Collaboratories and clubs

I first saw the word “collaboratory” in a special issue of Science magazine in 1993 that was devoted to scientific computing. This was relatively early Internet days when we still got excited about the numbers of computers hooked up to the Internet. I recall 1993 was just at the tipping point when the World Wide Web was starting to become useful, but usable ejournals were still a couple of years away.
One of the articles1 stated confidently that researchers would be linked into “electronic communities that will create new ways of collaborating and sharing information”. These were dubbed “collaboratories”, taking the term from a report by the (US) National Research Council that had recently been issued. This report in turn took inspiration from a 1989 NSF report by WA Wulf2 where he coined the term. Wulf wrote further about collaboratories in the Science special issue3. He stated that “the essence of the collaboratory … is the software that enables scholars to use remote libraries, collaborate with remote colleagues, interact with remote instruments, analyze data and test models”.
The word popped into my head again when I saw an announcement this week about CoLabScience – a new site that aims to facilitate scientific collaborations. It grew out of communities of physics and maths but its creators say they want to make it easy for all scientists to collaborate openly online:

Our new vision for CoLab is to enable scientific debate around any piece of scientific content. We want to make it stupid easy to center a discussion around protocols, data, plots, published papers, papers in progress, simulations, code, or any other component of scientific research. As an experimentalist, I should be able to import a lab protocol, raw data, or manipulable plots based on a live feed from that raw data and discuss it online with collaborators across the globe. As a computational scientist, I should be able to import code or live simulations and troubleshoot online with anyone in the world who might be able to help. As a member of a journal club, I should be able to import a published paper and collaboratively highlight and annotate in-line with colleagues, from those in the lab next door to those in another country. As a researcher ready to publish, I should be able to host a working version of my paper online, collaboratively edit with any of my colleagues, and submit a link directly to a journal, without being forced to download the paper and make finishing touches offline. In short, as a scientist, I should be able to easily and openly discuss any piece of my science with my entire scientific community.

The key word there is “openly”. The site was featured at the recent Open Science Summit in Berkeley and it is all about sharing information in an open way. This may prove harder to realise in the life sciences than in physics and maths, just as PubMedCentral has developed along very different lines to the physicists Arxiv repository.
CoLabScience is still just a shell, with around 100 registered users, including a number of familiar names from the Science 2.0 community. The cynic in me says it is just another blip on the web 2.0 landscape that will pop up and then disappear from view (Google Wave, anybody?). Maybe it has something useful to contribute but we will have to wait and see.
I was interested to see the mention of journal clubs in that CoLabScience piece. Journal clubs have been around for a long time – Wikipedia suggests that the first one was set up in the mid-19th century by Sir James Paget, at Barts Hospital in London. The Internet has facilitated the development of online discussions around journal articles but I wonder if they are ever really successful.
Email discussion lists and web-based discussion forums can be set up, though these may be subject to the normal problems of online discussion (flame wars, trolling, lack of participation). Some journals allow online commenting on an article, which occasionally generates interesting discussion but mostly readers do not comment. Tools like Friendfeed, with its Life Scientists’ room have some success in generating online discussion.
The Good Paper Journal Club here on Nature Network relied on the enthusiasm of a few members. Its activity seems to have dried up a bit recently, with more discussion about how to publish and how to improve writing skills than about scientific papers.
A newish site is The Third Reviewer – “a forum for scientists to share opinions about recently published research”. It started with neuroscience but has recently added a microbiology section. It can’t really be called a discussion site as most papers have just one or sometimes two comments.
Another approach is taken by JournalFire, recently reviewed by Martin Fenner. This again is a web-based tool, allowing for free public discussions around individual papers. It also allows you to set up private discussions, though if the group has more than four members you have to pay for these private groups.
Martin comments:

in the end, social tools for scientists are about critical mass. It will be interesting to see whether JournalFire can attract enough users in this very crowded market.

While writing this post I consulted the Wikipedia article mentioned above, and was interested to see a 2006 article it referenced that talked about open access and journal clubs. Essentially the article was a puff piece for a new website – www.JournalReview.org:

a website forum for open peer review and discussion/criticism of medical literature. Essentially an online journal club with free membership

Interestingly when I tried to follow the link the site came up as unavailable!

1 R Pool, Beyond databases and E-mail, Science 13 August 1993 261: 841-843).

2 Wulf, William A. 1989. “The National Collaboratory–A White Paper,” Appendix A in Towards a National Collaboratory, the unpublished report of an invitational workshop held at the Rockefeller University, March 17-18, 1989 (Joshua Lederberg and Keith Uncapher, co-chairs).

3 WA Wulf, The collaboratory opportunity, Science 13 August 1993 261: 854-855

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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