Research intelligence: Dynamic duo

Two free-to-use Web 2.0 tools offer scholars the opportunity for greater collaboration. James Everest reports

January 14, 2010

As a growing number of academics seek to manage their research papers online, new Web 2.0 tools are emerging to lend a hand.

Two products that are developing a following are Mendeley and Zotero, both of which are free to use and offer fresh opportunities for collaboration.

Mendeley allows scholars to index and organise their research papers online. They can be uploaded or imported into users' "libraries" from online repositories such as Google Scholar, PubMed Central or those offered by big publishers.

The papers can then be shared with others or used to create digital bibliographies - a function that rivals Thomson Reuters' Endnote, a commercial product used for the same purpose.

UK-based firm Mendeley Research Networks, which launched the tool in August 2008, aims to add extra paid-for functions to its offering in the future.

It already has more than 100,000 users, who have uploaded 10.6 million research papers, about 29,000 of which can be downloaded across a range of disciplines.

Jan Reichelt, Mendeley Research Networks' co-founder and director, said the growth rate had been "astonishing".

Victor Henning, another of the firm's three founders and directors, explained that the technology could identify other papers and researchers that may be of interest to users. He compared it to Last.fm, an online music-sharing service that recommends tracks based on the listening patterns of others and shares some of Mendeley's financial backers.

One of the online tool's key elements is that researchers are able to comment on and annotate papers and see which ones other users are viewing. The company hopes to develop further tools to expand this user interaction and facilitate greater collaboration among researchers.

"The networking element is something that requires a critical mass of members," Mr Henning said. "In some fields, for example biological and life sciences, we have reached that point, but in others we haven't yet."

Zotero, which is run by George Mason University in the US, is similar to Mendeley but also accommodates books and manuscripts, audio files, video and letters.

Revolutionary road

One advocate of the products and a strong believer in the potential of social media to transform research is Cameron Neylon, a chemist at the University of Southampton.

"You can use them to deal with the quantity of information scientists need to keep track of and identify collaborators with complementary interests," he said. "Essentially, you're doing the same things you would have done previously but much more quickly and with access to many more people and items."

Yet despite the potential for new ways of working, one of the conclusions of a recent study conducted by the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Research Information Network is that fewer academics than expected are using social-media technology to further their research relationships.

This in turn is limiting the effectiveness of the tools, the study states.

One problem identified by Branwen Hide, liaison and partnerships officer at the RIN, is that "academics like things to be quick and simple and if a product isn't, they won't use it".

Another barrier is "trust", according to Liz Lyon, director of the UK Office for Library and Information Networking based at the University of Bath.

She said: "Academics can be concerned that they will be 'scooped' and so there is a reluctance to share. You may find people will share information with known contacts, but are wary about opening themselves up on the internet."

Neil Jacobs is a programme manager at Jisc, which is in the midst of a year-long campaign, "Research 3.0 - driving the knowledge economy to improve e-infrastructure".

He said there were some interesting examples of researchers using social-media technologies, but added that "what is appropriate in one field of research may not be appropriate in another".

He said that the aim had to be to develop these services to exploit the resources in research-paper repositories and "help researchers combine data according to their interests".

It is certainly a hot topic. This week, the fourth annual conference on science and the web will be held in New York.

Events at ScienceOnline2010 include "Google Wave for scientists", "Doing science in Second Life" and "Science in the cloud". They consider the changes occurring in science as data, analysis, ideas and paper production move online.

www.mendeley.com; www.zotero.org; www.scienceonline2010.com.

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