Cancer scientists need to collaborate online

14 Dec 2010

The sharing of scientific data in increasingly open ways could benefit cancer research and thus patients, according to a paper published in ecancer.

The review, part of the new EU Eurocancercoms project, discusses how the internet has changed communication by cancer researchers and how it has the potential to change it still more in the future. It looks at two broad types of communication: formal and informal, and how these are changing with the use of new web tools and technologies.

Lead author Rachel Warden, from the European Association of Cancer Research, argues that the internet and electronic publishing has begun to blur the line between formal and informal communication, and alter the traditional roles occupied by the producers, processors and users of information.

She points out that the Web has allowed data to be represented and analysed in new ways that greatly enhance its value and the potential to extract useful findings by allowing it to be integrated and compared with other data.

As these tools are developed to allow sharing and collaboration on an unprecedented scale, an academic culture that rewards secrecy and self-interest may become more out of place.

With access to the internet becoming more widespread, from ultra-fast broadband connections and increasing mobile wireless access to the rapid rise in computer access in developing countries, the Web's potential is growing. As the Web develops, communication by cancer scientists, both formal and informal, is in a process of transformation. Use of the internet and email is prevalent over other communication methods, and studies have shown that more frequent use of these is linked to increased collaboration and productivity by researchers.

Information-seeking has changed: with the increased amount of information that is available through the internet, researchers are adjusting their methods in order to identify and filter out what is useful. Though the internet creates the problem of a surfeit of information, it also offers the solution: the development of new online tools to navigate the Web and interpret complex data in increasingly sophisticated ways.

A key area of potential growth is Web 2.0 technology: collaborative projects that allow researchers to share ideas and expertise and even collaboratively analyse data online. If such projects are to reach their full potential a change is required in the general attitude of the scientific community: from viewing the Web as a source of passively acquired information to viewing it as a platform for sharing and collaboration.

Eurocancercoms is an FP7-funded European Commission project to provide proof-of-concept for integrating cancer information using cutting edge technology to provide a unique platform for providing cancer intelligence to the public, patients and cancer healthcare professionals.