Shouldn't You be Online?

Ferreting out online opportunities for scientists

By | June 1, 2007

While the rest of the world goes bananas over new online tools for communicating and collaborating, we in the life sciences have been, well let's say, restrained, in adopting and adapting the current incarnation of the internet for our professional purposes. Yes, there are some excellent science bloggers, but the total number might be a couple of hundred, a spit in the bucket in terms of the blogosphere as a whole. There are a few decent podcasts too, but none that ride high on the download charts. And even an online dating service for scientists exists-but have you ever heard of it? (It's, if you're so inclined.)

Perhaps life scientists, or at least the young and/or trendy among us, are content to participate using universally popular sites such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and the like. However, a quick tour of these sites says otherwise - if scientists are on such sites, they're not identifying themselves as scientists.

The tepid response suggests that there just hasn't been a breakthrough application for the life sciences yet. But things are definitely warming up. Take professional networking sites such as This and similar services open up a huge list of potential contacts, literally hundreds of thousands in the life sciences, that can be mined for whatever purpose you chose. In the Careers article, see examples of how your colleagues are using LinkedIn. There's no free lunch, however, at least not yet: The useful versions of LinkedIn and its competitors come at a price: around $20 per month for the lowest upgrade package. (Please share your views on these services, positive or negative, in the story's online comment thread.)

All of this makes me wonder if a cheaper (free?) social network specifically for life scientists, perhaps one based around the 470,000 registrants of this magazine, would find a market. For instance, would it be appealing to upload posters that you spent hours preparing for a brief moment of fame in an echoing conference poster hall? Or maybe you'd appreciate the opportunity to upload a video of a technique that you're proud of. Or maybe just a goofy life-in-the-lab movie. If there's an online service you'd like to see, let me know by joining this editorial's comment thread, or contacting me at

The networking of distant labs into virtual research teams is also inevitable. In fact, the Alliance for Cell Signaling, a multi-center project funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences has already blazed a trail in this regard. While it suffered plenty of teething problems, it was a brave experiment that gave an insight into the future.

In the meantime we've pushed ahead with another innovation, one that recasts the usual publication process. Taking a page from the likes of Wikipedia, OhMyNews, and even Scientific American, over a period of a month we asked readers to post their views on the critical issues surrounding stem cells and cloning, and how they might be solved (see This online forum formed the basis of our feature here.

To make the best of the approach we had to coax some reluctant scientists to comment openly on the issues covered. The sensitive nature of stem cell research was undoubtedly a factor, but it could also highlight the philosophical barriers that still exist with adopting online tools. Communication and collaboration may be part and parcel of a scientist's life, but this tends to be carried out among the comfort of peers. For many reasons, such as current reward structures and competitive funding processes, most scientists are still wedded to the notion that the journal publications, not online tools, are the most important means of scientific communication.

The project included a number of polls too, the results of which can be found on our Web site. When the respondents were split into stem cell researchers, researchers from other fields, and the lay public an unexpected trend emerged. The lay public were the most gung-ho and optimistic about reproductive cloning. This surprised me. Our open forums often attract comment from opponents, be it creationists, animal rights extremists or opponents of biotechnology. But here was the lay public loudly and proudly supporting the development of stem cell research. I found that encouraging.

We'll continue the discussion on stem cells post-publication on our Web site. Look out for other hot topics being pursued in this way in the months ahead, and do join the discussion. Who knows - there might just be something to "this here Internets."


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