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Social networking, and a free library, for science buffs

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Thousands of users are logging on to Scitable to expand their scientific knowledge -- and make "friends" with some smart people.

Part science library and part social networking site, Scitable is a growing educational website created by the Nature Publishing Group.

The current focus of Scitable, which launched in January 2009, is genetics. But it's set to expand in the next few years. In the meantime, thousands of users are logging on to expand their scientific knowledge -- and make "friends" with some smart people.

I spoke last week with Vikram Savkar, publishing director of Nature Education, a division of Nature Publishing Group, about Scitable.

What does the name of the website mean?

It stands for a very important concept to us. The content we publish through the site is available online. It's available openly at no cost. But it's extremely high quality. It's gone through our traditional editorial processes. It's been peer reviewed. And the result is that faculty trust the content and allow their students to cite it as part of their term papers and their homework. That's a big shift. There are sites that have good information, but faculty don't fundamentally trust them because they don't know the quality-control processes. We're filling that gap and publishing information that students can cite. That's what the name stands for.

What are the different components of the website?

I think of Scitable as a kind of three-dimensional textbook. One component is a library of very high-quality content. This is new content that we created from scratch for students to help them master various fields of science. It ranges from text to video to audio to interactive games. It ranges from basic introductory material to in-depth exploration of serious research issues.

Around this library, we have a collaborative community of scientists from around the entire world. We have users from 110 countries. We have faculty, researchers, graduate students, high school students and undergraduate students all working together in one space -- what I like to think of as a global classroom -- united by common interests. They're able to mingle with and collaborate with all of the other people from all of those other countries who are drawn to that same content. For example, a student in Ghana can reach out for help from a researcher in the Netherlands, who might be the world expert in a particular field. These scientists and researchers are very happy to spend time online helping students master the subjects they want to learn.

Users can add "friends" on Scitable, creating their own social network. What's the purpose of that component of the site?

It is based on what we see on Facebook and MySpace. What we're trying to do is take the lessons of these giant social networks and adapt them to what I think is the next generation of social networking -- social networking to accomplish a serious purpose. The network of friends that you can build on the site are the people you've encountered in the chapter that you're reading in the textbook or that you've encountered in some of our discussion groups or the Ask an Expert portal or on forums. You've reached out to them, asked them for advice, they've helped you. Now they become a permanent part of your helping network. As a student, you can reach out to them for advice, guidance, connections [and] content anytime you want. Students are building up global networks of advisers. We're tapping the potential that people have to help each other.

Who is your audience?

We aimed the level of content we created at advanced high school and undergraduate students. About 75 percent of our users come from high schools and universities around the world. But many people from outside academia are using the site on a regular basis. Everyday I see registrations by ordinary people who hear about genetics in the news and want to understand more about it. We're tapping into a broader thirst among the general public to know more about science than mass media tells them.

Is all of Scitable's content free?

We are making the information available at no cost. Most of the information that students and lifelong learners can access through the site is new information that we've created specifically for them to learn science. Most of the information published in Nature is high level for scientists. But we have made selections of classic milestone papers from Nature from the last 140 years available to students at no cost through the site, as well. That's part of our goal: to help students move from basic information to sophisticated information. We will likely offer some premium services [such as online tutoring] that we will charge users for directly.

What's next for Scitable?

One of the main goals over the next year is to expand the fields that we cover from genetics out across the rest of the life sciences and eventually the physical sciences. The second is increasing the number of devices that people can access us through. There are smart phones and some other pretty exciting devices coming along right now. The third piece is to continue to add value to the core website. We've had a lot of success so far in the collaborative social networking aspect. Just to give one example, we have an Ask an Expert portal, which is a space where students can pose a pretty involved question and one of our expert scientists will answer it for the students within 48 hours. That's been wildly popular.

Photo: Vikram Savkar

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure