Video Chat with Science Exchange Co-founder on Collaboration, Transparency and Integrity

Posted by Jessica Gopalakrishnan on Feb 4, 2014 12:07:00 PM

What if you could access experiments from some of the world's premier research labs with the click of a button? Or collaborate with scientists all over the world even if you've never met? In this video chat, Elizabeth Iorns, cancer biologist and co-founder of Science Exchange, gives us the scoop on how this open marketplace is transforming research methodologies and boosting reproducibility. Hear Iorns' views on how increasing collaboration may lead to greater transparency and integrity, and less misconduct in scientific research.

science-exchange-logoWatch the video chat (14:46 minutes):

Science Exchange / iThenticate Video Chat from Turnitin on Vimeo.

Video Chat with Science Exchange Co-founder

Hallie:  Hi, everyone.  I’m Hallie Kapner on behalf of iThenticate and I'm here with Elizabeth Iorns, who is the co-founder of Science Exchange.  Today we're going to talk about integrity and collaboration in a very interesting framework.  Welcome, Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth:    Thank you.

Hallie:    So I think probably it would help our audience who is not familiar with Science Exchange if you would just give us a couple of sentences just describing what Science Exchange is and how it works.

Elizabeth::    Sure.  So Science Exchange is a marketplace where scientists can order experiments from the world’s best labs.  So our idea really is to simplify collaboration and help researches access the expertise they need through an online marketplace. 

Hallie:    It’s interesting because I know that one of the big things that underlies this idea, which again is a really interesting notion because most academics will tell you and most researchers know that what takes place in the lab tends to be very proprietary until you publish.  And even then there is always sort of an ownership involved in it.  So the idea of being able to open it up this way and sort of promote collaboration also speaks to the need for what we all call reproduced ability in science.  I wonder if you might tell us why that is so important because if you read about the subject, you see reproduced ability said over and over again in story after story.  Why is that so important because it seems to be such a big piece of what Science Exchange enables?

Elizabeth:    Yeah.  Well, I think actually to go back to the ownership point just briefly.  I think that really fundamentally underlies our theory around Science Exchange.  So ownership is incredibly important, but increasingly we need collaborations in order to access the specialized expertise required.  And these collaborations are very informal and a lot of the time ownership is not defined upfront.  And so Science Exchange actually takes a lot of that uncertainty away by providing a framework for ordering experiments where you know exactly that you own the data and you're going to be provided with a professional service, unlike some of these ad-hoc collaborations that may—you may not define that upfront. 

Hallie:    Right, it’s sort of a handshake and an agreement; yeah, okay?

Elizabeth:    Yes.

Hallie:    There's nothing formal about it.  It just sort of cements a little bit?

Elizabeth:    Yeah, this makes it much more—you can be much more certain of what to expect.  Then with reproducibility I think it’s a huge topic.  It’s under a lot of discussion at the moment.  And I think what's been really interesting for us at Science Exchange is that there's been a lot of anxiety, a lot of talking about the reproducibility problem, but there hasn’t really been an effective solution.  And so people have picked up on the fact that Science Exchange is a network of experts where you can do experiments very quickly and cost effectively, and so that network has been used to replicate key experimental results from publications.  It’s been used to validate reagents that are used in research.  And even the network itself by taking away single investigators doing all of the components of the research themselves and spreading it across a network helps ensure the quality and reproducibility of the results as well.

Hallie:    That's so interesting.  You must have a research background.  What prompted you to start Science Exchange because it’s not something that anybody would just sit around and say, well, why don't we create an online marketplace for science experiments?

Elizabeth:    Yes, my background is completely as an academic researcher.  I'm a breast cancer biologist.  So yeah, it was basically my experience of doing research, seeing it evolving from basically doing a lot of the work yourself in your own lab, and seeing that evolve to having to rely on collaborations, having to find core facilities and experts who can do this research for you, and realizing how ineffective the current system really is.  And so we can make that much better by using some of the technology innovations that have been used in other sectors. 

Hallie:    How many participants do you have?  How many members of the Science Exchange community are there now?

Elizabeth:    We have about 30,000 members, but we also have—the key really is the research lab network, so 400 US-based research institutes are part of the networking, including 71 of the top 100 recipients of NIH funding; so really all of the major players in the US research environment are now part of the Science Exchange network. 

Hallie:    That's fascinating.  And when you first started Science Exchange, how did the community receive it, because again like we said, it’s an intuitive idea if you think about what the needs are.  But it’s not intuitive if you think about what the culture has been sort of historically in the science community.

Elizabeth:    I think when we first started there was a lot of enthusiasm and also maybe some fear from—yeah, the higher liberal administrative side of universities.  And I think as we’ve kind of proven out our model and shown that we are able to help facilitate these great collaborations and make sure that everybody actually does get what they need and do and is able to conduct their research more quickly and to a higher quality, that those fears have started to be alleviated.

Hallie:    Certainly, that’s great.  So it’s been how many years, two?  Is it two years?

Elizabeth:    Yeah, it’s coming up almost three years actually in May. 

Hallie:    Anything from the past—we're past the time of New Year’s resolutions.  But anything from the past year that was really special or really interesting?  I know sometimes that it takes a critical mass to start hitting really interesting milestones with projects like this.  So anything that happened in the last year with your teams that are really interesting?

Elizabeth:    Yeah.  So I think for us we’ve been really interested in some of the exciting research that’s come out of the Science Exchange network.  For example, we had a really exciting project from NASA, who worked with one of our facilities in Australia.  And I think it really shows that even people like NASA can do things more quickly, more cost effectively, and actually in this case it was something that they could not do in-house.

Hallie:    Which is hard to imagine.

Elizabeth:   Yeah, I know.  It is.  But even they are reaching out and finding these collaborations through Science Exchange and they were able to create a [inaudible] that was better than anything that had ever been created before.  So it was a really important creation of this material for them that wasn’t possible previously.  So I think there's been some really exciting stories that we're seeing come out of our users, and the reproducibility aspect has really been very exciting for us as well as more and more people are starting to say, yeah, I mean maybe we do have an effective solution by just taking advantage of the network effects from Science Exchange and being able to access these experiments and easily replicate some key experimental results to actually have some quality control in the research process.

Hallie:    That's great.  Here’s a fun one that speaks a little bit to one of the interests for sure of our watchers and web visitors here through iThenticate.  And that would be the issue of ethics and transparency.  It’s always been a big issue in research; proper attribution and sourcing.  But certainly it would be an understatement to say that in the last few years we’ve see a lot more attention being paid to integrity and to transparency and ensuring that originality is happening in research, and so many more ways to prove that it is or it isn’t with technology like iThenticate and others that can detect plagiarism and such.  I would imagine that when you open up a community like Science Exchange there has to be some sort of implicit acknowledgement that the ethical standards have to be up to a certain snuff.  And I just wondered if when you conceived the idea, how did you sort of address in your mind and with your initial plan and with your initial users the idea of enforcing ethical practices?  That's an interesting one.

Elizabeth:   Well, that’s a really interesting topic.  And I think for us the ethic side has been something that I think Science Exchange really adds to.  So first of all, there are ethical requirements for the use of human subjects and the use of animals in research.  A lot of the time when an individual lab is obtaining these approvals it’s very time costly for them to do this.  It takes many months to get human subjects research approval.  It takes at least one month to get animal research approval.  And so our labs are all suit up with these approvals in place, so that’s a very good way for researchers to know that they have the ethical authority to do these experiments without having to actually go through the ethical approval in their own labs to do this research.  I also think it really helps ethically the fact that these are very highly trained experts in these experiments, so that I think that's ethical consideration as well when we are using animals in research.  The second thing about originality and attribution, I think that's incredibly important because a lot of the time in particular what we call core facilities, which do a lot of research for labs now, actually are not attributed at all in research publications.

Hallie:    Which is a big one; I mean some people would argue that that’s a huge omission. 

Elizabeth:    It is.  And so we really push whenever researchers are ordering experiments from these labs.  We actually send a follow-up email with information about how to cite the lab that they used and the methods because I don't think that a lot of these experiments necessarily generate co-authorship.  But in terms of the methodology that was used, I think it’s very important for the researchers or anybody reading the paper to know how that experiment was conducted.  And then it actually improves reproducibility by you can actually order that experiment from the exact same lab if it’s in the method section.  So I think there's a lot of really interesting things around attribution and contribution of the labs that we really help to track that maybe hasn’t been tracked previously.

Hallie:    Yeah, it sounds like it.  Because, again particularly, we’ve seen with some of the sort of snafus that have happened with detecting unoriginal work in papers that the question next is, well, how do we even know that the experiment itself happened?  How do we even know that the findings are real?  It’s like if bits and pieces of it are copied throughout are not original, what else didn't happen?

Elizabeth:   Yes.

Hallie:    It’s interesting that this kind of thing could feasibly really have an impact on the way that academic papers are looking moving forward.

Elizabeth:   Yeah, definitely.

Hallie:    That's really cool.  Something iThenticate likes to do is to survey researchers and editors of scholarly journals.  I think we’ve surveyed close to a thousand in the last year or so.  And something that we always ask them is how concerned are you about plagiarism, and how concerned do you feel like you're contributors are?  The numbers are always kind of staggering.  I mean everybody says they're—you’d expect everybody to be concerned, but the number of people who say they are really concerned is very high.  So I wonder if just as a person who is in this community do you feel like that holds true for people who you work with as well?  I mean you yourself, you're also a researcher.  Is it something that you feel like is more topical now than it was at other points in time?  Or do you feel like it’s sort of always been an issue?

Elizabeth:   Yeah, I definitely think it’s been really interesting to see the growing interest, I think, as a whole in research misconduct and how—and plagiarism is obviously one of the key --

Hallie:    Of course.

Elizabeth:   So plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification of data.  And so I think what's been interesting for me is going to some of these conferences.  I went to the World Conference on Research Integrity, and I really feel like the fact that there is software like iThenticate to identify plagiarism has made that something that’s very addressable.  So people basically think, okay, well, we have this problem, but we now have potentially a solution for it by using this software.  And that’s, I think, really exciting because it basically allows people to not just talk about a problem, but actually have a solution for it.

Hallie:    Yeah.  I mean at some point the hope would be that despite the fact that it is so very easy to either intentionally or totally unintentionally reproduce or replicate information in a paper, that over time the inclination will be the idea of checking for plagiarism with some of these software will just become automatic.  So if it’s unintentional it’s caught and if it’s intentional it’s deterred.  That would sort of be the hope over time as these things become more and more entrenched.  So it’s a new year.  It’s 2014.  Anything on the horizon for Science Exchange that you're really excited about that you want to let our audience know about?

Elizabeth:   I think that this year we’re just really looking forward to our growth this year.  We’ve already seen really great growth in January, so we're excited about some initiatives we're working on with partners around expanding the reproducibility initiative to other fields, expanding some of our reagent validation programs at the moment.  We mostly work in antibody validation, but we are excited about some partnership to expand into other different areas of reagent suppliers.  And yeah, we're just really excited about growing the network, growing the collaboration base for Science Exchange.

Hallie:    That's fantastic.  Thanks so much for joining us today, Elizabeth.  Thanks, everyone for tuning in.

Interview conducted by Hallie Kapner, consultant for iThenticate.


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