Purchasing equipment and chemical reagents is an important aspect of running a lab. When it is done well, it can significantly enhance lab productivity. Traditionally, when a lab makes purchases, they tend to be based on experience or published protocols. A user might have used a chemical from a company and if it works, the lab will continue buying it from the same source. Published protocols also serve as a source of reference to inform users where to buy lab materials from, and many publishers now encourage authors to include information of manufacturers and chemical batch numbers in their materials and methods section.
With the rise of social media, it has become increasingly easy to seek and provide suggestions, reviews, and discounts online. In fact, there is a vibrant online community centered around lab equipment and materials. Here, we discuss how this community and social media can be leveraged to improve purchasing decisions.
It can be challenging to start a new project or experiment and not having anyone experienced in the lab to seek guidance from. In recent years, platforms like Twitter and ResearchGate have become avenues where researchers can tweet and post their experimental designs and needs and seek advice from more experienced users on where to acquire rare materials. This is useful because some materials or products might be very specific and only produced by less well-known companies. For instance, a researcher might want to acquire a plasmid for genetic engineering of cells, but this plasmid is not shared on major plasmid depository such as Addgene. An outsider of that scientific field would not know where to get the specific plasmid from. Another example is when a company decides to discontinue a product and users may not know where to get the same or similar products, and need advice. The advantage of social media is that the speed in which information spreads can be significantly amplified through likes and shares. This works faster than cold emails to colleagues or sending enquiry emails to companies.
Most researchers would agree that a crucial skill to excel in research is troubleshooting. This is because an experiment consists of multiple steps including material preparation, setting up of equipment, and execution, and when any of these steps go wrong, researchers would need to troubleshoot, identify, and correct the mistake. Poorly manufactured equipment and chemicals can lead to irreproducible data and persistent frustration. Social media can be a great way for users to share their good and bad experiences about using equipment or materials from a particular company. Using keywords related to the company, equipment, and material, social media users can easily search for trending and relevant discussions around those topics.
This is particularly true for products such as antibodies, where not all manufacturers provide detailed information on antigen sample, host species, and cross-species reactivity. Less reputable suppliers may also not share quality analysis data such as western blots. Because of these, products from such companies tend to be cheaper, which could appeal to labs with limited budgets. Social media can be useful for researchers on a tight budget to know whether other researchers have bought the cheaper products and if they worked.
Most chemical reagents would have batch-to-batch variability. One excellent example is Matrigel, which is used extensively in biomaterial and stem cell research. The biochemical composition and biomechanical properties of Matrigel suffers from batch-to-batch variability and has led to a low level of reproducibility. Researchers can make use of social media to post their concerns regarding a batch of chemical reagents and check if there are others who had similar experience. This could also facilitate them to band together, requesting for companies to pay more attention to product validation and provide evidence of product analysis of a particular batch of materials.
While less likely to suffer from batch-to-batch variability, equipment can become mis-calibrated due to infrequent maintenance. Again, social media can be leveraged to check with other researchers how regular equipment maintenance should be and what are the best practices to prolong the lifespan. For instance, the filters of a gas generator have to be changed after a usage period depending on the volume of gas generated and how frequently purified nitrogen gas must be produced. While manufacturers might have a recommended schedule for filter changing, experienced researchers with similar experimental needs might be able to respond to social media queries with more credibility.
For common equipment and chemicals, there are many companies selling the same product. Besides the extent in which the companies perform its quality control and quality analysis, how they respond to queries is also an important service. For instance, if one wants to buy a ductless fume hood and customize it for a particular use, can the company advise on the safety measures to take and provide evidence that the ductless fume hood is as safe as a ducted one? Post-purchase follow-ups is another major consideration. For example, if one finds that a product is not working well and provides feedback to the company, does the company reply in a timely manner and what does the company do to address the concern? Additionally, does the sales representative follow up regularly to make sure that an equipment is functioning well? Using social media, researchers can provide reviews for companies and their sales representatives, which can go a long way to helping their fellow colleagues.
Equipment and material suppliers provide discounts during festive period such as Christmas and special science-relevant occasions like Mole Day (in honor of Avogadro’s number). In Singapore, for instance, during the Lunar New Year, companies would typically provide discounts with the number 8 in it as it is considered a lucky number. Many companies have their own social media pages that researchers can follow them to keep a look out for attractive discounts. Furthermore, some companies have also started introducing referral codes for researchers to claim discounts. It is not unusual to see researchers on social media sharing information on discounts and even referral codes to save money for their labs.
Social media is getting popular among scientists and using it does not have to be only about promoting one’s science. It can also be an excellent platform to gather advice, provide and share feedback about equipment, chemicals, and companies, and be kept in the loop for discounts, leading to cost savings and enhancing of lab productivity.