After the successful introduction of myspace, facebook, twitter and however many other social networking sites that now exist, researchers at London's Natural History Museum have created a social networking tool called 'Scratchpads' just for natural historians. The platform is designed to get specialists together to share their data and prevent the discipline from being buried under a landslide of painstakingly collected data that isn't always used.

Users create a virtual workbench to study aspects of an organism much as Darwin did during his lifetime, and anyone can get involved. To date the system serves over 1100 registered users across 100 sites, spanning academic, amateur and citizen-science audiences. Users have generated over 130,000 content nodes in the first two years.

The Scratchpads infrastructure combines databases, network protocols and computational services to bring people, information and computational tools together to perform and publish natural history. Specialist sites on fish, amphibians, trees and so on do exist. But natural history is known for its diverse approaches and researchers with widely differing views and contexts.

Electronic data systems tend to offer just one way to represent data, which can alienate many potential contributors. In Scratchpads, the user-created workbenches mean that natural historians can gather, organize and share their data themselves, for example picking their own biological classification systems and incorporating data from other platforms such as Encyclopaedia of Life.

"Our goal was to build a system that could motivate individual researchers in the generation, management and dissemination of their own data for their own needs, while empowering a wider constituent of potential users who are free to repurpose this information for other uses," says Vincent Smith, one of Scratchpad's creators.

The researchers hope Scratchpads will prevent natural history data from being marginalized in the "electronic ghetto" of publishers' websites, or worse still never being published at all. Making better connections between these data also stands to boost natural history's image in the wider scientific community. The service may also provide a template for use in other disciplines too.

Citation: Vincent S Smith, Simon D Rycroft, Kehan T Harman, Ben Scott, David Roberts
'Scratchpads: a data-publishing framework to build, share and manage information on the diversity of life' BMC Bioinformatics 2009, doi:10.1186/1471-2105-10-S14-S6