Nature Publisher Aim to Save Planet by Democratizing Science

By Eliot Van Buskirk, 06/06/2010

Nature Publishing Group has disseminated information between scientists for more than 140 years, starting with the prestigious Nature journal. Now, it hopes to reach out to college and high school students, in part because so many of them lose interest in hard science around that time.

“Thirty percent of science students drop out of science programs after their freshman year in college, which is a really alarming statistic” said Nature Publishing Group SVP Vikram Savkar. In some countries, he added, such programs don’t exist at all.

At stake, he says, could be nothing less than the survival of our species.

“If you take a global view of the problems that humanity is facing over the next 50 years, so many of them involve science deeply — sustainability, solving tropical diseases and so on — and so as a company that’s invested in science, we’re very concerned that the next generation is not being adequately trained,” he said.

To hit that generation where they live, Nature Publishing Group proffers Scitable, an “online learning space for science” consisting of three components ranging from basic information to more elaborate treatises. It’ll offer a library of freely accessible textbooks on genetics, with cell biology and ecology next in line and other sciences to follow over the next few years; a social network where students, teachers and interested lay-people can interact with faculty and researchers; and tools for using the first two in classrooms around the world, or as part of a self-guided scientific education — all for free.

So far, tens of thousands of classrooms access Scitable, according to Savkar, and more than 500 have gone so far as to build virtual classrooms there from which they run all or part of their classes. In addition, pregnant mothers wondering how to diagnose birth defects and a Chilean veterinarian with questions about dog breeding have used the site’s Ask an Expert feature and other resources to get answers.

“The goal here is to create a global resource for any student who wants to become a scientist to move through that path regardless of where they come from or what their background is,” said Savkar. “A student in Ghana can connect directly with a researcher in Paris.”

However, Scitable is written in English, the de facto international language of science, throwing up a linguistic barrier to some users, although by the time they near graduation, most science students worldwide can read English. Still, Savkar said Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese versions will come online in the long term, with Spanish as the first priority because usage of the site has been low in Latin America relative to Europe and China.

Crowdsourcing comes into play in a number of ways, although some barriers must remain between the crowd and trusted scientific information.

All of Nature’s resources included in the site have been peer-reviewed by scientists, as is common with scientific journals. Researchers and scientists can float their theories out into the community for others to critique less formally. Finally, students and lay-people can help revise content — but not directly, because an open, wiki-like approach would quickly erode its trustworthiness. Instead, feedback buttons on every article allow readers to suggest changes that are peer-reviewed before being made.

This growing, global science resource is free for anyone to use because of sponsorship by Roche Applied Science, Tata Consulting Agency, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and New England Biolabs — presumably because their futures as corporations (alongside our future as a species) depend somewhat on the next generation of scientists. To avoid conflicts of interest, Scitable lets these sponsors underwrite areas of the site after they have been created, notifying students and researchers to that fact when they access materials.

“All of the content is entirely editorially independent — no matter who the sponsor is or how much they’ve paid, it doesn’t change our fundamental editorial model, which is that our editorial board and external review team vets every piece of content from a purely scientific perspective,” said Savkar. “What the sponsors do is underwrite the cost to access that material on behalf of the students — it’s the NPR or PBS model. Roche, for example, is sponsoring the genes and disease room (a subset of the Genetics section), but we developed all of that content before we ever talked to Roche.”

Roche and other science-dependent companies get to associate themselves with certain areas of science while possibly educating some of their future employees, but what’s in it for researchers and scientists, already so busy with their own work? Why would they want to help some science-starved kid in Fresno or Ghana?

“Many scientists feel very strongly that they have a responsibility very strongly to educate the younger generation,” said Savkar, adding that Scitable is working on a way to reward experts with points that could be helpful in achieving tenure. “This sort of idealism is pretty pervasive in the world of science.”

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