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After over a decade of fundamental research into the genetic differentiation of malaria parasites, Barend Mons founded SHARED, one of the first electronic interactive communication systems for science networking with developing countries. In his contribution for Next Wave, Mons gives us an inspiring example of successful cooperation with developing countries. Sharing some of his experiences as project leader, he also gives advice to young researchers interested in working in or for developing countries.

When it comes to information, scientists in developing countries find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand is their straightforward lack of access to information. But on the other is the immediate overload of information once they get access to the same Web resources as their colleagues in the industrialized world. Even if scientists in developing countries have access to a reasonably fast Internet connection, costs are usually a major issue. Suboptimal search results are not merely irritating--as they are to all of us--they are also expensive when "every second counts."

In addition to these technical and financial constraints, there is a serious language barrier to be conquered. Many scientists are only fluent in their own language, and much of the peer-reviewed literature from francophone Africa and from Latin American countries is only available in the national language, with at best an abstract in English.

In 1996, I was invited to assist the European Commission as a Seconded National Expert with the task of developing and supporting international scientific networks. At that time, I had been conducting postdoctoral research on the genetic differentiation of malaria parasites for over a decade and had published over 45 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

It was through my new tasks for the EC that I became intrigued by the opportunities and challenges of international and multilingual networking in the context of emerging Web technologies. In 1996 SHARED (Scientists for Health and Research for Development) started as a Concerted Action, financed by the INCO-DC programme of the EC with the ambitious aim of connecting scientists across continents and across language barriers.

Originally conceived mainly as an open-access "clearing house" for projects, with quality control at the country level, SHARED rapidly developed into a relational database with some unique features. In these early days the fully interactive linking of people, their institutes, and their projects was itself something quite new. But, right from the start we thought through very carefully how to search these three classes of information quickly, reliably, and in combination. The result was a uniquely light information mediation technology, based on the following basic principles:

  • The lightest possible structure and format for the bits of information that actually will be transmitted over the Internet,

  • the lowest possible level of data replication, and

  • language independence of search and matching technologies.

In addition to the rather standard relational database approach to keep duplication of identical data records to a minimum, thesaurus-based technology was developed with the University of Rotterdam to enable the abstraction of "concepts" from text.

"Concepts" stands here for "real-life entities," which can be described in many different linguistic expressions. What people want to communicate however is not the "way they name things" but "what (concept) they really mean." To give you an example: If a text would contain the word "paludisme" in French, and an English text would contain the word "malaria," the system should ideally be able to decide that these two words stand for the same concept. In addition to crossing the language barrier, such a system would then be able to weed out most of the homonym and synonym problems in natural languages.

After a long period of research, the group succeeded in designing a working prototype that was able to assign unique identification numbers to each concept in the text, no matter how it was described. The system is based on a very extensive thesaurus with over 4 million different terms pointing to almost 1 million concepts, each with their unique identifier. Now the essential content of a piece of text is reduced to a list of concept numbers and their relative "weight" in relation to their importance in the text. This numerical file was dubbed the "conceptual fingerprint" (CFP) and became the heart of an entirely new generation of information mediation applications

During the first 5 years of its existence, SHARED as an operational network has struggled on against the tide, and the number of projects catalogued has increased steadily from 500, to 2547 today. However, recently a major breakthrough has been realized which will bring SHARED very rapidly into the famous "log phase of growth" for networks. Via CFP technology, a large number of important databases, ranging from the Virtual Health Library in BIREME, Brazil, which serves the whole Latin American continent, to the CRISP database of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, will be linked seamlessly.

As a spin-off from this project, a company was created ( Collexis) to develop the project into a professional product, which is used today by major international scientific publishers, UN organisations, scientific networks such as e-BioSci, and also by large, knowledge-intensive companies. Today, major publishing houses also have their content fingerprinted by Collexis and there are negotiations ongoing to make all these fingerprints available inside the SHARED network.

When the company was founded, it was agreed that all organisations that are not-for-profit and that focus mainly on socioeconomic development in developing countries would be able to use the technology free of any licensing costs. In addition, the company donates part of its revenues to SHARED, which has helped to give the operational network a kick-start. Recent funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been another great boost and hopefully other donors will follow soon, now that SHARED appears to meet such a major demand for knowledge shared via appropriate technology in the South.

Through its focus on people and their activities, SHARED has a great potential to make a fundamental change in the visibility of scientific research in health (and other disciplines). In countries participating in the pilot phase, such as Zimbabwe, this has already resulted in much better exchange of ideas, greater efficiency in finding partners for research, and an improved overview of scientific activities.

SHARED is a prime example of the rich benefits of cross-cultural collaborations. It is rare that a scientific initiative between Africa and Europe leads to a high-tech spin-off company in an EU country with customers in the highest market segment of scientific research and dissemination.

My Personal Advice to Young Scientists:

After your PhD, NEVER struggle again. Your PhD proves you are talented enough to excel in scientific disciplines you really like, no matter what they are. Don't struggle along doing research that is not really your passion just to make a career or because you think it is "an easy way to fame." Always let what your heart tells you prevail in decision-making about your career. I decided to go for malaria, both because the parasite intrigued me no end with its complex biology, and also because the link to an overwhelming problem of developing countries enticed me. Later, in Brussels, I became hooked on the difficulties my fellow scientists in the South had in finding partners, in getting their excellent work published, etc., and, without a second thought, I decided to spend a few years trying to tackle that problem. And here I am: on the board of a successful start-up company, which sells technology that we developed for and with African colleagues to top European and U.S. firms; and I am back at the university by invitation, in full swing, and with many new friends.

Working with colleagues in developing countries is one of the most enriching experiences in life. I always say that they have gone through a very tough selection process: They were so extremely clever that they came out of a scientific desert to study in a northern university, made it to a PhD, and did not follow the easy path to become a next "brain-drainer." In stead, they went back to their country and built up a scientific career in a setting where most of us would give up within months. Such people almost guarantee a mixture of intellect, stamina, faith, and--believe it or not--humor. So what makes life worth living? Choose for yourself !

Dr. Barend Mons was born in 1957. He obtained his PhD at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1986, majoring in cell and molecular biology. At present, Barend is part-time Associate Professor in Bio-Semantics at the department of medical informatics, University of Rotterdam, and Senior Adviser of the company Collexis, of which he was one of the founders in 1999 ( www.collexis.com).