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In the popular image, scientists are often seen as solitary souls, working alone to solve intractable problems or discover new knowledge. In reality--and as documented often in Science's Next Wave--successful scientists work in teams, with their productivity relying on effective teamwork among the collaborators. When everything goes well, those collaborations result in higher quality research than could have been accomplished by the scientists working alone.

When the entire research team works at the same institution or in close geographic proximity, collaboration presents only the usual challenges faced by people working together. But what happens when the collaborators are in different communities, time zones, or even parts of the world? Is it possible to achieve that same inspired teamwork when the team is scattered?

Technology to Transcend Geography

The rise of the Internet brought hope that technology could overcome geography. As desktop machines became more ubiquitous and powerful, and as the capacity of computer networks expanded, scientists began to apply technology in creative ways to effectively shorten distances. Next Wave recently discussed one example of this phenomenon: the increasing use in science of Grid computing to share computing resources. Yet another advance is the application of digital technologies to encourage and facilitate collaboration by means of the virtual institutions and real facilities that collectively are called collaboratories.

The National Academy of Sciences has recognized the potential of collaboratories and sponsored initiatives to show how technology can transcend geography and bring scientists in remote locations closer together. Its 1993 report, National Collaboratories: Applying Information Technology for Scientific Research (National Academies Press), outlined the way that computer and communications technologies could make it happen. The report envisioned a collaboratory as follows:

an environment in which all of a scientist's instruments and information are virtually local, regardless of their actual locations. The virtual environment of the collaboratory supports interaction among scientists; among scientists, instruments, and data; and among networked computing tools used in the conduct of scientific research. (p. 2)

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) reported in 1996 on some of the early work on collaboratories1 and identified the following types of collaboration technologies:

  • Audio/video conferencing

  • Chats, exchange of real-time text messages

  • Shared computer display and whiteboards

  • Shared electronic notebooks, to record data much like in paper notebooks, but also to enable automated queries and exchange of recorded data not possible in hard copy

  • File sharing and transfers

  • Online instruments, computations, and visualization, for data collection and reporting, but also for further analysis and modeling

  • Web browser synchronization, for lecture or peer-to-peer interactions.

A current initiative, called Science of Collaboratories ( SOC) and funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to expand the knowledge base of collaboratories, identify best practices, and make these technologies more accessible. SOC has investigated the social as well as the technical underpinnings of collaboratories and amassed perhaps the most comprehensive list to date of scientific collaboratory projects (see box for examples of international collaboratories).

The technologies identified by SOC and used in collaboratories can range from simple audio conference calls and e-mail to high-bandwidth videoconferencing, sophisticated multiuser instrumentation, and shared databases. But implicit in all of SOC's work is the goal of lowering barriers to entry, so that collaboratories become widely available to working scientists.

Examples of International Collaboratories

Campbell Collaboration

Cell Migration Consortium

Cochrane Collaboration

Consortium for Functional Glycomics

Cyberinfrastructure for Phylogenetic Research project

DYNAmically COnfigurable Remote Experiment monitoring and control

Ecological Circuitry Collaboratory

Cyberinfrastructure for the Geosciences

Protein Data Bank

Telescience for Advanced Tomography Applications

Collaboratories for Students

Among the working collaboratories identified by SOC is one in which student researchers are taking advantage of these technologies in an international context. Mark St. John, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, conducted research on the identification of ecosystem controls on soil biodiversity. St. John, a citizen of Canada, did the project, a joint effort with counterparts in the United Kingdom, as part of the Ecological Circuitry Collaboratory ( ECC), an initiative of the Institute of Ecosystem Studies ( IES).

ECC has seven research projects in ecology under way, with participants from universities throughout the United States and, in the case of St. John's project, with collaborators in the U.K. His ECC project aims at breaking down not only geographical barriers but also philosophical and cultural barriers between lab-based empirical scientists and mathematical modelers.

St. John, speaking from his home in northern Ontario, where he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation, said he originally came from the empirical side of the discipline and took advantage of the chance to learn a new set of mathematical modeling skills. St. John said he was a little nervous about mathematical modeling at first but then realized that the ECC experience was "an incredible opportunity." He added, "I knew if I turned it down, I would not have the opportunity to get the skills again."

According to St. John, the ECC collaboratory used various technologies to connect the remote participants, including shared online resources and frequent exchanges on e-mail lists. But, when it came to making real progress, St. John stated, "nothing beats face to face."

St. John said the collaborators would have semiannual sessions at IES facilities in Milbrook, New York. "They would lock you in for a week at a time," he joked. The meetings were an opportunity "to sit with collaborators and brainstorm," which, he said, resulted in "incredible productivity." Students in the collaboratory first got together in August 2002. By August 2004, according to St. John, his group was ready to present two posters at the Ecological Society of America meeting.

St. John encourages other ecologists to seek out the same kind of intellectual experience: "If I can learn modeling, anyone can. It's a skill any ecologist can pick up."

According to St. John, the collaboratory experience enabled him to grow personally and to build new skills. The experience encouraged him "to open my mouth and contribute" and gave him the confidence, as a student, to interact with established scientists. St. John plans to look for interdisciplinary collaboratory opportunities in his future employment, most likely in the academic world.

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1. Richard T. Kouzes, James D. Myers, and William A. Wulf, "Collaboratories: Doing Science on the Internet." IEEE Computer 29 (8), August 1996. http://collaboratory.emsl.pnl.gov/presentations/papers/IEEECollaboratories.html

Alan Kotok is Next Wave's managing editor and may be reached at akotok@aaas.org.

Alan Kotok is managing editor of Careers.