Science protocols – Recipe for success?
May 25, 2008 14 Comments
I enjoy cooking and baking, and while I own my share of well-thumbed cookbooks, on a day to day basis I am likely to find my recipes on my favorite cooking websites. There are a number of good ones out there, including Epicurious and Food Network, but the one I go to 99% of the time is AllRecipes.
Why do I prefer this website? For one, the look and feel is inviting, intuitive, and informative. There is no barrier to entry and novice and expert cooks alike will find what they need easily without intimidation or pandering. A nice perk is the ability to search by ingredients, helping you find recipes that will use what you have on hand. But the most important feature is content – the community at Allrecipes is substantial and helpful, not only providing the recipes themselves, but also feedback on the recipes that is often corroborated multiple times. Tips like decreasing the number of eggs or doubling the sauce, roasting at a lower temperature for longer, cutting out the salt, or adding more lime juice can truly be the difference between a successful dish and not.
There has been a lot of discussion on science social networking sites and on whether the promise of “web 2.0” is being delivered in science yet (see David Crotty’s post at CSH, Bora’s question, and musings at The Scientist over on NN). Some reasons why so-called Science 2.0 hasn’t been catching on include the fact that scientists are extremely busy and don’t have time to invest in familiarizing themselves with new online networking sites or web tools that have no immediately obvious benefit to them (though some disagree with the claim that scientists are busier than those in other fields). As David points out, much of it boils down to inertia: if we already have a way of doing things, the only way we’ll change is if the new way is obviously advantageous and it doesn’t take too much effort to adopt it.
It was while reading these related discussions that I started thinking about scientific protocols and how much added benefit could be derived from community content. There are protocol websites out there (OpenWetWare, CSH Protocols, etc) which are a great start, but for the most part these are put up by the original user or published by a journal and rarely generate feedback that could be useful to those looking for a particular protocol – such as slight temperature changes, buffer modifications, or other tweaks that either led to better results or fixed problems. Although it’s been a while since I’ve worked in a wet lab, it seems that a lot of fine optimization goes into a protocol before it produces what is eventually published, and this can often take months to refine.
Given how similar protocols are to recipes, is it that far of a stretch to imagine a protocol version of AllRecipes giving similar benefits? Just as you save time, money, and ingredients by learning from other cooks, you would save time, money, and resources in the lab from other researchers. Granted, this assumes that scientists aren’t the type who would say, “What – give other labs a head start by learning from my mistakes? Are you crazy!?” but instead would say, “Think of how much this could help science in general if we all helped each other do experiments more efficiently!” Imagine going to a protocol website, searching by your requirements (protein name, species, type of assay, perhaps), going to the highest rated protocol, and reading a number of reviews that unanimously suggest tweaking one particular step. Or imagine finding the quickest (30-min meals)/most efficient (10 dinners for under $10!)/most popular (95% of people choose this recipe)/best (rated 5 stars by 500 users) protocols for doing X Y or Z as reviewed by scientists like you.
Some might find this kind of crowdsourcing offputting for the scientific domain, others might say it’s about time. I know the picture is not so simple, but it just seems silly that we’re not benefiting from what other fields (like cooking) have already embraced. Funding is scarce and time is a precious enough resource as it is – why waste both by banging our heads against the same wall others have banged on when we can move forward by finding the door?
I’d be interested to learn if there are actually any protocol websites out there that more fully resemble the types of recipe websites I mention. The solution isn’t to create an AllRecipes for protocols (as David mentions in his post) but to provide a service that is useful to scientists and that encourages them to participate. Since the application area is more focused than general science collaboration/networking sites, are the benefits more obvious and will it gain traction more easily?
And for something that is neither here nor there, what is it about science that keeps it from exploiting and embracing the web the way practically everything else has done? (I have inklings but would enjoy hearing others’ opinions.)