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Free Collaborative Learning Tools for Science—Spotlight on Scitable
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Posted On September 2, 2010


As Scott Merrill wrote on CrunchGear, “Social networks are a dime a dozen.” He pointed out that many fail and many are just for very specific niche audiences (though I don’t think niches are a bad thing). So, he was as skeptical as I was about Scitable, a social network for science research and education from the folks at Nature Publishing Group (NPG), publishers of Nature and Scientific American. I was especially leery given the recent turmoil over licensing discussions between NPG and the University of California. (They recently issued a joint statement agreeing to work together to address the “mutual short- and long-term challenges.) Scitable is an educational website offered by Nature Education (a division of NPG) for biology and genetics educators and undergraduate students—and it provides a free library of high quality vetted content and tools. The company has just announced the launch of the mobile version of Scitable.

Scitable, which launched in January 2009 after a beta period of several months, combines a library of science education resources in the life sciences with classroom management tools and a collaborative community of scientists, instructors, and students. The site now claims to reach more than 500,000 life science students in 165 countries. The launch of the mobile version is designed to “democratize access” to science education.

Vikram Savkar, senior vice president and publishing director at NPG, says, “[W]e’ve been working to find a way to put our high quality content library in the hands of the millions of students throughout the developing world who don’t have consistent access to personal computers or broadband. With the launch of our mobile site, any student with a cell phone, even a very basic device, has access to a simplified version of the site that includes a wealth of quality, citable information. At the same time, students in the U.S. and similar countries who have feature-rich smartphones or iPads will have access to a more robust version of Scitable, with full video/audio capabilities, built-in glossary, and in some cases full ability to network with thousands of researchers and fellow students.”

Scitable provides students with free online access to overviews of key genetics concepts. The overviews are evidence-based and have been vetted by NPG staff. According to a company representative, the site content amounts to some 300 reading, concept, and definition article pages, 13 “spotlights,” and some 400 blog posts. Spotlights are focused explorations of key topics in science: current issues in the news, emerging lab techniques, thought leader perspectives, governmental policy, and a range of other subjects. They encompass more than genetics topics too—examples include earthquake engineering, solar energy, nanotechnology, and science photography. Warning—wandering around in the fascinating topics can lead to a rabbit hole of lost time. It’s also easy to become absorbed perusing the video blogs, such as Simply Science.

By connecting with other Scitable users via groups, chat functionality, and other social media features, students can collaborate online with classmates, or with a wider community of experts, researchers, and fellow students. Users can share articles by clicking on the “Share” link found at the top of any article. The person will be able to read that article within the site. In order to participate in the full site functions, however, including community and collaboration, the friend will need to register. Registration is free. Registered users may store bookmarked articles, people, groups, discussions, etc. in a “locker.”

Scitable is also intended as a teaching tool for faculty. Educators can set up public or private groups for their students, providing reading lists, course-packs of Scitable articles and group discussions. Scitable can be incorporated into courseware services such as Blackboard.

The mobile version doesn’t include all features and functions of the site at this time. NPG says that the community features—signing up for mentorship programs, the “ask the expert” feature, and building up networks of scientific colleagues—are not currently available to mobile users. The intent is to focus now on the content—articles, videos, audio, images, and blogs—and to make that as available as possible to students and teachers using a broad range of mobile devices. As the mobile site gains traction, the Scitable team will evaluate what other aspects need to be made mobile-friendly.

Scitable is completely free, but receives funding from sponsors Intel, Roche Applied Science, Tata Consultancy Services, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, and New England Biolabs. NPG plans to introduce new subject areas in the life and physical sciences—no confirmed titles but sources indicate it plans to tackle cellular biology and ecology next.

Scitable is just one of the creative Web 2.0 sites currently offering content and collaboration tools for learning and education in the sciences. It is noteworthy for its easy-to-use implementation for both students and faculty and for removing the paywall for this quality content. We look forward to its ongoing development.

Selected Links to Other Sites

The ComPADRE Digital Library is a network of free online resource collections supporting faculty, students, and teachers in physics and astronomy education. Partners include the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the American Institute of Physics/Society of Physics Students (AIP/SPS), and the American Physical Society (APS). ComPADRE is a member of the National Science Digital Library.

SciTopics is a free, wiki-like knowledge-sharing service from Elsevier for the scientific community. It integrates content, searching/browsing, and community features.

2collab is a free collaboration platform from Elsevier designed specifically for researchers in the science, technical, and medical communities.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

Email Paula J. Hane
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