Sharing Research Information: The Benefits of Networking

Building your own network at an early stage of your research career pays off in many ways. If networking is not yet a habit for you, it would be a good idea to start right now by searching the Dutch Research Database for information on current research projects, researchers, and research institutes.

Of course you know who else is working in your field. Or do you? What about newcomers, or those whose research in different disciplines impacts on your own? Where exactly are the borders of your field today? Where will they be tomorrow? The Netherlands score high in international rankings of ?multidisciplinary? research, and the number of multi- and cross-disciplinary funding initiatives has grown rapidly in the last 5 years. Although most researchers know how to find the colleagues in their own discipline, it can be hard to locate partners from other fields in this swiftly changing research landscape.

Research itself is an ever-changing process, and the outcomes are sometimes difficult to predict. If some of the greatest breakthroughs in scientific understanding have seemed serendipitous, talking to people outside your field must increase the likelihood of such unexpected discoveries. Just think of fundamental work in the field of immunology done by Hans Clevers, professor of immunology at Utrecht University. He published one of the hottest papers on cancer research, which may lead to completely new treatments, when he linked a transcription factor (TCF, involved in the creation of T-lymphocytes) with a tumor suppressor protein APC (see, e.g. Science, 21 March 1997, p. 1784 [Subscription/AAAS membership required]).

Modern research is based on networks of people, which means that a PhD student at a research conference actually has something in common with a businessman on a golf course: the opportunity for an informal chat with colleagues. Your fellow researchers at the scientific meeting may not employ you, now or in the future, but they will be reviewing your articles and, possibly more important, your first and subsequent grant applications--suggesting that getting to know your community is one of the most important things you can do.

So if it?s that important, how can you get started? This is where technical networks can help to create human networks. Research information databases are ideal starting points for developing your own contacts. Provided by national funding organizations or specialized information services, they are usually Internet based and can be searched online.

Searching the Dutch Research Database (NOD)

Within the Standard Search Screen you search simultaneously for research projects, addresses, and descriptions of Dutch research institutes and expertise and names of researchers.

If you want to look specifically into one category, e.g. names, you can use the Advanced Search Screen. Another way to refine your research is to use word combinations and the Boolean operators ?and?, ?or?, and ?not?. Search words with one or more arbitrary alphabetic characters by using ?*? as a wild card operator.

NOD also offers several thematic databases with information on environmental research, youth-related research, or rehabilitation research, as well as access to international databases such as IWETO (Research in Flanders, Belgium) and the EU?s CORDIS database (see Box II, below).

One example of such a freely accessible network hub is the Netherlands Research Information Database, which is maintained by the Netherlands Institute for Scientific Information Services. The country?s only multidisciplinary database, it comprises descriptions of approximately 44,000 research projects in the Netherlands. In this database you will also find about 7600 names and addresses of Dutch researchers, with their teaching and research assignments, and often a concise description of their expertise.

A simple search can answer such questions as, What other projects have been funded in my field of research or related areas? Which researchers are working in this field? At which institutes? And finally, how can I get in contact with these researchers? Just type in your keywords and see what falls out. (For details see box.)

Searching a database can never be a substitute for face-to-face meetings at conferences and workshops. But it can be a focussed way to ramp up your network. For example, it might help you to find people with access to a particular reagent or statistical data you just don?t have. And there are plenty of more active ways to make use of research information services. A second step would be to post your own research projects or expertise, making them more visible to other researchers, policy-makers, and science journalists. If you are serious about networking, you can take it one step further and contact interesting research groups found in the database directly--perhaps they would like you to give a talk on your research? Such contacts, deepened by a follow-up working visit, are often the beginning of joint papers or the foundation for your future postdoc position.

European Research Information

There are more or less advanced efforts to create research databases on a national level in many countries. Already today, most European initiatives cooperate under the umbrella of EuroCRIS (Current Research Information Systems). However, a single pan-European database, searchable for all research projects from Sweden to Spain, is still a dream.

More information can also be found at the CRIS 2002 conference Web site. This biannual event will take place in Kassel, Germany, at the end of this month.

Research information on EU-funded projects can be found on the EC?s CORDIS database.

The global research community is more dynamic then ever. No matter what your field, today?s researcher needs to develop his or her social skills to engage in fruitful conversation and the exchange of ideas. Talking to your peers keeps you up-to-date and teaches you about opportunities in related fields. Receiving stimulating news will considerably broaden your horizons, enriching your own research. So before leaving your ivory tower tonight, take a look from its roof at the worldwide web of research that you?re part of.

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