Helping Science to Get It Right

Dec 10, 2013 | Updated Feb 08, 2014

On December 10 the scientific world honors its own in an elaborate ceremony as the Nobel Prizes are awarded. Unlike Hollywood's big night, there's no network television coverage or "red carpet" parade other than the occasional ten second mention as filler at the end of a slow news day. Male honorees will be soberly attired in black tie and tails, ladies in traditional gowns, as King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden presents each winner with their Nobel Medal, Nobel Diploma and a document confirming the Nobel Prize amount.

It's worth taking a moment to reflect on this ceremony as acknowledgment of the incredible accomplishments science has given the world. While a recent spate of media coverage
about questionable scientific research, may have cast a shadow on the inviolability of the review process, at the end of the day science gets a lot right and society has benefited greatly.

There is something unique about the world of scientific research. By its very nature, it's imperfect and often raises more questions than it answers. It's an incredibly tough, competitive world where the vagaries of the financial climate are the arbiters of who and what gets priority for the dwindling pool of money. Thankfully for the rest of us, the researcher's quest to innovate, create knowledge and contribute to the betterment of the world is innate. Peers will often disagree about findings, and new discoveries will break with traditionally accepted thinking, but this is the process at work as it should be. Much like life, it's a journey without an end. Advances are incremental with breakthrough discoveries acting as the milestone markers along the way.

On the business end of science, our mission is no less dedicated, and a couple of fairly recent developments are changing the research landscape. For example, the rise of "Big Data", which includes massive volumes of historical, new and social media data, has helped organizations gain faster insights to trends and patterns that help to make better decisions. While dealing with massive volumes of data is not a new phenomenon, the tools and platforms that are used today have greatly evolved and have become more efficient at speeding up discoveries and inventions. Big Data processing platforms are now more affordable and available for anyone to use, like HPCC Systems, a free and open source High Performance Cluster Computing (HPCC) platform capable of handling hundreds of millions of data transactions per hour. It's a type of data-intensive supercomputer used to solve large-scale, complex data and analytics problems and generate predictions such as global weather patterns.

Technology like HPCC Systems helps researchers as well. At Elsevier, for example, we see tens of millions of data points each day as scientists search, read, download and otherwise interact with our publications on the ScienceDirect database of scientific articles. Using HPCC Systems to apply 'Big Data' techniques on that behavioral data allows us to return value to researchers by identifying trends and relationships in the aggregated use of articles. Just like Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought ..." recommendations, we can recommend articles to researchers that they might otherwise never have discovered.

In addition, social networking platforms such as Mendeley have also become a key part of how researchers work nowadays. These technologies are quickly becoming indispensable to the researcher workflow. Mendeley combines free, cloud-based workflow tools that allow for seamless management of documents and citations with a collaborative platform where academics can discover content, and connect with those who share their research interests. One of the most important innovations offered by Mendeley is the addition of a social layer to usage and readership data. This means that it is able to contextualize information about which papers are being read, by what type of researcher, and how they are interacting with that content. It is then possible to use this combined knowledge to determine how research threads relate to one another and provide users with better tools and recommendations. Increasingly, these suggestions and push notifications will play a crucial part in how researchers discover connections and consume content. Given today's close scrutiny of research by the media and funders both public and private, as well as the delicate line researchers must tread to demonstrate a return on investment (ROI), open source tools such as HPCC Systems and social scientific networks are crucial to improving and validating outcomes.

The scientific milestones of the past two centuries have been particularly extraordinary - cures and preventions for diseases through modern vaccines, organ replacement surgery which is now commonplace, amputees given new "arms and legs", as well as numerous advances in food production and safety, energy, chemistry, computing, space and terrestrial travel, and telecommunications just to name a few. True, many of these discoveries and inventions have created their own set of unintended challenges: cyber-hacking, continuous air and water pollution, as well as new safety and ethics surrounding some medical benefits among others, but today's dedicated researchers will find the answers to these challenges and get it right, just as those of earlier times.

We at Elsevier applaud and congratulate Nobel Prize winners both present and past who have dedicated their lives to getting it right.