Interview with Vikram Savkar of Scitable

Last spring I posted a review of Scitable at Nature. Since then Scitable seems to have expanded a bit, and I have given some more thought on its possible role in the ecology of the infosphere. Back in 2004 when I began to use Wikipedia regularly I was very impressed by the quality of the technical articles, but now that it's 2010 I have to say that far too often the Wikipedia entries are a bit thin in some domains. I suspect that my own expectations have started to outrun what is possible with Wikipedia, and probably I notice the "lack" because I've stopped going to Google as the first option when trying to find a "quick & dirty" overview of a topic. That's a long way of saying that I now believe that there is a viable role for websites in the layer of technical fluency between Wikipedia and the scientific literature. (even for articles where Wikipedia is thin, the citations do lead one to primary literature which is generally very informative, but that takes time & effort)

Below the fold is a Q & A between myself & Vikram Savkar of Scitable.

1) I was excited about the focus of Scitable currently seems to have on evolution & genetics because of my particular interests, but I'm curious, why start there? Something like chemistry or physics would seem more foundational.

We chose to start with genetics for three main reasons. First, many aspects of genetics are at the heart of several of the most charged and engaging social issues today: diseases, cloning, sequencing, and so on. Part of our goal is to inform and educate; but an important part is to help students and lifelong learners connect with and care about science on a visceral level, and we felt that genetics was one of the places where we could make that happen. (I'm happy to note how many parents, veterinarians, and other non-students/non-scientists have registered for the site, for example, because they recognize the importance that genetics has for their lives.) Second, we wanted to start somewhere in the middle of the life sciences spectrum, rather than at the bottom, so to speak, so that as we expand around it we can better highlight the emerging interdisciplinary research. (This is one of the most promising aspects of the web; once we build a broad-based library, we will be able to cut through and across traditional textbook boundaries to unite intersecting fields of research with seamless hyperlinks.) Third, we have an excellent journal in genetics, and many strong journals in the life sciences in general, which helped us build the kind of scientific community we needed to get this project off the ground.

2) You work for a Nature Publishing Group, which isn't a non-profit, so what's Scitable's role within the corporation in contributing to the bottom line? It seems aimed at younger people, who I assume won't be personally subscribing to the publications which are the bread & butter for NPG anytime soon.

You're right that younger people won't personally be subscribing to the publications, but they will soon either become the scientists who will submit the papers we publish and read the journals we publish them in, or will become non-scientists whose appreciation and understanding of science will help them further its pursuit and prosperity, through journalism, policy leadership, voting patterns, or parenting. Taking the long view, and given the variable state of science education in many regions in the world today, we don't believe we can achieve our core company goals without making a sustained commitment to education.

3) NPG seems to be focusing on social networking technologies. I see that aspect with Nature Networks, which is multi-purpose, and there is also that dimension to Scitable. Obviously the day is young, but what has surprised you, or NPG as a whole, about social networking in a scientific context?

The main goal of the networking component of Scitable was to encourage collaboration, whether mentorship relationships between researchers and students, or peer-to-peer study groups. And I think one question going in was to what extent people in science contexts would be open to this kind of voluntary collaboration. Scientists are busy, for one thing, and for another, there's widely reputed to be a kind of 'separate wheat from chaff' philosophy among many academic scientists. So I've been pleasantly surprised - though not surprised, actually, because as the son of a very dedicated chemistry professor I've never really believed the 'wheat from chaff' idea was so prevalent as reputed - to see how open and willing scientists are to participate in productive relationships with students. In fact, I'm convinced there's more thirst among scientists to share their knowledge with the younger generations than there are forums for doing so.

4) I'm mostly explored your articles, have many people (I assume teachers) used the "classroom" feature? Is this going to compete with "blackboard"?

More than 500 teachers have built classrooms, and while a few of them are just dipping their toe in the water, hundreds have used the tool intensely, which is great to see. I don't personally regard this as competing with Blackboard. First of all, it's aimed at a very specific niche: faculty who want to immerse their students more deeply in evidence-based learning of science. That tends to be a more exploratory kind of teacher to begin with, inclined to find and capitalize on their on discoveries of teaching tools. Second, I see a lot of usage of the classroom feature outside of the developed world, in places like sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. These are places that in general don't have Blackboard or comparable LMSs. We're providing an easy, affordable and effective solution for them to move their classrooms online.

5) Have you had any problems with the "bottom up" aspects that you've baked into the system? Specifically, since you focus on evolution I wonder if that might attract people who are intent on proving how evolutionary is "just a theory" and not supported by the data.

Interestingly enough, though I too thought when we launched that I would see some 'alternative' points of view on evolution cropping up in the site, that hasn't really happened. I don't have a good explanation for that, other than to suspect that the people who are out there loudly critiquing evolution aren't for the most part spending their time searching for and reading in-depth articles about evolutionary genetics and pop gen.


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