Adapting to a digital age

18 Aug

This post is based on a presentation given by Kaitlin Thaney to Policy Lunchbox on Wednesday 3 August 2011.  It was written by Katya-yani Vyas, an MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College London who is currently undertaking an internship at the Campaign for Science and Engineering.

The Web has revolutionised the way we think about science, from search to working with data and how we interact/collaborate. But for all of the advances made, we’re not nearly as far along as we could be. Digital Science, a new technology company out of Macmillan Publishers (parent company to Nature )was launched in December 2010 provide tools and technology to make research and research administration more efficient – from productivity tools for researchers to tools for funders and advances in text mining technologies.

Last week, the Biochemical Society and British Ecological Society hosted a ‘Policy Lunchbox’ event with Digital Science’s Kaitlin Thaney, exploring the future of digital research. Kaitlin gave an informative and interesting talk on why ‘digital science’ is necessary, the complicated relationship between research and technology, and the main areas to consider in this space. In a digital age, science is well-placed to capitalise on new technology; but unfortunately, as Kaitlin said, gaps still exist.

By combining software development, product design and research and using different avenues of expertise, ranging from academia to established business, Digital Science is enhancing collaboration in a novel and progressive way. The company spun out of Nature Publishing Group as Macmillan’s first non-content oriented business in December 2010, a software company at its core developing tools and technology to make research more efficient. They operate off a hybrid model, developing tools in house as well as investing in other start-ups and tool providers who are already pushing the ball forward and serving as more of an incubator for their businesses and products.

So, how is this being achieved? The approach is very clearly tailored towards researchers, providing the tools that can streamline the search process but also making sure that reliance on machines is taken into account as well as the decision-makers and funders that influence research and incentives. Trawling through the huge amount of information is time-consuming, filtering and refining equally so. Digital Science is about putting together a software infrastructure that compliments the scientific process – the goal to enable better science and research management, so that more efficient research can be done with smarter use of technology.

Kaitlin was very clear that this is not about ‘reinventing the wheel’ but rather often collaborating with developers and facilitating innovation, as well as building complimentary tools. Digital Science’s existing partnership network reflects this. The example of SureChem – a cheminformatics company that Digital Science bought in 2010, and the basis of the Digital Science’s text mining division, illustrates this – utilising new ideas and tools to minimise uncertainty in searching for chemical compounds in patent literature. Pointing out that searching for a particular chemical compound can often be exasperating; Kaitlin demonstrated how results are often ambiguous and therefore not conducive to efficient research. SureChem allows users to browse through patent literature by drawing particular chemical structures – the way that chemists think – as well as the often long and convoluted chemical names, making it much easier for a scientist to identify exactly what they need in a way that patent databases and Google searches cannot. It helps streamline the process.

This is a starting point for dealing with published information online – the products of what is frequently a long and arduous research route. This process, laboratory work and analysis, relies on much more than formal reports and patents. From excel spreadsheets to lab mice, the amount of information circulating with a laboratory is staggering and the notion of organising it is intimidating. Kaitlin describes how another of Digital Science’s commercial partners, BioData, is working towards providing a centralised system that can manage all the vital data and information in a laboratory. Providing a routine organised structure at laboratory level is recognition that maximising efficiency means better coordination from the start.

These are the processes and the products; measuring their impact and evaluating performance comes next and is particularly topical in our current economic climate. Kaitlin suggests that the latter – the information needed for research administrators and funders – calls for a different sort of data capture. From citation counts and metrics that hinge on journal impact factors to h-index and Eigenfactors, the systems are convoluted and imperfect but ultimately necessary. Digital science is working toward improving the data both within the company and through collaboration with Symplectic who have launched a product called ‘Elements’ to aid researchers in assessing the research output of their institutions. It is a difficult task especially as its background is the subject of much controversy but providing a more comprehensive picture is a promising approach. Their goal is to help clear up some of the ambiguity that currently exists when it comes to research output, from enabling administrators to have better information at their fingertips on what research is taking place at their institutions, to fulfilling research assessment needs and with any luck – influencing the incentives discussion.

The digital age has created new opportunities for the way we do scientific research – from how we manage our labs and analyse data, to how we link information and make funding decisions. Digital Science is working to better bridge the existing gaps between science and technology, exploiting the opportunities with state of the art software tools.

For more on Digital Science, visit Kaitlin’s talk is also available online at  You can also follow Kaitlin on Twitter.


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