Scholars are increasingly turning to free online tools to share expertise, data and experimental methods - and, according to some users, to make real scientific advances.
"(The approach) is acquiring an importance in a number of research areas," said Stephane Goldstein, the planning and project manager at the Research Information Network (RIN), which studies and promotes the information needs of researchers.
These Web 2.0 tools are part of the latest generation of internet technology that allows people to use the web in a more interactive way. They provide a "space" or "virtual research environment" where researchers across the globe can get together to develop their work and careers. They are likely to grow in importance as an increasing amount of research is carried out by larger and more distributed research teams.
While social bookmarking sites (a Web 2.0 technology that allows academics to share research papers with others) are also finding a following (see www.tinyurl.com/565zmn), these new tools offer a different kind of possibility.
Unsurprisingly, it is among a younger generation of researchers where these tools are having the biggest impact. Paul Fisher, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manchester, uses myExperiment (www.myexperiment.org) to find out what other people in his field are working on as well as to keep up to date with current trends.
"I can extend my research with that already established by other labs ... I can replicate what someone else has done in an experiment without having to build it from scratch," he said, adding that he also uses it as a "single interface" to access his research items from anywhere.
MyExperiment was launched in November 2007 and now has more than 1,300 registered users, chiefly in the life sciences but particularly in the area of bioinformatics.
It is run by a team led by the universities of Southampton and Manchester, and the project is funded jointly by the UK universities' Joint Information Systems Committee and Microsoft.
Users of the site produce "scientific workflows", diagrams similar to flow charts that set out the methods of their experiments, and these are then free for anyone to access.
The workflows can be packaged together and are produced using free open-source software provided by the Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute UK (OMII-UK), the publicly funded organisation set up to support e-research.
While some workflows on the site detail physical experiments - explaining mechanically how work is being carried out - the site itself is used largely by researchers working from their computers, whose workflows show experiments they have executed on their machines. The site also allows data to be shared or linked to.
David De Roure, a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton and chair of OMII-UK, is a co-leader of the project.
He explained that the workflows were akin to "instructions" or "recipes" for experiments, and the site primarily allowed researchers to share scientific methods, processes and practices.
"Rather than just looking at what (other scientists) have done, (the site) is actually (about) learning how they have done it," he said.
He added that sharing methods in this way reduced experiment time, avoided reinvention and allowed work published in research papers to become "more reproducible".
Professor De Roure said that although there are currently more people looking at others' workflows than sharing their own, this is changing and the tool is creating "scientific advances". He said: "People claim they have done a new piece of science by making use of (workflows) in my Experiment."
Other examples of these tools include OpenWetWare (www.open wetware.org), which enables those working in biology and biological engineering to share laboratory protocols and other information. In a "wiki" format that users can add to, like the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, this site details everything from how to precipitate DNA to how to undertake cloning.
Another useful tool is nanoHUB (www.nanohub.org), allowing nano-technology researchers to conduct device simulations for their research.
There is also a practice known as "open notebook science", where researchers keep their full notebooks online, and enter both their raw and processed data, making it available for anyone to see.
However, the potential stumbling blocks for the growth of the tools are trust and privacy.
Scientists, particularly those working in competitive fields, can be reluctant to share information for fear of "being scooped".
Only time will tell to what extent these tools will become established within mainstream research.
Sarah Collinson and Zoe Corbyn
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