Bringing research groups online. One step forward to open science?
Labit (www.labit.io) is a company on mission.
Our mission is to make open science a reality.
The amount and complexity of problems in front of us is formidable, and we give our word to work on them one by one to the extent of our capabilities. I will be reviewing them in the series of articles, giving you food for thought and discussion.
Here is our story.
When we started Labit we have decided to start solving a small problem, which could serve as an entry point to tackle other, more complex problems. We faced that small problem being freshmen looking for a graduate school to enter.
All of the students in STEM either once faced or are facing the same problem of choice of University and research field of interest. Each one of them asked himself “How should I design my career? Which research group should I join”.
Being students ourselves we were surprised that searching for information about research laboratories is incredibly hard.
Here is the deal. Every research group is supposed to have a website, so-called “lab page”, but many of them don’t. Every now and then we see broken links and infamous 404 error pages. Web pages that are working often do not have up-to-date information, suffer from having a bad and incoherent design, poor user experience, and flaws with functionality.
- It is very hard to find information about a research group, and the research that was and is being conducted in this research group.
We have been browsing web for hours, and realized how disconnected the science is. Lab pages are scattered all over the web like small “islands” of information without any interconnection, and that makes it much harder to find the information of the research group. To our huge surprise we have discovered that there is no centralized system for research groups even in such top schools as MIT or Stanford. Their lab pages look very amateur and disorganized.
- Why does this problem still persist even with all the IT advances that we have?
Only when I became an insider of a lab, I realized why the things are done the way they are done and why it is so hard to find any relevant information about the labs even being inside one.
Currently there are 3 ways of representing a research group online:
- Professor tells students to make the website. Students are stressed enough with their research, but now they have to be involved with some side-task, which is not important for them at all. It’s an extra work, without extra pay. Except for the students conducting research in Information and Communication, and other programming related majors, most of the students lack skills and background for developing a website. The result of such work is amateur design, poor functionality, and lack of features.
- Another way to make a website is outsourcing this task to a third party — a contracting web-developing company. Some Professors do this. They spend research funds that are supposed to be spent solely for the research itself. Building a website with research money becomes inappropriate. Moreover, when Professors apply for a grant, there is no such expense as “building a website”, so these kind of money machinations are sometimes illegal.
- The third, and the last way for Professors is to simply use the in-house content management systems (CMS) built by Universities. Even in the top-universities we see that those systems are far from perfect, and still lab pages are disconnected from each other.
The capacity of creating, maintaining, and organizing information in the web is unprecedented.
However, scientists who are supposed to be on the frontier of the technological progress and advancements have not successfully adapted the benefits of Internet era. At Labit, we believe that researchers are at the tipping point of understanding how open science will change the world. We are fascinated by the countless benefits our platform could bring, once it is realized in its full potential.
- First of all, researchers collaborate a lot. The research is doomed, if it stays isolated. From our personal experience, and from experience of many of my colleagues, the collaboration even on micro-level is crucial. In Material Science, Chemistry, Life Sciences, and Environmental Sciences, people constantly share laboratory assets, such as space, equipment, and supplies. Imagine, all of the information about available resources would be accessible on one platform. What a beautiful world would it be? Unfortunately, we live in the world where one researcher doesn’t have a clue, on what is up in the lab next door. Often-times students spend valuable time simply on finding the research equipment of need. Lack of transparency and low discoverability hinders research on so many levels.
- Second of all, we all have examples or even experiences of how poor career choices harm ones’ lives. In academia this is true on the whole different level. This risk is tripled for a student striving for a graduate education. He needs to to make a right choice of the major, the laboratory, and the scientific supervisor. Failing at one of those choices may be catastrophic and result in 2–7 years of vanity, depending on the graduate degree. Alas, the whole internet infrastructure built around covering these aspects is completely rudimentary. Designing future academic career is somewhat a research process itself, and students have hard time digging up for adequate, and relevant information. On the other hand, once innovative and adequate tools are implemented, professors would hire only best minds, and filter off candidates who are best suited for a different kind of job or science.
- Additionally, liberated from a website design — a task completely irrelevant to their thesis and research, students will have more time and focus on their primary objective — producing results. Isn’t that an goal of a scientific supervisor as well? Good managers are simply those who let the good people work, and we don’t see this realized in practice. Life of a young academic is extremely stressful, most of the students in our interviews confirm that additional tasks just make it worse. Doing a research is a “deep work” requiring complete concentration on the task at hand, and external distractions such as website design and maintenance is a waste of time and human resources.
Currently, Labit has three major obstacles:
- Switching costs. A lot of research groups already have a website, that is somewhat doing the job of presenting the research group online. Mostly the leaders of such research groups consider switching to a new service time-consuming, and not worth the work. To these groups Labit is offering to transfer all data from existing page to the newly created Lab Page in Labit. We will do this job for you, so in the future you will be able to use user-friendly and hassle-free service.
- Distribution and Product Awareness. Another problem that we face is the distribution of the information about our service to our target audience. We understand that researchers who just opened their laboratories, and do not have websites will show the highest interest in our product. Please contact us, and we will be happy to assist you in setting up a Lab Page on Labit.
- University guidelines. Last, but not the least, limitation is the fact that some Universities might have limitations on use of external cloud-software. In case of our university — Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, we do not have severe restrictions on using external cloud-software, although using University servers is strongly advised.
Practically, it is up to professors to choose the service of use. Many of them do not follow the guidelines, using Google Sites, or building a website individually.
It is no secret that salaries of research assistants and professors are incomparable. Financial situation of a graduate student keeps them “hungry”. Sometimes literally. A side-effect of that is that young scientists are constantly looking for ways to optimize their work. They are open-minded, and daring to try new tools. Certainly, youth is also a prerequisite and a catalysis for innovation, yet in science age can’t be defined as a headstone for innovation, as the science is the innovation by definition itself. Also, professors are isolated in their offices, and are not engaged directly in experimental work, which makes them a bit distanced from the hardships of hand-performed research.
Researchers are special type of people. Every researcher is focused exclusively on his research, and that is the reason why most of them would hesitate to adopt new technologies, even with the prospective of improving the quality of their life in the long-term. Many of them do not realize how much easier their life would be, if they could keep all the information on one database.
Despite the potential reasons to remain status quo, we are here to challenge it.
Call to action
Regardless if your research group has a website, or your group is new, and you would like to have one, Labit is here at your service. We offer you to transfer all your data from an existing page to a Labit page, or to help you to establish your Labit page from scratch if your research group doesn’t have a website.
Drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org