Facebook for physicians offers networking application

October 8, 2008

Social networking applications on the Internet, like Facebook and MySpace, exist mainly for students and the forlorn. Professionals tend to use systems such as LinkedIn, Research Crossroads, and InnoCentive. But scientists and medical researchers have lacked an efficient computer-based expertise locator system.

Social networking applications on the Internet, like Facebook and MySpace, exist mainly for students and the forlorn. Professionals tend to use systems such as LinkedIn, Research Crossroads, and InnoCentive. But scientists and medical researchers have lacked an efficient computer-based expertise locator system.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recently announced a prototype networking application called Digital/Vita to help physicians and research scientists find appropriate collaborators quickly and efficiently (J Med Internet Res 2008;10[3]).

"The problem of connecting researchers is not new, but scientists typically use traditional means of locating collaborators, such as searching the literature and asking colleagues and friends," said Titus Schleyer, Ph.D., director of dental informatics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine.

These methods are becoming increasingly inefficient in an age when much of science is migrating to a multidisciplinary, collaborative, team-oriented model.

Schleyer's study is among the first to investigate requirements for computer-based systems to simplify the search and choice of collaborators.

"We are focusing on the much bigger challenge of establishing long-term collaborations typical in biomedical science," he said.

Not only are researchers looking for the most qualified expert, they also will most likely enter into a long-term relationship.

"Evaluating an individual's promise requires information, engagement, and effort much beyond what is needed for finding an expert for singular or even episodic problem solving," Schleyer said.

Scientists need to be able to gauge compatibility of potential collaborators along many dimensions, such as personality, work style, and productivity, and they need to be able to effectively search in domains other than their own, he said.

"They require complete, correct, and up-to-date information and often exploit their own social networks looking for collaborators," Schleyer said.

Systems that offer incomplete and/or incorrect data that the scientist has to fix are not very likely to be used in the long-term, he said.

Ideally, creating and maintaining profiles should be integrated into a scientist's existing workflow and require little work to maintain, Schleyer said.

Schleyer's system focuses on maintaining and updating the curriculum vitae, something most scientists are already diligent about and proficient at. The system also adds functions to support the establishment of collaborations, including a search tool to help locate experts, a facility to build and maintain a social network, and a document management tool.

"Managing biographical information with Digita/Vita not only requires no extra effort from a scientist compared with traditional approaches, it actually reduces effort because the raw biographical information is converted automatically to several frequently used standard formats," he said.