Outsourcing in science: 21st century collaboration

As a scientist, I spend a lot of my time optimising a technique that has been perfected by many others. And I know there are many other researchers that share my frustration. If all of my experiments worked the first time, I would have all the data from my PhD in less than six months. Then the question arises: how much of our research money and time do we spend optimising a relatively simple technique? I would imagine, for most scientists, the answer is quite a significant portion.

Now, imagine never spending your precious lab hours to optimise a well-established technique that may not be carried out regularly in your laboratory. The idea of flawless execution of a new technique sounds too good to be true. After all, as researchers, we spend most of our time identifying our mistakes, and finally amending them to find the best conditions for an experiment to work.

Almost all the scientists I have met feel that it would be better if we get an expert, who routinely performs that technique, to do these experiments. This is generally seen as a research collaboration, which can be described as an association between researchers, who probably met at a conference or through someone they already know. Traditional research collaboration can often be limiting because of disagreements between collaborators, which could slow down the progress of a project.  Justifying experiments to collaborators is a common practice that causes further delay.

Outsourcing in research provides an alternative to bypass some of the drawbacks of being involved in a collaboration tangle. I would even describe it as the 21st-century collaboration – quick, efficient and without much fuss. Currently, outsourcing in research is usually an act where researchers assign certain tasks to be performed by a specialist company for a service charge. Researchers regularly outsource experiments without even thinking about it. From DNA sequencing to chemical synthesis, and from designing models to computational analysis, outsourcing is a very common practice in research.

Science professionals could save money through outsourcing in the longer term as high-quality data is generated quicker. And if they are able to offer expertise, they may also generate extra revenue for their research. And many others would not offer their expertise as a paid service but as a way to expand their research network and boost publication record.

On a downside, if we start outsourcing everything then laboratories may become technically driven rather than being driven by research. This may also limit training opportunities for young scientists. And if the technology is recently developed and not fully optimised then one should consider carefully before paying and sending precious samples. I believe that, if researchers are aware of the theoretical background, then outsourcing laborious, long and repetitive processes would be beneficial for all. I do understand that some people enjoy doing experiments but in my opinion, science is more about generating ideas, planning and designing experiments and analysing it, isn’t it? In an ideal world, while outsourcing, young researchers would also learn about potential pitfalls of the technique or get trained from the experts.

Not so long ago simple outsourcing practice such as DNA sequencing was carried out by few specialised labs and only they or their collaborators were fortunate enough to use the facilities. Sequencing DNA is a basic outsourcing practice these days. Due to the vast complexity of scientific data and range of techniques involved to generate a good quality publication, it is no longer possible to do it on your own now. It is not uncommon for researchers to be scooped at some stage if they tried to do it all on their own. The speed at which research is moving ahead means that outsourcing will only be expanding, and a proper database is required that enables researchers to quickly find an expert online. ResearcherSkills provides the vision for 21st-century collaborations and a platform for outsourcing in science.


Further reading:

Nature (2007) 447, 84 | doi:10.1038/nj7146-884a

Nature Biotechnology (2007) 25, 1093 – 1096 | doi:10.1038/nbt1007-1093


This blog was originally written for ResearcherSkills.com. The original post can be read here.