As biomedical research projects become increasingly interdisciplinary and complex, collaboration with appropriate individuals, teams, and institutions becomes ever more crucial to project success. While social networks are extremely important in determining how scientific collaborations are formed, social networking technologies have not yet been studied as a tool to help form scientific collaborations. Many currently emerging expertise locating systems include social networking technologies, but it is unclear whether they make the process of finding collaborators more efficient and effective.
This study was conducted to answer the following questions: (1) Which requirements should systems for finding collaborators in biomedical science fulfill? and (2) Which information technology services can address these requirements?
The background research phase encompassed a thorough review of the literature, affinity diagramming, contextual inquiry, and semistructured interviews. This phase yielded five themes suggestive of requirements for systems to support the formation of collaborations. In the next phase, the generative phase, we brainstormed and selected design ideas for formal concept validation with end users. Then, three related, well-validated ideas were selected for implementation and evaluation in a prototype.
Five main themes of systems requirements emerged: (1) beyond expertise, successful collaborations require compatibility with respect to personality, work style, productivity, and many other factors (compatibility); (2) finding appropriate collaborators requires the ability to effectively search in domains other than your own using information that is comprehensive and descriptive (communication); (3) social networks are important for finding potential collaborators, assessing their suitability and compatibility, and establishing contact with them (intermediation); (4) information profiles must be complete, correct, up-to-date, and comprehensive and allow fine-grained control over access to information by different audiences (information quality and access); (5) keeping online profiles up-to-date should require little or no effort and be integrated into the scientist’s existing workflow (motivation). Based on the requirements, 16 design ideas underwent formal validation with end users. Of those, three were chosen to be implemented and evaluated in a system prototype, “Digital|Vita”: maintaining, formatting, and semi-automated updating of biographical information; searching for experts; and building and maintaining the social network and managing document flow.
In addition to quantitative and factual information about potential collaborators, social connectedness, personal and professional compatibility, and power differentials also influence whether collaborations are formed. Current systems only partially model these requirements. Services in Digital|Vita combine an existing workflow, maintaining and formatting biographical information, with collaboration-searching functions in a novel way. Several barriers to the adoption of systems such as Digital|Vita exist, such as potential adoption asymmetries between junior and senior researchers and the tension between public and private information. Developers and researchers may consider one or more of the services described in this paper for implementation in their own expertise locating systems.