This morning I received an email from Mikhail Shapiro inviting me to join Epernicus, a science networking site which he helped launch. He'd visited the blog and (quite rightly) deduced that I would be interested in trying out a web community that aims to do some of the very things discussed here regarding a science exchange. So after the slightest hesitation (so many networking sites, so little time...), I decided to give it a go. I populated my profile (inspiring me to update my CV), uploaded a picture and a shameless plug for the Open Science Collective shop, checked out other people's profiles (has anyone invented the term "profile envy" yet?), clicked on a little link next to the "Launch BenchQ" icon for "What is BenchQ?", and generally muddled around until I ran out of narcissistic things to do.
So far, I'm rather pleased with Epernicus. It has a nice, aesthetically pleasing interface (as do SciLink and Laboratree, which I've mentioned before) and I didn't run into any bugs like others have experienced with other networking sites. When you first sign up and fill out your affiliations, it automatically populates your network with members of Epernicus with the same affiliations - in my case, 2 students in my PhD program and 60 or so people from my university. Once you've signed up, you can create groups, send people messages, and invite others to join - fairly standard social networking fare. The two distinguishing features of Epernicus, however, are Assets and BenchQ.
As part of your Epernicus profile, you can list your "assets" - topics (Phosphoprotein signaling, gene expression analysis, etc), materials (anything from chemicals, cell lines, equipment, and kits), and methods (protocols, algorithms, techniques) in which you can claim knowledge or experience ranging from novice to expert. Through their search bar, you can identify people who know something about your topic of interest. Taking this one step further is BenchQ, their version of a discussion board, which lets you post a question to a person or network. The questions can be geared towards methods ("How do I stain live cells?", "What is the best software for hierarchically clustering microarray data?") but can also be requests like "I need to do assay Y on protein X. Does anyone have purified protein X available?" or "My [equipment] is broken, can I use someone else's this weekend?"
I posed two of the major issues that came up during the science exchange discussion to Mikhail. Issue 1 is Motivation - what is the incentive to help in science? Issue 2 is making connections rapidly and effectively - given the passive nature of BenchQ, were people getting answers to their questions? Issue 1 can be mitigated by having networks of people who are more likely to help each other because they have an actual professional relationship. Regarding issue 2, Mikhail said that he'd seen a number of successful interactions within the MIT and Harvard networks, and that almost every BenchQ question gets answered, which sounds like a great start. He also mentioned that an algorithmic notification targeting system is being developed, sort of like what human supernodes might do, which I'm interested in seeing when it comes out.
One thing Epernicus does not seem to support yet is some kind of "Projects" feature.* This is kind of a loose concept but generally it could be described as a place where you could list projects you work on and include pages with more information or interactive areas for each project. Project management, sort of. A mini-blog type thing could also be a useful feature, though at some point you need to decide what features contribute to the overall scientific mission and which ones distract. If Epernicus is more about science networking and less about the actual collaboration and project management aspects, maybe it's fine for it not to go down that road.
For a site that does go down that road, Laboratree tasks itself as a research management system, so in addition to the shallow networking aspects, it also allows you to upload documents, write blog entries, and create projects with group members, messages, and project-specific blogs.
In my limited experience, I've been most impressed with Laboratree and Epernicus out of the various science networking sites I've seen (though Laboratree does have some bugs of its own - notably the search bar, and empty Help page). They independently provide different aspects of the science exchange idea and do so with style without being over the top. A question now is whether we want to have everything but the kitchen sink in one website? Or do multiple networking sites (like Laboratree for research management and Epernicus for question-answering) serve their different functions? Is it simply an issue of critical mass?
Check out my public profile at Epernicus.
* Update: After posting this, Mikhail pointed out that the "Group" feature does accommodate some project management through document uploads and a "whiteboard". Thanks for the clarification and apologies for the lack of research on my part!