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The Bioinformatics Open Space : Get/Give help with Biostar

This article is the kickoff of a sequel of articles called "Bioinformatics Open Space". It will mainly talk about the social web resources that can improve your productivity in bioinformatics. By productivity I mean either it will help you to fix a problem, keep you informed or give you inspiration for you daily tasks related to bioinformatics so that you won't feel alone. Today I will talk about a great resource that will help you to solve your question(s) related to Bioinformatics : "Biostar, Questions and Answers in Bioinformatics".

Once upon a time

Biostar was launched in march 2010 by Istvan Albert Associate Professor, Bioinformatics, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Pennsylvania State University.

Last minute correction from Istvan: BioStar was launched on Sept 30th 2009, but for the first few months it had no regular visitors other than myself. I kept adding a few questions and answers ). Giovanni Dall'Olio (user number 24) was BioStar's first regular contributor, he joined on January 18th, 2010. He brought in a lot of enthusiasm and brought us to a turning point. So I would consider this date as its "birthday"...

Last minute note from Giovanni: wow, thank you for remembering that! :-) For me, it all started with this thread on the biopython-dev mailing list: http://lists.open-bio.org/pipermail/biopython-dev/2010-January/007251.html. There were a few other alternatives for bioinformatics questions, all inspired by stackoverflow, but biostar was the only one with a bit of traffic already. After opening a few generic questions to attract newbies (what is your favorite programming language, etc..) the site started attracting visitors and became what is now.

Biostar : Questions and Answers in Bioinformatics

The aim of Biostar stands in his title. But that's not all because behind that there are two key ingredients that I will describe later and that make Biostar so appealing : the Stack Exchange system and the great Biostar's users who take time to share their bioinformatics knowledge.

Actually I find it so useful that during the last year (2010), I closed the Google Groups Group-4-Bioinformatics I was administrating. The explanation is very simple. First of all I think it is much better to have only few places, ideally one place to discuss about bioinformatics questions. And since I think that the Biostar ergonomics is a much better that the Google groups one I decided to close my Google group and suggest new comer to join other bioinformatician in Biostar. And the success of the ergonomics of the Stack-exchange system is certainly the reason that forced Google to change the design of the Google groups during the last year.

Great Ergonomics : The Stack Exchange model

So what make make the stack-exchange system so different from regular forum ?

First of all, the listing of the questions is very informative and easy to visualize. Indeed in just two lines you have a view at a glance of:

  1. The subject : What the question is about ?
  2. The rating : How other people evaluate the question. Like all rating this depend on the users. But in general high ratings mean interesting questions for a lot of people. Either because it solves a similar problem they have/had or they simply think it is a good question and they are curious about the answers provided.
  3. The number of answers : Help you to visualize how many answers have been provided so far to the question. And we are not talking about replies that could include tons of comments like in usual forum but real answers. And comments related to a given answer will be embedded in a related block. If this number is in green like in our instance below, it means that one of the responses has been considerated as the nicest one by the person who asked the question.
  4. The number of views of the question : It can give a sense of the popularity of the question.
  5. The tags : Use of tags allows people to categorize the questions. It can help you to highlight questions related to a given topics.
  6. The last edition : It tells you when the question was last answered or edited.
Biostar response instance

One other interesting feature about Biostar is that the question you ask or the answer you give can be rated by your peers. On of the aim of this feature is that the best rated answer for a given question will be automatically moved just below the answer. It make sense because it is supposed to be the best response according to other people so it save time for visitors that are usually looking for it.

More over there is like a credit that is linked to your profile. So each time a person give you a positive rating you receive like 10 points of credit or so. It is like numerical thank you for the time you spend trying to help other people. Actually you can see Biostar users ordered by their credit here>.

Great users : people who Take time to help

A great application is nothing without great content.

Indeed what would be Google Map and Google Earth applications if the Googlers didn't take pictures of the all streets in the world with their strange Google cars ? Nothing !

What would be an Antibody Database if scientists didn't take the time to share their Western Blot experiments information ? Nothing !

That's the same dilemma with Biostars and fortunately there are nice folks who take time to give help like Pierre, Neil, Kadher, Giovanni and many others.

Knowledge is the only treasure that increases on sharing

So if you want to help other bioinformatician and/or get help you are more than welcome to join the party. Signing-in it is pretty straightforward since you can use you an OpenId like for Bioinformatics.fr.

Of course if you are aware of any other resource that can give help to people in the field of Bioinformatics you are welcome to share it through the comments feature.

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