable. Many significant OA titles and large OA publishers – including BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science – have a strong focus on biomedicine. And, of the conventional journals that have experimented with hybrid publishing – where authors have the choice about whether to pay to make their work free to read – the greatest uptake has often been in biomedicine.

However, the fraction of OA journal literature today still stands at no more than five per cent, although this figure is rising. And, while librarians are ready to embrace the OA model, what about the researchers? Sue Thorn, executive director at the Society of Endocrinology, believes that many are still wary about it. ‘Researchers can see the advantages of open access but also see it as a threat. They don’t wish to prejudice the current journal system,’ she asserts.

However, Johannes (Jan) Velterop, senior director of open access at Springer, disagrees: ‘Most authors seem unaware of which journals are actually OA as they have access free at the point of use, through their libraries. Also, a very vocal minority are not wary of OA at all and they count amongst their ranks some of the very best scientists.’

However, both Thorn and Velterop agree that OA will only succeed if funding is in place. Thorn believes grant providers should provide the cash and highlights a so-called ‘gold route’ in which funding for publication is supplied to the researcher as part of the grant offer. ‘The Wellcome Trust is involved with this as they want the material they have funded to be available as soon as possible,’ she explains.


Springer's Jan Velterop does not believe that scientists are wary about open access

Meanwhile, Velterop is hanging on for the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandate, which has recently received congressional backing, to be issued. This requires its investigators to deposit their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts in the online archive PubMed Central

He believes the mandate will spark identical policies from the US National Sciences Foundation and institutions worldwide. ‘The signs are that open access may be ready for a phase change,’ he says.