Do you find yourself increasingly answering yes to the question “Do you know this person?” even though you have never met him or her face-to-face?
In the Laboratory Information Management System/Laboratory Informatics (LIMS/LI) community, since we are geographically spread out, it is not uncommon for us to know each other only through discussion groups, e-mail, and other means of communication that require no faceto- face contact. Other consultants I know from unrelated industries are often shocked at the way I do business with people I’ve never met in person. But it seems the rest of the world is starting to catch up with us, and this is made possible by sites that make online networking and information sharing easier.
First, I want to point out that nothing takes the place of personal contact. Consider, though, that the right online site becomes just one more place to accomplish what we need to accomplish. Thus, we continue to see more sites and tools for online collaboration and networking and, increasingly, those specifically directed at areas such as LIMS/ LI and various scientific areas. This article should give you enough of an overview that you will have an idea how to find a site or tool that specifically meets your needs. The examples I use are meant to give you a general overview, although actual sites and tools range from the varied to the highly specific.
Discussion boards might be the oldest tools around for getting people together online. With these sites, one member posts a topic to which other members can respond. Some discussion boards are fairly unstructured, where anyone can post anything at any time, while other discussion boards funnel all submissions through a moderator who must approve them before they go out to the members.
Even though their main purpose is to discuss various issues, discussion boards are a way to meet and network with people within an area of interest as well as a way to look for jobs and employees, collaborate on various topics, or find people to collaborate with off-line.
Despite their age, discussion boards have not become obsolete and new ones appear to be created fairly regularly. Additionally, some of the other sites mentioned in this article are adding discussion boards to their tool kit of features.
Countless discussion boards exist in the world on a variety of topics. A few examples include:
- LIMS/Lab informatics: http://groups.google.com/groups/lims-lab-inf
- Drug dissolution: http://www.dissolution.com/
- Laboratory robotics: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/lriq-discussion/
Somewhere, there is probably a discussion board on whatever topic you would like to discuss as well.
Blogs, or “web logs,” can be another way to collaborate on various topics, where people initially post their thoughts and others respond with their ideas. When we talk about “blogging,” we mean either creating and posting to our own blog or responding to someone else’s. Like discussion boards, blogs exist on a wide variety of topics. For example:
- LIMS and LI issues specific to Italy: http://www.arealims.it/
- All things relating to science: http://www.scientificblogging.com/
Unlike a discussion board, a blog usually consists of postings by a single person or company and responses from everyone else. Each has a different purpose, which is why both are popular tools in their own right. Many news sites are now allowing readers to blog about the articles. For example, Science Centric (http://www.sciencecentric.com/) posts its articles in a blog so that readers can comment on what they have read. This can be considered an act of collaboration, depending on the article and its purpose.
Wikis are a way to collaboratively create content. Everyone reading this article has probably heard of Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/) which, by the way, does include an entry on LIMS. Also, there is a wiki just for LIMS in Google (http://sites.google.com/a/ perceptivity.us/lims-wiki/). Wikis can be set up to be “self-healing,” which means that when participants see an error they can correct it. Thus, the amount and overall correctness of the information in a wiki can be incredible. A wiki such as Wikipedia tends to be highly self-correcting because of the sheer volume of people using it, although some of the topics of lesser interest retain errors for a significant amount of time.
However, there are some wikis where this ability is purposely limited. Some wikis are set up to allow only certain people to update—and in some cases to read—content, and there are many options available for reading, writing, and approving the content. Examples of the more controlled type of wiki would be the ones that many companies are now setting up for their own internal use. One use for a corporate wiki is to keep SOPs (standard operating procedures) and other documents up-to-date and easily accessible. Even though the volume of people using these wikis is relatively small compared to those using Wikipedia, the content is still likely to be correct, as a corporate wiki of SOPs will still require formalized review of its content.
Growth of the online world
With all the discussion boards, blogs, and wikis that might be available to you, you might be wondering whether there is sufficient interest in these online communities to make the sites worth investing time in. After all, if few people participate, it limits the networking and collaboration opportunities, which is certainly a factor to consider before joining any of these communities. But consider this: There has been incredible growth in the online social networking world. One article from August 2006 claims that there had been a growth in online communities of 109 percent since January 2004.1 A recent article claims that “76 percent of all broadband users actively contribute to social media sites.”2 Before you think that these numbers might not relate to the professional sites, yet another recent article points to the rising success of the professional sites as opposed to the original purely social sites.3
While these numbers might or might not be entirely meaningful, there are more online sites today than were available ten years ago. As we see more sites developing for professional use, we also see more sites with extremely specific purposes—more sites that relate to LIMS/LI and to the sciences, for example.
Online social networking
Even so, maybe you are wondering why online social networks are growing and why anyone would bother using an online site as opposed to networking in person. As I often say to people in my LinkedIn® online network, we do it “to find jobs, employees, projects, and consultants, and to share information.” We all need to do some of these things, and we do not always have the luxury of meeting enough people in person to satisfy these needs. Although we refer to this as “social networking,” we are doing much more than that now, as we are increasingly doing professional networking. Although these sites initially appear to merely provide networking, many of them also provide ways to collaborate by including tools such as discussion groups.
With the plethora of sites to choose from, consider each site’s variety of features. Some include discussion groups, ways to share articles and images, and many other options. Others don’t claim much in the way of features and tools but just happen to appeal to the right collection of people, which makes them worthwhile for whatever interest group they focus on. Even the sites we think of as purely social sites are being used to some extent for business purposes. As such, these sites are a major source for online networking and often include tools that encourage online collaboration as well.
Many of these sites allow members to create or request the creation of subgroups. Thus, if you cannot find something that is specific to your own needs, it does not need to stay that way for long. In my personal effort to create more networking opportunities for myself and others, I created a group for LIMS/LI within LinkedIn. It allows those of us specifically interested in LIMS/ LI to have discussions and networking activities that are specific to our needs. I requested the creation of this group upon finding that there was no LinkedIn group for LIMS. As the group’s administrator, I am offering its link to other people so they can come and participate: http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/36640/. Once again, this feature is not specific to LinkedIn but is merely one example of the opportunities we now have to create more ways to collaborate and network, as well as an example of how easy it is for any of us to fill a gap.
Online data sharing
More sites and tools are being developed for sharing scientific results online as well. Some sites are designed merely to allow you to internally share data on your own corporate intranet, while others are meant to broaden this concept of collaboration. China, for example, has worked to share its water data online nationally, to promote research.4 Meanwhile, Google is now offering online storage for the sharing of open-source scientific results.5 At this very moment, universities are discussing how to share data among themselves, and software developers are working on tools to allow better collaboration among companies and the universities that do some of their research.
Other types of online communities
As you have probably noticed, it can be difficult to put labels on things these days. There are many combinations of any tools we want to make use of. So we also have online “communities” that are usually a collection of tools for a specific purpose, such as sites geared toward the sciences, some of which promote networking, some of which allow collaboration, and some of which provide both.
Let us consider, for example, a site such as LabRoots (http://www.labroots.com/). It bills itself as “a free, social networking site that enables scientists, engineers, and other technical professionals to connect, collaborate with, and learn from each other.” But is it a way to do online social networking, a place to get scientific news, or really a place to look for jobs? These are all tools that, in fact, LabRoots includes. As with any of these sites, the label is not important. What is important is the content and usefulness that you find in it.
Another example is LabSpaces (http://www.labspaces. net/), which is labeled as “social networking for the sciences” but also has news of interest, blogs, forums, and other tools. MyExperiment (http://www.myexperiment. org/) is a tool that allows scientists to share workflows and other digital information.
A networking site currently under development is LabWrench (http://www.labwrench.com/), whose goal is to provide a community forum around scientific equipment and instrumentation. The discussions will be prompted by application notes, white papers, user manuals, and videos, as well as insights from other scientists—providing product- specific reviews and troubleshooting tips from end users and marketers.
For the sheer purpose of connecting people with one another, a site called BlitzTime (http://www.blitztime.com/), which I tried this past year, is a way to have meetings, including networking meetings, by combining the web with the telephone. It allows you to individually meet a number of people by phone, briefly, and then share contact information to speak more in depth outside the meeting or networking session. As you are about to be switched to speak to someone, his or her profile comes up on the web site so you can read it before talking to the person. I met some people in the sciences who had a shared interest in LIMS in this manner. Having discovered our mutual interest, we then went on to share information in order to have further conversations post-meeting.
Once again, nothing replaces the personal touch. Online networking does take more effort than networking in person, since there are neither facial cues to follow nor body language to watch. Still, as all these sites and tools for online networking and collaboration evolve, they are gaining a permanent place in most of our laboratories and businesses.
We have already seen that new technologies come and go, but good content and good connections seem to be what keep people interested in coming to a site and remain part of it. A site that cannot provide useful content on a consistent basis is just not that interesting, no matter how cuttingedge it is. Thus, good networking and productive collaboration still require commitment and shared goals. As yet, no one has come up with an electronic replacement for that.
- Richard MacManus. “Social Networks Gaining on Internet Portals,” ReadWriteWeb, http://www.readwriteweb. com/archives/social_networks_vs_portals. php (accessed December 14, 2008).
- Frederic Lardinois, “Forty Million Americans Now Contribute to Social Networking Sites: Who Are They?” Social Networking Watch, http://www.socialnetworkingwatch. com/all_social_networking_statistics/ (accessed December 14, 2008).
- Lynch, C. G. “LinkedIn vs. Facebook: Is the “Boring” Underdog Poised to Beat Its Flashy Competitor?” Retrieved December 14, 2008 from http://www.cio.com/ article/456713/LinkedIn_vs._Facebook_Is_the_Boring_ Underdog_Poised_to_Beat_Its_Flashy_Competitor.
- Qingzhai Geng, et al., “Water Resources Scientific Data Sharing in China,” Data Science Journal 6 (2007), http://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/dsj/6/0/6_ S792/_article (accessed December 29, 2008).
- Louise Deis, “Google Offering Online Storage for Scientific Data Via Palimpsest,” Princeton University Engineering Library Blog, http://blogs.princeton.edu/ englib/2008/01/google_offering_online_storage_for_ scientific_data.html (accessed December 29, 2008).