Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Scientific Web Communities - a "missed opportunity"

"The lack of scientific web communities represents a significant missed opportunity."

Man, you can say that again!

I had the distinct pleasure this morning of reading a scientific paper that made me feel good!  ...actually, that's an under-statement... it literally made my heart soar!

In their paper Alzforum and SWAN: the present and future of scientific web communities Tim Clark and June Kinoshita describe their success in building a functional community of health researchers in the domain of Alzheimers research; a group of scientists interacting, debating, sharing knowledge and ideas via the SWAN Semantically-enabled infrastructure.

Now, I have to admit my personal bias. I'm a big fan of Tim Clark from the get-go. I like the way he thinks, and have for many years! For those who can remember back that far, he was one of the original authors of the LSID specification... and anyone who knows me knows what a big fan I am of that! When he first told me about his SWAN project a couple of years ago, I laughed at how similar our "visions" were for how the Semantic Web should (must!) work, and what it might look like for a community of biologist-end-users.

In my "second life" as the IT/Data manager for a large (~300-person) health sciences research institute I have been fighting what seems at times to be an uphill battle. No, I'm not trying to cure cancer or find a miracle drug to prevent heart attacks (at least, not in my "second life" ;-) ). All I'm trying to do is get the resident researchers to share their data with one another.

Granted, there are ethics issues involved in clinical data, but that's really not where the problem lies. There's also issues around "simplicity" - perhaps we're not making it quite easy enough for them to contribute their data, but I don't really think that's the issue either. Based on the first question that comes up whenever I give a presentation on the institutional database, I think it's "siloism". The first question, invariably, is "Can others see my data??".

As Carole Goble said, "Scientists would rather share their toothbrush than their data!". Researchers within a single institute, sharing a common purpose, even sharing common equipment, are nevertheless loathe to let their neighbours casually browse their results, or integrate their data into a common database for fear of somehow losing control or giving away hidden gems of knowledge.

" is possible for a scientist to develop [and contribute to.  MW] a valuable community resource without sacrificing professional advancement." - these words from Tim Clark were music to my ears! He goes on to describe the keys to creating a successful scientific community as "... neutrality, inclusiveness, trust (emphasis added), high quality, timeliness, proactive solicitation of community participation and value."

It was heartwarming... THRILLING!!... to see his vision (and mine!) become a reality.  I am going to keep that manuscript close-at-hand and read it every time I get depressed about interoperability in health care research :-)

thanks Tim!

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