The increasing complexity of research requires scientists to work at the intersection of multiple fields and to face problems for which their formal education has not prepared them. For example, biologists with no or little background in programming are now often using complex scripts to handle the results from their experiments; vice versa, programmers wishing to enter the world of bioinformatics must know about biochemistry, genetics, and other fields.
In this context, communication tools such as mailing lists, web forums, and online communities acquire increasing importance. These tools permit scientists to quickly contact people skilled in a specialized field. A question posed properly to the right online scientific community can help in solving difficult problems, often faster than screening literature or writing to publication authors. The growth of active online scientific communities, such as those listed in Table S1, demonstrates how these tools are becoming an important source of support for an increasing number of researchers.
Nevertheless, making proper use of these resources is not easy. Adhering to the social norms of World Wide Web communication—loosely termed “netiquette”—is both important and non-trivial.
In this article, we take inspiration from our experience on Internet-shared scientific knowledge, and from similar documents such as “Asking the Questions the Smart Way” and “Getting Answers”, to provide guidelines and suggestions on how to use online communities to solve scientific problems.