When creating a social network for researchers, Fiona Colligan took a page from online dating, adapting web tools typically associated with making love connections and using them to build research collaborations.
Courting research collaborators is a lot like chasing romance. “Like a typical dating site, you complete a profile on yourself, express what you’re looking for from someone else and then look for matches,” said Colligan, a researcher at Warwick University, which funded development of the website, called Piirus. “It’s a platform for virtually exchanging business cards; an introduction service,” Colligan said.
Holed up in a lab, it is not uncommon for researchers to feel isolated. “When I created Piirus, I found out that researchers weren’t aware what was happening three doors down [in the university],” said Colligan. The idea was to take the toil out of finding researchers in your field, which usually necessitates a lot of online searching.
In its early days, 600 researchers from Warwick signed up to Piirus. Since September last year, traffic has surged and membership has grown from hundreds to thousands. “There are now researchers from 600 institutions, with representatives from every continent except Antarctica,” said Colligan.
With the first choice domain names already taken, some creativity was required in coming up with the name Piirus. “It’s a made up word, really, like Skype,” Colligan said. “In Greek it stands for a river that passes through rocks or stones. We like the connotation.”
Managing the site is not a massive departure for Colligan: before founding Piirus, she was responsible for Warwick University’s Wolfson Research Exchange, where researchers can meet and work on projects together.
Surveying the field of social research networks, Piirus is a minnow and Colligan’s creation has stiff competition from ResearchGate, headquartered in Berlin and used by five million researchers, Academia.edu, a San-Francisco-based competitor with over 16 million members and London-based Mendeley, which claims 3.1 million members.
It is also a space where others have tried and failed. Short-lived sites like Scientist Solutions, SciLinks, Epernicus, 2collab and Nature Network failed to generate the necessary spark with researchers.
While the successful networks claim the broad goal of accelerating science collaboration, Colligan thinks Piirus is differentiated from its rivals and is selling a different experience. “We’re interested in the research that is forming now, rather than the retrospective view of research provided through the lens of publications, which is a focal point for other research network sites,” she said.
Gathering as much scientific research as possible in one place is the goal of the Big Three networks, but researchers on Piirus don’t upload their publications or count citations, said Colligan. Rather, they open an account with Piirus to meet new acquaintances and share research ideas.
However, It seems unlikely researchers would risk sharing their good ideas on a public site. Colligan agrees. Researchers on Piirus message each other on their own terms. “The site doesn’t manage or oversee any messaging. We provide researchers’ emails and they talk privately to each other,” she said. It’s this trust-element, she noted, that users find attractive.
Unlike the other major research networks, as yet Piirus has no revenues. While there is scope for selling advertising, Colligan said the site will always remain free for researchers.
For now, most members of Piirus are based in the UK, with Europe and North America popular hotspots too.
Places where potential collaborators are hard to find, include Eastern Europe, India and Africa, said Colligan. “I want Piirus to help light the map in these places,” she said.
Visit Piirus here