Advances in technology are constantly and rapidly changing the way we do science. It has never been easier to analyze huge amounts of data, to distribute those data to anywhere in the world, or to maintain long-distance collaborations. Search services like Google, Wikipedia, and PubMed literally put the world’s collective knowledge at our fingertips. The ability to leverage these resources effectively will be an increasingly important skill in the rising generation of scientists. Having the skill for locating, filtering, and synthesizing information has always been more important than the ability to memorize information and repeat procedures. But as we see further advances in technology, the success of a scientist is going to depend more and more on his or her technical aptitude for finding, filtering and integrating relevant information.
Throughout my graduate studies, I have found certain online communities to be extremely helpful in my research. Before I was a graduate student, I found that many of my Google searches for bioinformatics problems led me to a Q&A site called BioStar. The quality of the answers on this site seemed consistently superior to other Google results that I found (blogs, wikis, etc). Eventually, I got brave enough to ask a question of my own on the site and was very impressed with the quick response. Since then, I have used the site extensively in my research, asking questions when I am stuck and contributing answers as my time and expertise allows.
BioStar was originally part of the StackExchange network, which in the last few years has grown into a large network of integrated Q&A sites. Not too long after joining BioStar, I joined StackExchange’s flagship site StackOverflow, which is based on more general programming questions and has the same benefit of high quality answers and quick responses. Since that time, I have used over a dozen StackExchange sites to ask questions relevant to my research, taking advantage of sites dedicated to everything from biology to computer science to statistics to LaTeX. I don’t have time to actively and consistently participate on all of these sites, but they are very useful when questions do come up, and I do occasionally find time to contribute answers to other users’ questions.
Getting the most out of an online scientific community does require a bit of tact. Adapting one’s communication skills for online forums can take a bit of work, but the payoff is well worth it. A well-formulated question posed to the right group can be an excellent research resource, not only for you but for many others who may later have similar questions.
A recent PLoS paper discusses the benefits of online scientific communities in depth, and provides a short list of “rules” for getting the most out of these communities. I would definitely to anyone in biology or bioinformatics to take a few minutes to read this, think about it, and explore some of the communities I just discussed.