VIVO: The Incentive Factor
by Barbara Brynko
For Mike Conlon, it’s been a busy year. As principal investigator for VIVO at his home base at the University of Florida (UF), he’s succeeded in assembling a creative team to construct a sustainable infrastructure to support a national network of scientists. The VIVO network spans seven institutions and universities involved in the pilot project funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Conlon is a busy man. Working on Year 1 of the 2-year VIVO project has meant juggling his multiple duties at UF as associate director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, director of data infrastructure, associate CIO of IT architecture, interim director of biomedical informatics, and interim director of the Clinical and Translational Research Informatics Program.
With VIVO gaining momentum in the scientific/research world, Conlon sees two different constituencies buying into the incentive structure design of the national network of scientists. “One of these constituencies would be the scientists who are the primary constituency,” he says. “The other is the group of scientific administrators, the deans or the vice presidents who are guiding, supporting and managing the research processes of their institutions.”
Removing the Obstacles
This latter group doesn’t really need incentives, he says. This group already sees the value in the information in VIVO that wasn’t available before, including easier access to facts and figures, from the number of grant recipients last year to the number of papers published in each department. These questions aren’t easy to answer without extraordinary manual effort, he says, which often means poring over the CVs of the 5,000 faculty members in the university. “And usually after a 1-hour presentation about what VIVO can offer, they say, ‘Sign me up.’ All they want to know is how to remove any barriers to access and adoption.”
But the second constituency presents the classic “chicken and egg” dilemma. “If there’s no data, there’s no value to the scientists,” he says. “And if there’s no value for the scientists, there’s no need for the data.” But that’s where VIVO bridges the gap. “We break through that barrier by providing the initial data,” he says. “We have the means to automate the profile process, adding data to complete 90% of each profile.”
Sound easy? At some universities, such as UF, the buy-in was immediate to get the faculty data into VIVO using an opt-out policy. Faculty members have the option to choose what kind of data is appropriate for public consumption, such as what courses they teach, what grants they’ve received, and what papers they’ve published. But not all universities play by the same rules. For example, at Indiana University (IU), if the faculty member wants to disclose details about academic achievements and courses, that’s fine. However, the university won’t disclose the data for them, and this is the data that is already publicly accessible via MEDLINE, BioMedExperts, NIH, and others.
“That’s our pitch to the faculty … we’re doing 90% of the work for you,” says Conlon. “We can load up most of the data, and you can still control and personalize your own profile.”
But Conlon is a realist, noting, “You can’t take something out if you didn’t put something in.” While scientists will eventually be able to conduct cross-institutional profile searches with VIVO at the click of a button, which he describes as a “pretty powerful thing,” the data still needs to be in the system. “VIVO helps you find people but finding doesn’t necessarily guarantee collaboration,” he says. “But creating a list of potential researchers puts you in a position to make the connection. You can usually find relationships among members of your own department to someone on the list. You start with a connection; it’s not a cold call.”
Conlon says the VIVO team has jumped over hurdles with some human resources departments to get basic faculty information for the VIVO profiles; another institution actually wanted a cost-benefit analysis before releasing any data. That’s why Conlon sees the deans and vice presidents of research as some of the strongest advocates for VIVO. “These are the folks who can remove any roadblocks to implementation and making the connections,” he says.
Visualizing the Network
For Katy Börner, a professor at the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University, the task of elevating the data to all-new heights is driving the visualization efforts. Her VIVO team is concentrating on visually representing three levels: individual (co-authorship connections), institutional (cross-departmental), and national (cross-institutional). “In the new VIVO 1.1 release, we now have a tool for the co-authorship network that features the person right in the middle with his or her co-authorship connections surrounding them,” she says. “One author may have only one connection; another may have 10 times that number.”
The visualization also includes the number of citations and the number of co-authors over time, as well as how active or how collaborative this person is. “I think these three different levels address the needs of different people,” says Börner. The individual level of visualizations try to help researchers understand what their place is in the network and how they relate to other researchers. Then, the institution level is designed more for lab and center directors, deans, and vice presidents of research. Likewise, visualizations at the national level are good tools for funding agencies in understanding which university specializes in specific topic areas.
“The main task of my team is creating insightful visualizations, not the flashy or cool visualizations,” says Börner. “These visualizations must be easy to read and interpret by anybody.” The key is to find that “sweet spot” that’s easy for the programmer to work with using the existing API and with the budget and resources available. After all, the more information the scientists and researchers reveal about themselves, the more data available to make recommendations and create scholarly networks, and the more data available to analyze and visualize, she says. Using VIVO, institutions can also get a holistic view of what’s going on across the university campus, from the large departments to the smaller, niche areas where cutting-edge research is being done. Visualization can provide a look at the structure and dynamics of research at a department, institution, or nation across all VIVO instances.
Expanding the Connections
The VIVO team also created an animated geospatial map of VIVO activity that reports on the number of VIVO code downloads, web access to the VIVO web.org site, email requests for information, and the number of VIVO people profiles. “Not bad, considering VIVO isn’t even a year old yet,” says Börner. As more agreements are made with external sources, such as Thomson Reuters and Elsevier, more high-quality information, co-author linkages, and citation counts are being integrated into the network.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know we would be able to do so much in such a short time,” says Börner. Building bridges among the institutions has already started, she says, “with connections to Harvard profiles and links to Collexis data.” After all, the goal is to make those connections, build the network, and improve collaboration to benefit research.