Piirus: a passion for connecting researchers and crossing boundaries. An interview with Fiona Colligan, founder of Piirus.

fiona-colliganFiona Colligan is Piirus’ founder, and she’s passionate about breaking down the barriers to how researchers connect. Fiona is aware that researchers need to cross what, at times, can be challenging boundaries of discipline, geography and career. She founded Piirus when managing the University of Warwick’s Wolfson Research Exchange, a collaborative research space designed to connect researchers , and as a result believes that the HE sector is best placed to solve this challenge. The University of Warwick is now rolling out Piirus on a global scale with Fiona at its helm and in this article we get behind the idea and find out more…

So Fiona, what’s the ‘big idea’ behind Piirus?
It’s simple – Piirus helps researchers connect with each other based on the ideas and collaborative needs they have right now so that they can develop research ideas, enrich their research, progress projects and make impact.

The analogy I’ve found that works to best describe Piirus is comparing it to online dating sites. 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.

Similarly, on Piirus you complete a short, keyword based profile on you and your academic collaboration needs and then you ‘match’ with potential collaborators across the world. We don’t showcase research publications on Piirus, which tends to be the focus of other academic networking sites. This is because we’re interested in the research that is forming now – rather than the retrospective view of research provided through the lens of publications.

Why is making connections so important for researchers?
Well research today is rarely a lone pursuit, certainly post PhD. It’s more often a fusion of fields, methodologies and approaches.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. As an historian myself (in a former life) I am fascinated by the process that led to the recent discovery of Richard III. Researchers from different fields (archaeology, osteology, genetics, history, forensics and genealogy) developed the strategy for finding, identifying, dating and analysing their way to the discovery of the last Plantagenet. This was an immense undertaking with several universities involved. So now consider how researchers go about making these connections on a global scale when it can be challenging making them at a local level.

Those of us who work in the sector will empathise with what I am about to say – researchers don’t always know what research is happening three offices down from them, let alone research in another department or another institution. And this can put researchers at a disadvantage.

So what sort of challenges can Piirus resolve for researchers?
This is about increasing the pace of discovery. By this I mean, finding the right collaborators at the right time to improve research outcomes. To find collaborators, especially on the edge of their field, researchers often depend on reaching out to known networks. Beyond that they then rely on metrics related to publications to find suitable collaborators. Researchers will look at research publications to assess a person’s relevance to their research and validate research credibility by looking at impact measures such as number of citations.

But in a world where a typical research publication takes, say 3 years of development in sciences and 5 years in the humanities before it is published, this time lag means that researchers are missing out on accessing research that is forming right now in this year, and the expertise that is driving it.

At this point, you might think we’re a bit out of date in our estimates of “time to publication”. But even if your journal is super-fast at turning round an article once you’ve submitted it, and even if it’s accepted without revisions, (first time round!) of course there is all the time it took to do the research and write it. So we think 3 years in total is not too long, even for scientists. We could perhaps extend our estimate for the humanities.

True, we’ve got Academia.edu and ResearchGate working in this territory, providing ways to share earlier versions of publications, largely taken up in the science field, but what if you are looking for someone out-with your field, or with experience of a particular technique or methodology or even a piece of equipment? Publications, whether made available ahead of the curve or not, will not help you to identify who can meet these particular needs. This is where Piirus uniquely fits in – and our growth in recent months demonstrates that researchers across the globe appreciate this.

So what is the global reach of Piirus?
In the team we talk a lot about ‘lighting the map…’ By this we mean, that Piirus can provide researchers in countries that are just starting to develop their research capacity with access to the more ‘visible’ research institutions. So where there have been dark spots previously such as parts of Eastern Europe, India and Africa, Piirus is lighting the map in these areas, making the researchers visible and providing them with ways to connect to researchers in the UK, North America and Australasia.

We’ve grown quickly in the last few months since we opened Piirus up beyond the ‘early adopters’ and there are now researchers from all parts of the world on there, across all disciplines and career stages.

We’ve seen researchers connect from Nigeria with researchers in the UK, Australia with Sweden, India with North America. And the fascinating thing is that these connections are often between different disciplines – philosophers and mathematicians, business and engineering, life sciences and psychology.

It’s this sense of Piirus doing something purposeful within the global HE sector that means that the team behind this are committed to driving this service while sticking closely to the ethos from which it originally derived.

That’s interesting, what is the ethos of Piirus?
We recently surveyed researchers to ask them their views of profiling sites, following a revealing survey conducted by Nature about academic networking sites.

We were very interested that the Nature survey had revealed a correlation between who managed these profile sites and researcher attitudes and confidence in those sites. So we asked about this specifically in our survey and we found that 75 per cent of researchers were more likely to create a profile on Piirus because it had emerged from and stayed in the HE sector. We think this is a very compelling outcome and reinforces for us that Piirus being managed by a university in support of the HE sector is fundamental to our ethos.

I also feel compelled to do a shout out for libraries because Piirus emerged from the insights of the University of Warwick Library and its early and unstinting support to get Piirus up and running. Libraries are incredibly important in the research world and not just because of the resources that they provide but also the expertise that sits within this part of the University. A recent infographic from Elsevier ‘Never underestimate the impact of a Librarian’ demonstrates just how important librarians are in increasing research impact. So our connection to the world of libraries is also implicit in our ethos.

And the final thing I’d like to say about our ethos is that we believe in developing a genuine, trusted network of researchers, populated voluntarily by those wanting to make connections and expressing their needs in their own language. We never scrape profiles from the web, we never email anyone on someone else’s behalf and we are less focused on ‘vanity metrics’ that underpin many other profile sites.

So what does the next few months hold for Piirus?
Well the biggest thing we need to do now is grow our membership, so that we can grow those meaningful connections. Piirus isn’t fully formed yet so we’ve got a fabulous opportunity to get out and meet with the sector and develop this service and grow membership with them. The next few months involves meeting with people in other universities, research councils, scholarly associations and research organisations…I think my suitcase will be my new best friend! But seriously, this development is incredibly exciting and it’s a real privilege to be doing something that we believe can genuinely help the HE sector. And now we need the sector to get behind it too.

So if there’s anyone reading this who would like to find out more, I’m happy to visit them, especially if they are based somewhere warm, with sunshine!

Find out more about Piirus from the recent infographic.

Join Piirus today at www.piirus.com

Contact Fiona Colligan at f.h.colligan@warwick.ac.uk or hello@piirus.com

Post by Jenny Delasalle, Piirus blog editor.

jenny_newJenny Delasalle is the editor of the Piirus Blog. Jenny is a freelance copywriter and librarian, currently based in Berlin, Germany. This means that she works collaboratively and remotely with the rest of the Piirus team. Jenny is interested in scholarly communications, bibliometrics, copyright and many other things besides and blogs and tweets as herself. Jenny previously worked at the University of Warwick Library (with Fiona Colligan) in support of researchers at Warwick, for a number of years as well as at other UK university libraries, before that!



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