A central component of biomedical research, whether you are a student, a postdoc or a professor, is the publication database, Pubmed. It is the first place scientists visit to create a good foundation of background knowledge when starting a new research focus and a mainstay for keeping up to date on new publications. The habitual users of Pubmed are familiar with the ubiquitous use of search word permutations, the use of “AND” and “OR” in search queries and might even utilize e-mail alerts to stay on top of the ever-changing research landscape. However, it is apparent that most of our methods for searching for relevant information are somewhat archaic when contrasted with the trending “big data” analytical approaches to identifying patterns in large datasets.

Today, it is becoming more common for immunologists to harness the power of bioinformatic approaches to maximize the amount of data generated and to identify data trends, a task that once might have been considered insurmountable. Examples include principal component analysis or the various techniques available to make sense of the information generated by whole genome sequencing. Despite the increase in data and an expanding knowledge base across all scientific fields, our ability to “connect the dots” and discover new ideas remains heavily dependent on the search terms we enter into Google or Pubmed. Gaps in our knowledge can lead to a bottleneck effect even before we start at the bench. Although many researchers might have been discouraged with the limitations of Pubmed or other scientific search engines, it was the co-founders of Sciencescape, Sam and Amy Molyneux, who decided to apply their own twist and create their own company.
Sam, a PhD candidate in the Department of Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto, was inspired to create a better tool to keep on top of new papers in his field. He became frustrated of finding pivotal papers a little too late, even after laboriously poring through countless abstracts and papers every day. With over 2,000 new papers being published daily, staying on top of new research in your field can be an exhausting process.

Amy and Sam Molyneux, co-founders of Sciencescape.
Amy and Sam Molyneux, co-founders of Sciencescape.

Fortunately, Amy, Sam’s sister, had the perfect skillset as a computer programmer and web developer to tackle the challenging task of building a novel search database. Sciencescape is an online research platform that uses eigenfactor metrics, which factors in the number of citations a paper receives as well as the impact factor of the journals where the citations came from, to present the most relevant papers in real-time. Recently, Sciencescape partnered with Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, to allow for the full-text scanning of over 11 million articles. This certainly surpasses my method of searching scientific keywords on Google to ensure that I haven’t missed papers that do not mention the keywords in the abstract on Pubmed. Sam admits that “streamlining the literature is one of the hardest things to do to keep on top of your research” and is why Sciencescape is available for all students associated with a research institution to use, free of cost. Sciencescape has also expanded their unique, internal social network to enable users to broadcast papers to a private group, such as their lab, or a larger scientific community.

Once I started exploring the program it became clear how Sciencescape is set apart from other scientific search engines. You can easily follow specific fields in your area of research and sort papers by date, relevance or eigenfactor methods to find the most recent publications, the most related or the most “respected” papers as determined by citations, respectively. One of my favourite features is the ability to examine papers on a specific topic as a timeline throughout history, highlighting the most groundbreaking publications (see figure above). New graduate students finally have a tool to silence that faculty member who frequently quizzes them on scientific findings from his/her graduate school glory days. The timeline feature also helps eliminate the arduous task of playing leapfrog through multiple papers’ references to find the original source.

RAG1 is shown as a field, with the earliest, highly-cited publication on RAG1 shown as the first large peak on the timeline view. Image reproduced from sciencescape.org
RAG1 is shown as a field, with the earliest, highly-cited publication on RAG1 shown as the first large peak on the timeline view. Image reproduced from sciencescape.org

During our interview, Sam also shed light on his experience as a graduate student stepping into somewhat unchartered waters of the start-up landscape. Although there is no manual to help navigate the transition, it was relieving to hear from him that “a lot of the skills to start a company transfer directly from a PhD program.” Many of the early tasks to create Sciencescape were completely transferable from the academia mindset; this includes reviewing a field of knowledge, finding an underdeveloped area, assessing potential competitors and communicating ideas to your peers.

[pullquote]There were occasions where Amy would stay in Siberia for three months at a time and sleep on peoples’ floors.[/pullquote]However, one major difference according to Sam is that “you have to create all of your own infrastructure, and that can be a very scary thing.” The scarcity of venture capital resources in Canada, when compared to the United States, was another big hurdle that Sciencescape faced. In the early days of the company, with a small team of dedicated employees, Sam and Amy had to put a lot on the line to get their company off the ground. Once Amy constructed the first version of Sciencescape on her own, she chose an excellent team of programmers in Russia she had experience with to undertake building a larger-scale platform. There were occasions where Amy would stay in Siberia for three months at a time and sleep on peoples’ floors. Sam acknowledged how much of a trooper Amy was and admitted that they’ve both “done all kinds of crazy things.” Luckily, this is a success story marked by the substantial funding Sciencescape has garnered, with over $2.5 million raised in January alone, in addition to significant amounts from the Ontario Centres of Excellence and further grants from MaRS Innovation and the National Research Council. Sam says that “this is the exciting message: as grad students we got into science because we were romanced by the idea of impact, whether it’s at a basic science level impacting knowledge or at a translational level impacting medicine. You can actually have that impact by starting a company.”

The team at Sciencescape is striving to transform how we approach our current method of data mining before we dive into a new project. Sciencescape has the potential to change how we share our ideas with others and will increase the chances of stumbling upon those great research finds. With all the complimentary search approaches offered through Sciencescape, it has the ability to bring us into a new era of science information exchange by combining curation with real-time discussion.

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Amanda Moore

Mandy is a former Immunology PhD grad and is doing a postdoc at UCSD studying how the genome of T cells is organized to allow for the timely upregulation and downregulation of gene networks. She is an enthusiast for beer, books, and good debates!
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