Imagine a world where real-time search is the norm. You will get just the information you seek landing on your lap the exact minute it becomes available, without you having to explicitly search for it. Will this change the way you do science? SciSurfer thinks it will.
The release cycle of scientific knowledge is slow. It may take up to 2 years for a paper to get accepted in a journal. The publishing process in itself will add a buffer of a few months (arguably because of the time cost of having a paper edition, even though most people will never use it). So, for some of us, it doesn’t feel like we are missing much if we do not get the latest updates on our field the very same minute they are published. Just going to conferences yearly feels like more than enough. But there is a portion of the academia that needs constant updates on their field, as close to real-time as possible. If you are in the life sciences, getting the latest paper about a molecule or a gene you work on before your competitor does may make or break your career.
For those academics, sciSurfer may be a very valuable tool. The basic idea of sciSurfer is to integrate all journal feeds and search over them. Note that they do not archive RSS, so only the latest articles are available. This is a different way to think about search, closer to twitter’s than to Google’s.
If you are used to RSS feed readers, the interface will look familiar. Left side there’s a list of journals and searches. Every time there’s a new unread item the containing ‘folder’ turns bold. On the right side there’s a list of articles (title, authors, and abstract). The journal it comes from is shown in green. The interface resembles Google reader (in fact, sciSurfer is built on app engine, so it may share code with reader).
What is the advantage of scisurfer over simply subscribing to the RSS feed of the journals? Search. Scisurfer does searches over all the journals they are indexing. This is pretty impressive, because I don’t know of any search engine that works on RSS feeds. Using an RSS reader, the equivalent to scisurfer would be to subscribe to the RSS of all journals, and apply searches over those. This is beyond the capabilities of most destop RSS readers. Implementing search by author, abstract, etc is also beyond the feature set of a normal RSS reader. In fact, it’s not that easy to deal with author names. We all have had the experience of getting papers by people with the same lastname and initials as our intended query term that are NOT the person we are looking for. Thomson Reuters has a solution: researcher ID. Researcher ID is based on the simple idea that each individual would get a unique identification (ID) number acting as a digital “calling card” that the researcher can place anywhere, such as a personal home page, a CV, or a university page. It has been out for more than two years now, so it’s still too early to say whether it has been adopted successfully.
Apart from the reader, there are two other tools, news and journals. Searching journals by name integrates the RSS feeds of otherwise disperse journals. Still, I haven’t found a good use for this tool.
The main use I can think of for sciSurfer is monitoring Trending topics. We are getting used to explosions in popularity thanks to twitter and Facebook updates. Good twitter clients show you ‘what’s hot’ together with an explanation on why. Even Mendeley is getting status updates these days, making it look more and more like ‘facebook for scientists’.
There are several things to like about sciSurfer. It integrates with your Google account, so it’s one less login to remember. The devs show that they are on top of things and the result is a fast turnaround when I requested changes. They are very open about feature requests. In my experience, when a journal was not in sciSurfer’s list, the devs added it within hours.
But by far the best result of using sciSurfer is that it makes you aware of what is going on in your field in a way that feels different and pleasant. The most similar feeling that I got online is when I found a neat Phd. student tagging articles in citeUlike that are relevant for me (it’s like finding a gold mine).
Mendeley uses a similar real-time approach in their statistics. For example, they show what are the most read papers per discipline at a given point in time.
I’m not sure one can do searches according to popularity just yet on any of these tools, implementing a real-time soft peer review.
How does sciSurfer plan to make money? The free tool is limited to ten saved searches. They will charge for extra functionality. There’s an iPhone version coming, which may well be another source of funds.
As the number of publications grows, it becomes more and more difficult to follow the latest scientific trends. The approach that sciSurfer takes is that if you know your keywords then it should be trivial to filter the fire hose of information, by doing a trivial keyword match. While keyword match could go a long way, I’m skeptical that the future of search lies in dumb matching. The way I currently filter information is very social, that is, I’m surrounded by people I respect and I ‘feel’ what they believe is good research. If I’m like most researchers, then social filtering would be a natural fit. However, I rarely get value from social networks online (science-wise; no matter how hard social networks try to capture my attention!). It may well be that to form a reputation, scientists need to do far more than posting interesting updates in their microblogging feeds. And for us to follow their recommendations…