The idea that the Internet might be used for scientific collaboration shouldn't come as much of a surprise, since the Web's predecessor was originally created as a way to connect researchers at different institutions so they could solve problems together.
That said, however, collaboration has accelerated over the past several years, thanks in part to the increasing popularity of social media, or Web 2.0 tools, which have collectively lowered the barriers to online interaction for scientific researchers.
A number of social networks and services devoted specifically to scientific research have sprung up and are growing quickly, including one called Mendeley. An online collaboration tool, it allows scientists and researchers to upload research papers, which the software combs through, looking for bibliographic data (author, title, etc.). These are then matched with any other research that already exists in the database.
"You can just drag and drop your collection of PDFs into the software and it'll automatically extract all the bibliographic data -- all of the stuff that you'd usually have to type in manually," co-founder Victor Henning told the BBC. "What Mendeley is designed to do is give you recommendations which compliment your existing library."
The software has become popular with some scientists at highly ranked research institutions such as Stanford, Harvard, and Cambridge, and Henning says the service has about 70,000 users and is growing at a rate of 40 percent every month.
Many scientists from different disciplines have also adopted the "open-source" model favored by the Linux free software movement and supporters of Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia. Project Polymath, for example, uses blogs and wikis to allow people to collaborate on solving complex mathematical problems.
In one instance, cancer researchers turned up a solution to a knotty bio-information problem in less than two months. Polymath participants "had worked out an elementary proof, and a manuscript describing the proof is currently being written," Walter Jessen, a bioinformatician and cancer biologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, told LinuxInsider. "The project demonstrated that many people could work together to solve difficult mathematical problems."
Another open-source science project is Bizarro's Bioinformatics Organization, which started in 1998 and uses wiki software to let researchers post models, questions, experiments, and discoveries related to biology and "informatics." Scientists were "looking for a central location for their open source projects," founder Jeff Bizarro told LinuxInsider. Today, the organization has 27,000 members from all around the world.
If Bizarro is like Facebook or Wikipedia, a collaborative network called ResearchGate has aspects that are similar to LinkedIn, the corporate social network. While the service allows scientists to search for and connect research done by others to their own work in order to see patterns or relationships that are worth following, it also allows scientists to create profiles and search for relationships with other researchers in similar or related disciplines.
ResearchGate, which has 180,000 members, says it wants to create something called "Science 2.0" using social media tools. According to the group's Website, "communication between scientists will accelerate the distribution of new knowledge. Without anonymous review processes, the concept of open-access journals will assure research quality. Science is collaboration, so scientific social networks will facilitate and improve the way scientists collaborate."
Some scientists are using even newer tools to collaborate -- including Google Wave, the new tool launched by the search giant that some describe as a combination of email, instant messaging, and a wiki.
"Google Wave offers two specific things," Cameron Neylon, senior scientist at Britain's Science and Technology Facilities Council, told the BBC. "What it looks like is this cross of e-mail and instant-messaging, which is great fun. Where it really wins for science is that actually these documents or 'Waves' can be made automated so we can connect up documents and ideas with each other." The power lies in allowing scientists to share a range of objects, he says, from pictures and text to raw data.
Will these new social tools help produce any penicillin or DNA-type breakthroughs? Scientists and researchers who use them say it's just a matter of time.
— Mathew Ingram, technology writer for The Globe and Mail in Canada