A common lament among bloggers and other enthusiastic adopters of Web 2.0 technology is the lack of mainstream uptake of these tools by active scientists. A recent report from University of California Berkeley confirmed this reluctance to embrace new forms of sharing information.
Yet two wikis focused on NMR spectroscopy between them have 5% of the magnetic resonance community as registered users – and probably many more are casual viewers. It is my belief that Web 2.0 thrives where journals don’t, and that the NMR community might be the first to reach the tipping point, where your career is harmed by not contributing.
The first, NESG wiki, became available publicly a month or so ago, and I’ve written a short news piece here and the wiki itself is here. It was developed by Northeast Structural Genomics Consortium (NESG), a centre working on high-throughput methods for solving protein structures. They provide details of their protocols, right down to buffer conditions and how to get your protein sample into the NMR tubes without losing it. It isn’t aimed at complete beginners, and certainly not at the public, but the information they have is clear, and it’s well written, and even though I have limited hands-on NMR experience I can follow it.
This wiki came into existence because it met a need. NESG is composed of several groups, and the NMR side of things is made up of the labs of Gaetano Montelione, Cheryl Arrowsmith, Mark Girvin, Michael Kennedy, John Markley, Robert Powers, James Prestegard and Thomas Szyperski. These labs are spread across the United States and Canada and so a way of pooling all the information was required. For most of its life, this was a private working wiki just for these groups. Now that it is open to the public, it will be fascinating to see how this project evolves and deals with ‘outsiders’. Currently it has around 50 registered users.
The second wiki is more established: the NMR wiki. It has a wider reach and covers the whole of magnetic resonance, not just NMR. It’s an excellent place for inspiration if you are teaching NMR to postgraduates or undergraduates: it has slides, lectures, worksheets and quizzes. In addition, you are encouraged to upload your PhD or Masters thesis and share your pulse sequences and software. Also, it advertises jobs and conferences. It has an active question and answer section. Actually, I like what they do with this Q&A section so much that I’ll write about this a bit more another day, but for now I’ll just say that one of the nice things about the way they have developed it is that you get a feel for how many people are looking at this section and you can grade the answers.
The NMR wiki is a real treasure-trove of magnetic resonance science, and if I went back into the lab tomorrow, it would be my life-line. It has 430 registered users, which the Director of the BioMolecular Spectroscopy Facility at the University of California Irvine, Evgeny Fadeev, estimates to be 4% of the magnetic resonance community.
There is some overlap between the two sites, but it’s worth looking at both because they provide different information: one focuses on high-throughput; the other on more traditional lab environments. But the significant thing isn’t the medium so much as the content: most of the information being freely shared is not publishable by academic journals. Though Nature Protocols, and to a lesser extent CSH Protocols, have an interest in this general area, the important nitty-gritty details of how to perform NMR spectroscopy don’t make a compelling story. So these wikis didn’t grow because of publishers but specifically because of their absence. Equally, academic journals do not take much interest in facilitating the sharing of teaching material for this field.
Another factor worth considering is that the magnetic resonance community is relatively small, meaning that many researchers will know each other and there will be strong interconnections between groups. With some of the leading names in NMR spectroscopy now using wikis, how close are magenetic resonance researchers to the tipping point?