Collaboration drives research innovation

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Science has traditionally relied on the sharing of knowledge and ideas, but now collaboration across borders and disciplines is building a new foundation for accelerating scientific discovery, writes Elsevier's Rafael Sidi

The growth in collaborative efforts among researchers, regardless of geographic boundaries and subject areas, is creating an influx of information while new technologies are continuing to flood the landscape. In order for such collaboration to flourish, the outcomes of scientific research must be readily-available, effortlessly-shared and easily-remixable.

The need to reuse and remix content across the web is fuelling the trend towards open application programming interfaces (APIs). Open APIs have grown significantly, with the number of APIs registered on Programmable Web’s popular API directory doubling in 2010 and more than 1,000 new applications added in 2011 in a diverse range applications.

Within the scientific community, the release of APIs by publishers is empowering researchers to shift their adept problem-solving from the lab to powerful web-based platforms that facilitate the creation of customised, domain-specific research tools.

Open APIs enable STM publishers to meet customer demands for ‘your data, my way’ through applications that accommodate a variety of workflow needs. By providing open APIs, publishers are able to expand the reach of their content while at the same time bring more data and richness to their platforms.

As the nature of research becomes increasingly collaborative, the process of transforming information into intelligent content will rely more and more on the dynamic interactions between STM content providers and participants in developer communities.

Working together

Through developer communities, STM content providers invite developers to share valuable feedback, exchange ideas and build applications using their APIs. These networks offer significant opportunities for participants to receive recognition for their innovations and gain visibility among end-users, venture capitalists or corporations as well as generate revenues and network with potential development partners.

These new partners could be individual developers, startups or academic institutions. STM content providers are wise to establish developer networks that foster the participation of both individual developers at universities and startups. Startups, already at the cutting edge of new technologies, are able to bring their unique knowledge, novel solutions and innovative spirit to these collaborative environments. Their acute understanding of the market, domain expertise and ability to adapt swiftly when new needs arise is especially important when serving niche audiences such as researchers.

Elsevier, for example, has successfully attracted a variety of start-ups including NextBio, Quantifind, WebLib, iSpeech, Informascope and Molecular Connections through its SciVerse Applications and Developer Network platform. Through our SciVerse Applications platform, startups, as well as commercial and academic developers, have the opportunity to build workflow solutions for nearly 15 million researchers worldwide.

Equipped with insightful feedback from researchers, developers can use SciVerse ScienceDirect content and SciVerse APIs to build customised, domain-specific solutions for streamlining the search and discovery process.

Innovative tools

Elsevier initially collaborated with NextBio, a provider of a search and discovery platform for life science researchers, to integrate its ontology-based semantic tools with SciVerse ScienceDirect. After the launch of SciVerse Applications, NextBio used its text-based search technologies in order to create a range of applications for the SciVerse platform.

NextBio introduced its Matching Sentences, Methods Search and Prolific Authors applications in September 2010 – and, as part of its collaboration with Elsevier, facilitated more search capabilities through two application launches in April 2011. The applications help researchers fi nd relevant text in all types of content at the document, section, paragraph and sentence level.

Elsevier also forged a partnership with Quantifind Inc., a data analytics start-up, to introduce a tool to the SciVerse platform allowing researchers to gain insights from numerical data rather than traditional keywords. The application contextualises and aggregates data from SciVerse ScienceDirect, allowing researchers to understand trends indicated by thousands of data points.

Such collaborations showcase the potential for developer networks working with open APIs to drive the development of workflow solutions for the scientific community.

Cultivating developer communities

Not only is it important for STM content providers to offer the necessary resources and support within developer networks, but it is also essential to cultivate vibrant communities of engaged participants who are empowered to bring their creativity and exchange ideas that help solve scientists’ workflow problems.

Taking cues from the start-up tech culture of Silicon Valley, STM companies such as Springer and Mendeley are hosting hackathons as well as application challenges to spur the creativity of their developer communities, which include students, researchers and librarians. By providing participants with the opportunity to share ideas and program during intense, collaborative sessions, STM content providers are able to identify talent and uncover innovations.

Springer recently held its first API challenge, which was won by Springer Quotes, an application that lets users search more than 80,000 thousand articles from the company’s open-access journals

Among the many companies conducting developer activities is Yahoo!, whose developer network holds annual open hacks. For startups, as well as individual developers and students, such events represent a chance to achieve significant notoriety. In fact, the start-up Karmasphere received substantial venture capital investment and drew the attention of Amazon’s Web Services website after presenting the idea for Hadoop Studio at an all-night hack.

Unexpected links

Whether it is a hackathon, application challenge or API workshop, activities designed for developer communities are fuelling rich interactions within the knowledge ecosystem. Often, developer events bring academic institutions, start-ups, researchers, students and librarians into the fold, setting the stage for unexpected linkages. For example, Elsevier collaborated with the New Jersey Institute of Technology(NJIT) to arrange its first USA-based hackathon, offering a real-world programming experience to augment the concepts that students were learning in the classroom. A team that included a graduate student from NJIT, who also happened to be a software developer at iSpeech, a cloud-based speech technology startup, won first place for developing a tool that allows users to mark favourite articles, share them through social networks and convert text to speech.

Realising the benefit of text-to-speech conversion for researchers, Elsevier collaborated with iSpeech shortly after the hackathon to deliver the iSpeech Audio Reader to the SciVerse platform. The application enables users to convert full-text articles within SciVerse ScienceDirect into natural sounding voice files. By facilitating a hackathon, Elsevier discovered a useful new solution for researchers and iSpeech was able to bring its technology to another market.

Elsevier has now broadened the reach of its developer programmes through events such as the World Health and Life Sciences Hackathon at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and the Elsevier/NUS SgCodeJam24 in Singapore.

Looking ahead

As the STM information industry continues to transform into one of the most dynamic and exciting industries today, adaptability will be essential, especially when interacting with the global community. As Jamsetji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, explained: ‘In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business, but is in fact the very purpose of its existence.’

In much the same way that government organisations rely on the power of the networked community to spur innovation among society, STM content providers are increasingly turning to developer communities to drive creativity.

The new knowledge ecosystem will continue to thrive on the trusted and fruitful connections forming between STM publishers and developer communities. Diverse participants are stepping into the crowd to offer the valuable insights needed to fuel meaningful innovation within the scientific community. Whether it is a student competing to build the best application during a hackathon or a start-up bringing its expertise to a developer community, a variety of contributors in today’s knowledge ecosystem are transforming the user experience with powerful new solutions.

By providing APIs and the right resources to developers, STM content providers will become more agile in delivering customised solutions through their platforms. Within the new knowledge ecosystem, the vital role of STM publishers will be to empower the scientific community to develop and share solutions that the research community truly needs, which will ultimately bring a dynamic soul and energy to their platforms.

Rafael Sidi is vice president product management, applications marketplace and developer network for Elsevier