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Facilitating Scientific Collaboration

Customer Case Study

On a warm summer night in 2007, Dr. Bruce Ferguson sat down to casually relax with a book. As he scanned through the pages, he suddenly found himself inspired to improve the collaboration process between research scientists at The Hospital For Sick Children.

That book was Wikinomics by Don Tapscott. In it, the author explains the value of collaborative editing and sharing via wikis. Dr. Ferguson realized immediately that wikis were perfectly designed for scientists to work together co-generating new knowledge. Dr. Ferguson reached out to industry leader Socialtext, and after a short pilot project at the start of 2008, a new era of online collaboration began at The Hospital For Sick Children (also called SickKids).

Training the Clinicians

The Child and Adolescent Functional Assessment Scale (CAFAS) is a rating scale, which assesses a youth's degree of impairment in day-to-day functioning due to emotional, behavioral, psychological, psychiatric, or substance use problems. CAFAS is used to determine whether kids improve as a result of mental health service. Clinicians at 120 service provider organizations across Ontario perform thousands of CAFAS evaluations, which makes managing the tacit knowledge and collecting and sharing best practices fairly challenging. SickKids is using Socialtext workspaces to help clinicians learn, share, and work more effectively together.

The CAFAS workspace provides a virtual meeting place where clinicians can access all the tools they need. When clinicians are trained on the workspace, they learn not only the technical features of the product, but also the cultural rules of conduct. These rules form a set of guidelines for community collaboration, which govern respectful and honest activity. From the home page of the workspace, people can easy access FAQs, training guides and schedules, open discussion forums, publications and presentations, best practices, and links to the people that participate in the workspace. So at any time an answer, or an expert is just a few clicks away.

Those experts form one of the most important parts of the workspace. It is the people whom share their knowledge and insight, and work together openly that form a community. Each member of the CAFAS workspace has a profile page, where they can provide contact information and list their areas of expertise and additional skills and interests. People with similar interests or goals can form social networks, where they can easily track the updates made by the people whom interest them. Forming these communities helps ensure that knowledge is shared with those who need it, leading to the best possible service to the children in need.

By storing and sharing all the information in the Socialtext workspace, CAFAS community members can assist each other's learning, while at the same time developing and nurturing relationships with others who have similar goals. The training material (stored in the workspace) is always evolving based on feedback from community members, who work together to continually improve the information. There are currently over 400 members in Socialtext CAFAS workspace, with around 25% actively participating during any given week. Moving forward, SickKids will continue to promote the workspace and increase membership, reaching an even larger audience of clinicians and researches striving to help the lives of children.

Creating International Collaborative Research

In addition to CAFAS, SickKids also uses Socialtext to organize multiple face-to-face events. Dr. Ferguson's belief is that shared workspaces can help break down the barriers that have stood in the way of researchers sharing information, not just with local colleagues, but with people around the world.

“In the past if you had an idea you would not share it in fear that someone might steal it. But it is sharing, not secrecy that will help push the science forward.”

Dr. Bruce Ferguson

In 2008, the Community Health Systems Resource Group (CHSRG) at SickKids launched a series of symposiums focused on collaborative community research as a systemic approach to change front-line practice. To date there have been four events, with three more scheduled. For each symposium, a Socialtext workspace is created, where the invitees work together to plan the event. The participants collaborate on choosing topics and speakers, setting the agenda, and establishing relationships between the keynote speakers. This open process ensures that the event provides maximum value to everyone involved. All materials for the event are hosted in the Socialtext workspace, along with background material, biographies, and links to other resources. After the symposium has ended, the workspace remains active as a place to continue collaboration and develop future research projects.

Additionally, at the end of each symposium a second workspace is created as a shared location for the coauthoring of a book. The themes and goals of the book are discussed during the workshop and all ideas are posted in the workspace. Each author is responsible for his or her own chapter. Their outlines are posted in the workspace, and drafts can then be reviewed and commented on as the content is being written. Once all the individual chapters are finalized, together all the authors write a summary chapter together. When the book is finished, it is credited as a collective work of the group. This collaborative authoring process ensures participation and the open sharing of ideas. The collaborative writing process brings the community together, and provides cohesion between multiple research scientists, which previously was a difficult task.

Conclusion

While working together and sharing has been a  common approach for some time, doing so online is, for many people in the scientific community, a concept that is just starting to be explored. With the help of Socialtext, The Hospital For Sick Children is helping pioneer new ways of facilitating scientific collaboration. With scientists, doctors, and clinicians from around the world working together, sharing, and learning from each other, monumental strides can be taken to help improve the lives of children everywhere.