Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Social Networking and Elsevier's "Grand Challenge" for Knowledge Enhancement in the Life Sciences

By Dennis D. McDonald

Netherlands-based mega-publisher (and former employer) Elsevier BV has issued a grand challenge:

The Elsevier Grand Challenge: Knowledge Enhancement in the Life Sciences is a contest created to improve the way scientific information is communicated and used. The contest invites members of the scientific community to describe and prototype a tool to improve the interpretation and identification of meaning in (online) journals and text databases relating to the life sciences. Specifically we are looking for new ways to:

  1. improve the process/methods/results of creating, reviewing and editing scientific content
  2. interpret, visualize or connect the knowledge more effectively, and/or
  3. provide tools/ideas for measuring the impact of these improvements.
Participants retain ownership, cash prizes are being offered, and Elsevier is providing an the opportunity for the winner to participate in follow on product development and commercialization.

I’m personally very interested in seeing what people propose about the peer review process and how it operates in the publishing of scientific and technical journals.

The peer review process, which is traditionally based on a mix of formal and informal communication and professional networking activities, has evolved little since it was developed to support the publishing of the first scientific journals in the 17th century, according to some commentators. In a recent podcast from the DataPortability project, for example, Dr. R. Mark Adams, a genetic engineer who is a Senior Associate in Booz Allen Hamilton’s bioinformatics group, draws a direct connection between how scientific journals have traditionally been produced, and the manner in which standards are currently under development today to support the sharing of scientific datasets.

Adams also suggests that technical standards regarding data sharing may actually be less important than the social and “community” issues surrounding how research is conducted, published, shared, and reviewed.

In my opinion, this has certainly been the case with the DataPortability project itself. There I have found that questions of control, ownership, privacy, and governance to be significantly more important — and challenging — than the technical issues associated with the sharing of social and relationship data.

This “social” aspect of how scientific publishing and dissemination operate has always fascinated me. Hopefully the Elsevier sponsored contest will address some of the interesting opportunities and challenges that modern web based publishing and social media offer and won’t just focus on technology per se.

For example, modern social networking technologies can support the rapid formation and maintenance of highly specialized online communities that can quickly bridge traditional organizational and disciplinary boundaries. Is there a way for publishers to take advantage of social networking technologies to speed up the process by which research — and research data — are reviewed and published? Can the ability to build online and professional networks that incorporate cross-disciplinary teams speed the process by which research is defined, conducted, and disseminated?

Improving and enabling cross-disciplinary communication has significant benefits. In Using Collaboration Technologies to Accelerate Innovation in Federal ly Funded R&D Programs, for example, I suggested how social networking technologies might be applied to improve the flow of information in a multidisciplinary area of applied research.

As another example, consider the recent report funded by the National Library of Medicine titled Information Seeking Behavior and Viewpoints of Emergency Preparedness and Management Professionals Concerned with Health and Medicine, authored by online networking pioneers Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz of the New jersey Institute of Technology.

The Turoff and Hiltz report is based on self-report questionnaires filled out by 34 emergency practitioners and coordinators, health related professionals, researchers, academics, and librarians, and international professionals involved in international emergency management activities. Topics covered in the questionnaire included views on the most significant knowledge, information, and services needed from the National Library of Medicine’s planned Disaster Information Management Research Center (DIMRC).

Not surprisingly, the study reveals and documents in great detail the wide range of health related information resources available to and used by this multidisciplinary group. It also documents the shortcomings of existing health information sources when they are needed in a disaster or emergency situation. Typical complaints include:

  • Too many sources
  • Not up to date
  • Not localized
  • Not reviewed
  • Lack of quality control

It’s not just the  practical “hands-on” information that is lacking, the report suggests; there also exists a need for high quality scientific and technical information that has been evaluated and determined to be a good resource.

Reading between the lines of many of these comments in the Turoff and Hiltz report I detect potential applications for online social and professional networking not only in the creation, review, and quality control of information sources relevant to disaster response, but also in the actual provision of expertise in the event a disaster occurs.

For example, if I’m a health professional desperately reviewing online published sources relevant to a massive local chemical disaster that has just occurred, do I want online access to an annual review article that summarizes and evaluates the current state of the art regarding diagnosis and treatment of those exposed to the chemical in question? Or do I want to be able to click on the annual review article’s author’s name and have the system automatically hunt her down so I can ask her specific questions over the phone that are specifically relevant to the problems I’m facing?

The report documents how access to the right expertise by first responders  and health care providers in emergency situations is a real need. Perhaps by making the network of individuals responsible for creating and maintaining health related information of all types more visible and available in emergency situations would be one way to make answers available to caregivers at the point where they need the help the most.

We already have examples of web sites and MySpace groups that are “pre-positioned” to be put into place in the event of an emergency; how about an “emergency expertise” network that can also be “turned on” in a crisis and hooked into existing published and web based resources? Such a system involving life science libraries and publishers would also help “bridge the gap” between formal publications — such as journals and annual reviews — and local health practitioners operating in emergency situations where both speed and quality are high priorities.


In Health Emergencies, One Knowledge Management System Cannot Rule Them All

In Health Emergencies, One Knowledge Management System Cannot Rule Them All

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