Many researchers avoid grappling with new techniques when a familiar procedure yields reliable results. This reluctance prevails even when new kits or reagents could save considerable time and effort. Early last year, Stanford University labmates Dean Hung and Trevor Bezdek devised a remedy to this long-standing tradition with the launch of Biowire.com, a forum for scientists to give their opinions on products, kits, reagents, and equipment. "What [the founders] realized is that whenever they had a problem, they would go ask the postdoc down the hall," says Rosy Lee, product manager at Biowire. "But they were limited in the community they had access to."
Now, users logging on to Biowire.com can read product reviews written by other scientists and post their own opinions about specific products they've used. A section called "Voodoo Hints" provides a place for scientists to publish those all-important bits of lab lore that never seem to make it into the "Materials and Methods" section of papers.
The site has received wide grassroots support. Six months after launch, its user base now consists of 25,000 scientists from more than 50 countries, representing 2,300 institutions worldwide. Heidi Giesing, a graduate student at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., thinks the site is very useful: "I like the fact that if I've never used a certain product, I can get a quick glimpse of other users' opinions. I can pick [a product] that the majority of the reviewers liked and avoid ones that people didn't find as useful."
Conspicuously absent from the site is any advertising. Lee says that the decision not to use advertising was the only appropriate one: "We wanted to create a legitimate scientific resource, a site that people would want to come to." Their editorial process is stringent. Although they accept reviews from any legitimate user, four staff scientists scan reviews for frivolous claims, plagiarism, libelous statements, and manufacturers masquerading as researchers to promote their own products or undermine their competitors. Lee says that they have been fortunate not to encounter many of these problems so far.
Another feature of the site is Jellyfish, a free, downloadable sequence analysis software package written by Biowire staff. According to Lee, the Biowire founders were tired of using Unix-based software for DNA analysis and decided to develop a more user-friendly package that had all of the same functionality. The program has an open architecture, allowing users to program their own modules, and the Biowire team has plans for more upgrades. When asked how the company finances the free software, Lee remarks, "There are a lot of purchases that can be made based on a sequence analysis." To this end, Biowire's business model includes plans to provide a platform for direct purchase of oligonucleotides, peptides, and reagents. "Our goal is to become a resource ... to help people get their experiments done and get results, so they can just do their science."
--Jeanne McAdara (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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