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Much has been made of the failure of the myriad attempts to build a “Facebook for Scientists” to gain traction and be used by scientists. Facebook was perhaps a poor choice as a model. Will a new attempt to build an “eBay for Scientists” fare any better?

Science Exchange, described as “an online marketplace for science experiments,” recently launched. The service is described as follows:

Our first product, brings together research scientists looking to outsource experiments with other scientists at core facilities of major research universities who have the capacity to conduct the experiments. By dealing with all the paying/billing administration, quality assurance and dispute resolution, makes outsourcing experiments easy.

It’s an interesting concept — basically a way for research institutions to put institutional facilities to use during downtimes, and for researchers to find ways to outsource parts of experiments beyond what’s offered commercially.

Many institutions have spent the past decade building “core facilities.” When multiple labs perform a common, but expensive procedure, it’s more cost-effective for the institution to pool funds and build a center for that activity. Instead of each laboratory at a school buying a pricey DNA sequencing machine and training an expert to run it, a university opens a sequencing facility with multiple machines and a full-time staff to take care of the sequencing needs of all its researchers.

Some activities where a core isn’t available are often outsourced to commercial services, which can provide a cheaper and faster way to get something like a transgenic mouse or a mutant line of flies generated. The practice is common enough that it was a bit surprising to hear that Science Exchange stems from a researcher’s difficulties in working with an external provider. One would think most universities would have a handle on these things by now.

What’s intriguing here is that the service offers a way for institutions to turn downtime in their facilities into revenue generation. If your institution has a histology core and half the time the employees are sitting idle, waiting for a project, then Science Exchange lets you offer up that spare time to researchers at other institutions at a price.

The site is set up along the lines of eBay, as researchers post the tasks they need done and facilities bid on those tasks. The requesting party then accepts a bid that offers the service at a reasonable price and privately sets up the activity with the bidder.

One would think that such a site would also be well-served by adding a second set of listings, where facilities could list their capabilities, free time available, and rates for researchers to comparison shop.

Unlike “Facebook for Scientists,” one can see a clear reason why this site should exist, and a clear monetary and time-saving value for those participating. It’s one of the better concepts for taking advantage of social media in science that I’ve seen. That said, the concept is not without its faults.

First, the site’s terms make it fairly clear that Science Exchange is not responsible for the interactions between parties and offers no warranties either toward the services performed or payment offered. There’s a vague mention that disputes should be solved “in accordance with Science Exchange Dispute Resolution Process,” but that process is not defined.

If I send in my constructs to be sequenced and I get back garbage, how is that going to be resolved? Are the poor results due to the poor quality of my constructs or the poor quality of work by the facility I’ve chosen? Arbitration of such disputes is going to be very difficult, and I can understand why Science Exchange would want to stay out of it. But as a user, I’d be very wary about entrusting my precious samples, precious time, and precious lab funds to strangers with little guarantee on return.

Perhaps more worrisome, though, is the conflict of interest this sets up for institutional facilities. What if an immunohistochemistry core facility has some idle time and bids on someone’s project. What happens, after that contract is signed, if a professor at that institution brings in thousands of samples he wants processed immediately?

If I’m the professor, I’d be outraged that my core facility was giving some stranger preference. As the requester, I’d be furious if I signed a contract with a facility only to be told that something came up and the service could no longer be offered. If I ran the facility, I’d be torn between doing the job I’m supposed to do for my employer and the prospect of bringing in badly needed additional revenue to the facility (I’d also be a bit worried about rogue technicians taking on projects on the side for extra cash).

Can these sorts of problems be accounted for in the contract signed? If this uncertainty is part of the process, then why not just send your material to a company, where you’re guaranteed that your work won’t suddenly be pushed to the back of the queue? Any service for scientists must always acknowledge that a researcher’s most precious commodity is time. Knowing that your materials are being processed in a timely manner is likely of higher importance than saving a few bucks.

If this catches on, then in the long run, institutions will need to decide whether their core facilities are there to further their own research or to serve as profit centers.  A clearly defined policy needs to be in place before internal services start farming themselves out.

Time will tell if the lack of of guarantees will prevent this market from growing.  eBay seems to have been hurt by a growing reputation as a haven for scammers, and despite increased overall revenue, the online marketplace continues to lose ground to Amazon, which unlike eBay offers substantial guarantees to buyers.

As with most internet startups, failure is more likely than success, but Science Exchange’s concept shows promise.  The addition of strong hand at the wheel, some level of warranty and a well-defined arbitration process might go a long way toward getting the site off the ground.

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


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