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Gen-F Scientists Ignoring Social Networking

A quick analysis of online social networks, such as LinkedIn and Xing would suggest that a mere 1 in 7 research scientists use such tools as part of their work. This contrasts starkly with the business world where uptake is up to 88%. In other words almost 9 out of every ten employees in the commercial world are using online networking.

This is an odd finding, according to Richard Lackes of the Department of Business Information Management at Technische Universitaet Dortmund, Germany. He points out that scientific research is essentially a communication-driven process and that most of its participants are young and part of what we might refer to as the Facebook generation (Gen-F, you might say). Members of the business world have a much more even spread of ages and differences in internet acceptance, and yet, it is business users who are much more committed to online social networking.

There are, of course, many networking sites around aimed specifically at scientists and have been since the heady days of ChemWeb.com and BioMedNet.com in the late 1990s (two organisations with whom I worked for many years). Today, there are dozens of general science networking sites, academic networking sites, and specialist, niche sites. However, if we are generous and suggest that the top ten of those have on average 50,000 members and that they overlap in membership to say 20%, then we are still left to account for millions of other researchers who are simply not using these services.

Ijad Madisch of Researchgate suggests that the problem is simply one of time. “LinkedIn (as a professional network) needed a long time to go ‘viral’ and to reach that what they are now,” he asserts, “I think for scientists it will be the same. We are just now in the early evolution of scientific networks.” He points out that Researchgate, which has been around for about a year, has more than 150,000 members and is growing with more than 1,000 new sign-ups each day.

No single site addresses all the needs of research scientists. The generic sites like LinkedIn and Facebook offer users a way to link up with other people and have specialist sub-groups and pages, but that seems only to dilute their benefits. A social network of a few dozen members is no network at all, once you leave the school yard
, is it?

Victor Henning of Mendeley argues that most of the social networking sites are still fairly young. Of the web 2.0-inspired ones, Nature Network, with approx 20,000 members, is Methuselah, having launched in 2007, while LinkedIn or Xing have been going since 2003. The others (Scilink, LabRoots, Biocrowd, Laboratree, Researchgate, Academia.edu, LabMeeting, Pronetos etc.) have all been around for just over a year or so.

Henning suggests that the pure social networking sites for researchers just don’t work. “Most of them are me-too products that deliver little or no additional value over LinkedIn (and considering that networks depend on critical mass, they arguably deliver much less value),” he told me. “That’s why, even though social networking is a feature on Mendeley’s website, we don’t primarily see ourselves as a social network.” He says that Mendeley aims to deliver value to researchers independent of network effects, by helping them to manage and share their research paper collections.

“This appears to be working, considering that our userbase is growing at roughly 40% month-over-month this year,” Henning adds. “Our users have uploaded more than 5 million documents to their Mendeley accounts.” This, he explains, is where the “social” aspect kicks in. “We add a social layer to research data and turn research papers into social objects,” he says, “The next step for us will be to add recommendations based on a user’s existing library and reading habits, i.e. social connections emerging from the data that they’re working with – not just replicating an offline social network online.”

Now, personally I know a lot of scientists who are using social media and social networking tools. I have enlisted more than 600 members in a Twitter group after all, and hundreds of my contacts in research are on FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook etc. Moreover, there are a lot of researchers out there working on tools and systems and approaches to connecting and communicating. There is also a lot of self-organisation going on and networks are emerging on ad hoc basis. But, despite their best efforts and a lot of hard work, I’m sure many of them recognise that they are yet to reach a critical mass of the kind achieved by an offline networking community, such as the American Chemical Society, for instance.

Oxford’s Richard Price of Academia.edu affirms that social media sites can take a while to get to critical mass. “It took LinkedIn from 2003 to 2007 to get to 10 million members; growth then really accelerated, and it is now at 45 million members,” he explains. “Twitter launched in 2006, and it wasn’t until January 2009 that it really took off.” He adds that at least one of the academic networking sites will get to critical mass; it is just a matter of time. “Sites like Academia.edu are growing fast; we have over 61,000 profiles at the moment,” he says, “and are seeing exponential growth. I think the critical mass point for an academic networking site is around 500,000 to 1 million profiles; that is when growth will really accelerate.”

Brian Krueger of Labspaces is less convinced of the need for online social networking for scientists. “In my short eight or so years in science (and three years of pretending I run a social network), I’ve noticed at least with the work I’ve done that collaborations come in cycles,” he says, “We’re not constantly looking for collaborators, so being plugged into a network might not be all that helpful. We can get our collaborations set up at yearly meetings.”

He points out that the current system of offline networking works well because of the nature of lab work. “We get ideas, focus on them, test, and then stop and think about the results,” he says, then, “We use scientific meetings to stimulate further hypothesis development at the thinking stage and to add new angles to our research. I’m not sure you can get the same out of a science social network.”

Lackes and colleagues Markus Siepermann and Erik Frank do feel that online social networks could offer a great opportunity for enhancing collaboration among scientists and suggest that a new approach is needed. Their proposed tool will apparently fill the gaps in the likes of LinkedIn and Facebook and make them more pertinent for researchers and at the same time could exploit the API (Application Programming Interface) of such services to draw on the benefits of those systems too. That is actually something Academia.edu already does with respect to Facebook. Again, I suspect whatever their approach they will have to confront the issue of achieving critical mass.

Every time a generic network, like Twitter or Facebook, passes a membership milestone, they issue a press release pronouncing their greatness. But, of an internet-enabled population of hundreds of millions, if not billions of people, the paltry memberships of these services pale into insignificance against the wider global community
. The number of researchers active in online networks is but a mote in a sunbeam compared to those numbers. Even if there were a powerful Facebook or LinkedIn equivalent for researchers, what are the chances of persuading the scientists to join and get networking online?

“I think the chances are good if you can deliver real value without relying on network effects,” Henning retorts. “On Mendeley, the network effect is just the cherry on top: It allows us to deliver real-time research trend data based on the literature reading habits of our users; like Nielsen ratings for science.”

Krueger believes there needs to be a major cultural shift if online networking is to take on a bigger role. “Scientists really don’t like discussing their thoughts and ideas in the public domain (both for scooping and patent issues),” he points out, adding that there may be an assumed lack of security on internet-based social networks and a time-wasting aspect in that there’s nothing gained from time spent online when conferences and meetings provide all that many scientists feel they need. “For adoption of new technologies in science, it has to be an order of magnitude more useful than current tools,” says Krueger, “We just don’t have the time to waste learning new tools that only marginally increase our productivity.”

The point of all these various social networking, social media, and other online tools is communication. However, with the majority of scientists feeling perhaps that they are already well-served by their existing ‘meat-space’ networks they just do not see the point. And many of the current offerings do not immediately appear to be of value: there is no ‘killer app’ to draw practicing scientists in, says Richard P. Grant of f1000, a site offering an expert guide to the most important advances in biology.

András Paszternák creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community has seen enormous growth in this area. In particular, in his part of the world Eastern Europe, young researchers are networking using these tools more and more. “I think the future of these networks is in collaboration and integration,” he says, but points out that users are not necessarily keen to register with so many different sites for access, email, and blogging. “The war of the research social networks has begun…only the best, most interesting, and most scientific will survive!”

Research Blogging IconLackes, R., Siepermann, M., & Frank, E. (2009). Social networks as an approach to the enhancement of collaboration among scientists International Journal of Web Based Communities, 5 (4) DOI: 10.1504/IJWBC.2009.028091

With thanks to rpg7twit for proofing and suggestions.

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