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Will market-driven collaboration enable new virtual research models?

In industry, and with small businesses in particular, it is now common for companies to outsource large amounts of their essential information technology tasks to third party providers. To increase efficiency, cut costs, and streamline their businesses, companies are willing to collaborate and hand over their not-so-core competencies in exchange for the infrastructure, expertise, and support of third-party providers.

Elizabeth Iorns, CEO of Science Exchange, at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, US. Image courtesy Amber Harmon.

Similar approaches are being explored in science, albeit not on the same scale. As scientific research becomes much more specialized and multi-disciplinary, no single scientist can master all of the necessary techniques, or purchase all of the necessary equipment to make significant advances. Collaboration provides a way of bringing together the different technical components required to get research done.

Science Exchange, a science services marketplace, links people in research institutions that have specialized service offerings with researchers that need access to those core services. "Science Exchange was developed to create a marketplace for scientific collaboration where researchers can order experiments from the world's best labs," says Elizabeth Iorns, Science Exchange CEO. "The premise is that this collaboration would, in turn, increase the efficiency of scientific research."

Iorns, a cancer biologist by training, spoke recently about collaboration and Science Exchange at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, US. "Our network consists of many of the top research institutes in the US - more than 400 are part of the network now," Iorns notes. "They include 75 of the top 100 recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health," she says. "This network is capable of doing almost any experiment that you need done, enabling you to efficiently access the instrumentation and expertise required."

Iorns came up with the idea for Science Exchange while working as a breast cancer biologist at the University of Miami in Florida, US. She had realized she needed to hire an external provider to conduct experiments outside of her field. However, she ran into difficulty trying to pay that provider, who was outside of her university's purchasing system. What followed, Iorns says, was a very frustrating process.

From 1980 to 2012, there's been an exponential rise in the number of people coming together and collaborating to make scientific advances. "We've seen almost a doubling in the number of authors per paper in the research that we looked at, which was not restricted to biomedical research, but all different fields," notes Iorns. "The number of institutions involved in each paper is rising as well. It's not just that the labs are getting bigger or that you're bringing in different groups of individuals at one institution. You really need to go across institutions to find the right instrumentation or expertise."

Currently, the vast majority of scientists collaborating on research use a bartering method. One researcher essentially performs an experiment for another in exchange for authorship on a paper, or in order to build or maintain their network of collaborators. This methodology is, unfortunately, fairly inefficient. It's time consuming to find professional colleagues to work with - and the need for more and different experts can easily become all consuming.

As research funding shrinks, scientists are looking hard at how they spend their money. "There is little flexibility in budgets and when you're doing an experiment for a collaborator there is a cost there, not just in terms of your time but in terms of your money that you're spending on their experiment rather than your own," says Iorns. "It's very problematic."

"We surveyed close to 1,500 scientists in the US about why they collaborated. More than 80% of those surveyed said access to expertise. More than 50% said access to experimental techniques, and about 30% said access to equipment," notes Iorns. Other motivations often used to explain why research collaborations form - like prestige, or access to larger grants - turned out to be much less important to people.

Most scientists agreed that their experiences with collaboration were less than optimal. "More than 50% felt their collaboration was one sided - that they were doing all the work and not getting much out of it," Iorns says. "47% did not start a project because they couldn't find the right collaborator, and 33% did not finish a project because they couldn't find the right collaborator. This is a huge impact on people's ability to do the projects that they most want and to make the best advances that they can."

Perhaps one of the best and most recent examples of the success of Science Exchange took place last month. On January 15, Illumina announced the release of the HiSeq X Ten sequencing system, which costs a whopping $10 million, meaning use of the system would be feasible for only a narrow range of researchers. However, on February 8, the HiSeq X Ten at Garvan Institute in Sydney, Australia, was listed on Science Exchange, making it possible for any researcher in the world to sequence their DNA samples.

Science Exchange simplifies market-driven collaboration: The person who is ordering, designing, and funding the experiment owns the experiment, and the person who is performing the experiment receives payment - proper incentive - for doing so. "We think that market-driven collaboration offers many opportunities to improve the efficiency and quality of research," says Iorns. "We're excited about how many researchers are using Science Exchange to accelerate their research and we believe that science, particularly in the academic sector, will operate fundamentally differently in the next five years because of the rise of technologies like science as a service."

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