Creating scientific apps just got a little bit easier, but does it matter yet?

By Richard Nieva , written on January 14, 2013

From The News Desk

It’s not often that using an API leads to a breakthrough in the use of elephant hair. But when it happens, it’s clearly so much better than non-elephant hair related hacks. Last October, three researchers, Conor Myhrvold, Howard Stone, and Elie Bou-Zhed published a study that suggests elephant hair actually serves to keep the animals cool, instead of warm.

The trio said they collaborated using Mendeley API, a cross between a database and open source API full of 75 million of research papers. Victor Henning, founder of the London-based company, likens it to what iTunes is for songs, or Picasa is for photos, but for academic research.

The Mendeley service itself launched in 2009, with investments from Ambient Sound Investments (formed by the engineers behind Skype), Passion Capital and Access Industries. Last year the company launched its API, but the data on the site became more accessible to app developers when Mendeley announced the release of a software development kit (SDK) last week.

The SDK allows for Web developers to tap into research data from academic papers and use more of a “plug and play” approach when they use that data to build apps, instead of having to create an app structure from scratch. True to the site’s philosophy, the kit wasn’t even created by Mendeley itself, but a third-party developer. French biosciences company Shazino created the hack for its own purposes, speeding up the app-building process for its own company. Shazino then made it available for the entire community to use.

Some of the apps built using Mendeley’s data include: “real time impact measurement” apps, which essentially serve as Nielsen ratings for science, by keeping track of what data from academic research is being used in different projects. Other apps involve mashing up raw data, like an app that connects people with similar genes, and helps to answer questions about what diseases you might be predisposed to. Henning hopes the software development kit will help scientists to focus more on working with the data instead of having to toil over the fundamentals of building an app.

The “open science” movement – where academics connect and collaborate through the Web and other technology – has been brewing in universities for the last few years. Given the company’s location, Henning says the site’s biggest user bases are in Cambridge and Oxford, followed by Stanford and Harvard. ResearchGate, another academic network, has been revamping its service and has been interested in launching an API of its own.

The common argument against these services has been around the difficulty getting the most established – and often older – scientists to get onboard. Henning admits that most of the users are younger – mostly PhD students and post docs. But he insists there is an organic adoption process, where younger scientists will use the services in their labs, and the older guys eventually catch on as well.

Still, there are many older scientists that are more set in their ways. It’s like when your grandma says something overtly racist, and you kind of just awkwardly laugh and horrifiedly shrug. She’s from another time... That's an extreme example, and clearly not every older academic has the resistance to change, but there are no doubt many who do, as evidenced by the numbers and demographics of the service. Preemptive clarification: I’m NOT calling older scientists racists.

The technology certainly powerful, and has the potential to be more powerful as barriers to the technology fall – even with as simple a hack as an SDK. But until services like Mendeley and ResearchGate have really infiltrated the very traditional world of academia, APIs like this will remain relegated to the realm of experiment, and not profound changes in the research process.

[Image courtesy: x-ray delta one]