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The NIH's $12.2M Facebook for researchers

11/11/2009
Tracy Vence

The National Institutes of Health is investing $12.2 million in funding for the creation of a researchers’ network as part of a $27 million project to enhance collaborative science networking nationally.

Seven research institutions are working together on the National Institutes of Health (NIH)’s $12.2 million online initiative to network scientists and their research on the national level. The VIVO project aims to connect researchers within and across disciplines. It is being referred-to as the “Facebook for scientists.”

VIVO will be in good company. It will join the growing number of networking sites developed for scientists, which includes ResearchGATE, the Nature Network, ScienceStage.com, LabMeeting, and Lab Roots, among several others.

What sets VIVO apart is not only how it stores information but also how it disseminates that information. Modeled after its namesake, the pilot release of a network already in place at Cornell University, VIVO will use authentication procedures to protect sensitive material and data stored on its servers. It will automatically collect verifiable information from research institutions, published papers, and scientists’ public profile input, allowing users to search for specific information (a particular shared research interest, for example). VIVO will display all relevant results on a single, unique page rather than re-directing users to several profiles on multiple pages.

Katy Börner, professor of information science and director of the Cyberinfrastructure for Network Science Center at Indiana University, said that “many researchers have profiles and evolving networks on multiple but incompatible sites,” alluding that VIVO, if successful, would be the stand alone go-to resource.

Ying Ding, assistant professor of information science at Indiana University, said that VIVO will offer a platform where grants, papers, events, and teaching and research interests are linked and represented in a single location online.

“This could gather all the related information for one researcher into one place and further links to any other related semantic datasets,” Ding said. “Linking and formal representation generate great power to realize more intelligent knowledge discovery.”

There are some skeptics, however. Cameron Neylon, lecturer in combinational chemistry at the University of Southampton, UK, points out that several similar projects haven’t delivered on the prospects of creating scientific networks with quality, sought-after content, widespread participation, and high user fidelity .

“Network effects, in and of themselves, can’t really be the pull because they don’t exist until people have built a network,” Neylon told BioTechniques. Network building, according to Neylon, requires valuable time and effort.

He said that many scientists log in daily to sites like Facebook and LinkedIn because they offer specifically what users want, for example, information on a former classmate. For a busy scientist, Neylon said, an effective site must provide a clear incentive to its users. It must show users that they will have instant access to valuable information during their initial login.

But accessibility and rapidity may not be enough. “Scientists have little or no interest in sharing useful information. Indeed, our whole reward and communication system is based on limiting access to valuable information,” he added.

Neylon said that VIVO’s NIH-backing and substantial funding may help the project conquer the initial hurdles that other sites haven’t been able to overcome.

Participating institutions, beyond Indiana and Cornell, include the University of Florida, Weill Cornell Medical College, Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., the Scripps Research Institute of La Jolla, Ca. and Jupiter, Fla., and the Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico. Each will initially build its own social network before linking among the others. The team hopes to have connected the network across the country within two years ..

VIVO complements the eagle-i Consortium resource-networking project, which is being led by Lee M. Nadler at Harvard Medical School. Collectively, the projects are being funded a total of $27 million over two years as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

VIVO’s moniker, “the Facebook for scientists,” doesn’t bother principal investigator Michael Conlon, assistant vice president for information systems and support and chief information officer at the University of Florida Health Science Center. He sees the tag as an opportunity for widespread publicity.

“It fires the imagination,” he told BioTechniques. “I hope it leads people to want to know more.”

Keywords:  science network social