Sermo Forges Agreement with Nature Publishing Group

1/15/08

Back in October I braved a couple of blocks’ worth of rain to visit Sermo, our startup neighbor around the corner, which runs an online community for doctors of the same name. At the time, the company was just about to announce that it had inked an agreement with Pfizer granting the pharmaceutical giant access to its then over-30,000-member-strong community of physicians. Yesterday, I skipped the foot-deep snow and got on the phone instead to talk to Sermo’s VP for Research, Alex Frost, about today’s planned announcement of another significant partnership—one that will give Sermo’s now nearly 50,000 members access to the offerings of Nature Publishing Group (NPG), and vice versa.

By the end of the first quarter, Frost said, every article in the online version of a dozen NPG medical journals, including Nature Medicine, will include a link inviting users to discuss the article on Sermo. There, users can poll their fellow doctors—about whether they agree with the article’s conclusion, say, or have tried the treatment that the article describes in their own practice—as well as posting more traditional free-text comments. What’s more, Sermo users (who must be licensed as physicians in the U.S. to register for the site) will have access to free full-text versions of 10 of the NPG journals from within Sermo.

For a medical publisher to offer a large group of people unfettered access to so much content is unprecedented, Frost said. “It’s a sign of NPG’s progressive commitment to breaking down barriers and looking at new business models.” Indeed, this is not the first time that NPG has dipped its toes into the Web 2.0 waters of social networking and user-generated content; the London-based group launched Nature Network in the spring of 2006, starting with Boston as its hub, as a place for scientists to blog, network, discuss research, and according to Joy Moore, an NPG publisher, generally do whatever they want to with the platform.

While there are certain similarities between Nature Network and Sermo, Moore said, the big difference is Sermo’s large, ready-made community of physicians, a group that wouldn’t naturally participate on Nature Network. (One central reason why they might not: Sermo is a closed, password-protected, community—something many of its users value passionately—whereas Nature Network is open to all comers.) It was access to that community that was the main driver for NPG in forging the agreement, Moore said. “We’re looking to gain more insight into what readers are looking for and how the content we publish is meeting their needs.” And Sermo’s existing partnerships with the likes of Pfizer and the American Medical Association add another dimension to the community that NPG would have had a hard time creating on its own, Moore said.

There’s one other key thing about the partnership (financial terms of which have not been disclosed) that evidently appeals to both sides. That’s the opportunity to hasten the flow of information from medical researchers to practicing physicians and, perhaps, back again. “In its ideal form, Sermo is about closing the loop between research and practice,” Frost said. He described, for instance, a scenario where journal editors might publish a summary of the relevant polls and discussions on Sermo, stripped of any identifying information, as an addendum to an article. Sort of a “composite letter to the editor,” he said—a means of bringing the consensus of Sermo clinicians on a topic back to the researchers investigating it, as well as to the journal’s readers.

Both Frost and Moore said, however, that there are not yet any firm plans for Nature journals to publish any content derived from Sermo. Moore said that NPG will first need to simply gain familiarity with the community and the platform. “We’re very excited about working with such a dynamic company,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to use the next generation of Web tools.”

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