Scientists Socializing Online

online-networkingMy post on social media for scientists seems to have been received rather well, with a huge amount of traffic and positive responses from various big name commentators across the networks and blogosphere.

Several scientists have already commented about the post over on Nature Networks. Nature’s own Maxine Clarke describe it as “an amazingly useful post” but was worried that there seem to be so many scientific social media clones now available. It is, she says, “It is hard to see them all enduring.” But, that’s not surprising, natural selection and survival of the fittest will kick in. Indeed, it already is happening to a degree. Some of these communities are fast approaching critical mass.

For instance, Joerg Heber is also concerned that there lots of clones and that although the trend is towards increasing fragmentation of our online identities, he points out that now has 44000 users or thereabouts, whereas SocialMD, claims just 3100. “In the end,” he says, “there surely will be a concentration process for all those sites and only a few will survive. There likely will be a self-accumulating user base for the most successful ones, as the more users there are the more sense they make.”

But, compare those figures with the likes of LinkedIn (30 million users) and Facebook (120 million) and one has to wonder what is the purpose of creating a niche community external to such sites, when one might simply create a group within those and have access to potentially millions of like-minded individuals. Indeed, it never occurred to me to create a standalone science writers community online, I simple organised a Facebook science writers group, which now has almost 400 members. Obviously, there are fewer science writers than scientists.

Heber concedes that LinkedIn and Facebook may not be perfectly suited to scientists, but wonders whether the networking sites I listed in the original post really are specific to scientists? “Can you share lab books and wikis?” he asks.

Martin Fenner mentioned ScienceOnline’09, which I do hope to attend (looking for a sponsor, right now). This unconference, which will be for scientists and science communicators alike will, he says, have a session on social networks for scientists, moderated by my good friends Cameron Neylon of Science in the Open and Deepak Singh of bbgm.

Fenner followed up his original comment with the following, pointing out that AAAS Science Careers (Social Networking Grows Up) also had an article on this topic [which I hadn’t seen when I started writing the original Sciencebase post mid-October, db]. “They talk about a few social networking sites for scientists, but somehow fail to mention Nature Network,” Fenner says, “The article also mentions social networking sites set up by universities, including ResearchConnect (University of Manchester) and Small Worlds (University of Leicester). I didn’t know about this (unless you count the Facebook organisation by universities), but it looks like a good idea.”

Brian Willson of the Microsoft Chemical Team Blog gave my post a mention and noted that most of the sites are apparently aimed at academia rather than industry. He was curious to know whether web 2.0 and online communities would impact scientists in industry, a topic he has discussed previously on the MCTB.

44000 members is impressive (for SciLink), but have any of the social media sites for scientists really achieved critical mass yet? By which I mean do they have enough active members to become self-sustaining and useful to science and the communities they serve?

Way back in the 1990s, I used to work for two of the biggest proto-social media sites for scientists – ChemWeb and BioMedNet. The former had more members than the American Chemical Society (which at the time was around 140,000 I believe) and BMN even more at, if memory serves correctly, close to half a million, far more than Facebook and LinkedIn put together!).

Both CW and BMN were incredibly innovative (having been created by Vitek Tracz, chairman of the Science Navigation Group, and founder of the open access publisher BioMedCentral as well as the those two online communities). CW and BMN were running what were essentially blogs alongside their news and features output, providing preprint servers (in the case of Chemweb), member search tools, webinars and online conferences, and access to dozens of resources. Of course, they were never labelled web 2.0. This was, after all well before the .com bubble burst and the web was reborn.

Unfortunately, both CW and BMN were bought up by a giant shareholder-driven publisher (mentioning no names) and driven into the ground once the company realised it wasn’t making enough money from them. Which was a great shame, because they really could have made huge inroads into the very world we are discussing. lives on thanks to and is thriving in its new form as my regular readers will know from The Alchemist newsletter, but at the moment it is not quite the community-led system it once was.

In some sense, all these new social media sites for scientists are simply reinventing a well-worn wheel from a decade past and whether or not any of them will achieve the significance (at their height) of a Chemweb or a BioMedNet remains to be seen. Offline scientific networks/societies continue to grow as they have done since their earliest days in the nineteenth century and before (their online efforts don’t seem to have yet built the online communities that could exist)

Given that many of the online efforts are insignificantly small in terms of membership numbers compared to the now defunct BMN and compared to the offline presence of the bigger scientific societies, I seriously doubt that more than one or two will survive and thrive. But, we’ll have to wait and see. Perhaps it will take a killer application for one to emerge as a leader and become as essential to scientists as MySpace is to a teenybopper and Facebook is to students. That killer application, however, remains to be revealed.

16 thoughts on “Scientists Socializing Online”

  1. I was on the team of the original community, and the team come to that. This is more than a decade ago during the so-called web 1.0 days. At the time, we boasted 250k and 600k members respectively and repeat visitor rates and logins demonstrated that those two sites were enormously active, far more so than any supposed web 2.0 science community. Indeed, on sheer numbers and interactions ChemWeb was actually ahead of the American Chemical Society at one time. Such a shame the publishing giant that bought it off the original developers decided they weren’t getting a decent RoI, it would be web 3.0 by now if it had been maintained.

    Incidentally, still exists and at this very moment I am writing a news report for my Alchemist column on the site!

  2. @david And that’s why I actually visited the sites to determine what all of these “users” are doing, and the answer is, not a whole lot.

  3. @Brian As you have pointed out. Alexa, Compete and all those other external “analytics” systems generally are inaccurate. They rely on users having reached a particular site via a particular search route. In the case of Alexa this is via the Alexa toolbar/addons or via Amazon’s A9 system (of which Alexa is part, I believe). I always assumed they were very inaccurate for niche sites because who in science, for instance, actually runs the Alexa toolbar? Whereas in the wider world there will be a relatively large clutch of lay users who have been persuaded to install that toolbar. Only a site’s raw access logs can give a true picture of visitors rates. Even Google Analytics, AWStats, GetClicky are flawed…

  4. SciLink has 44,000 registered users but its Alexa rank is abysmal. I’m not saying Alexa, compete, or any of those are very accurate (they underestimate my page views per month 100-fold), but you’d think with 44,000 users they’d have a better rank than me…

    To dig a little deeper, those 44,000 users comprise a little under 100 groups on the site. The largest group has 11 members… Doing some really tough math, I can surmise that those 44,000 users aren’t very active.

    The last event entry was for sept. 2008…

    It seems to be the trend in this sector to vastly over-estimate usership. Researchgate does the same thing. I read their blog every once in a while (and twitter) and they talk about the Thousands of users a day they have on the site. If you look in their groups, there are two or three with recent posts, mostly by the same 5 people. What are the other 1,000+ users doing there? Using their “symantic search?” Right.

    I realize this post you made is almost 6 months old, but I had some free time today to catch up on SNfS stuff :P

  5. I think that’s exactly right Mitch. Look at twitter, dead simple compared other platforms like Pownce and Plurk and apparently by far the most active, effective, and well-known. It’s the message, not the media.

  6. It’s rather interesting reading through your comments section about the future of scientific social networking. I don’t like giving away my secret recipes for having productive and active communities, but the answer to growth and sustainability is the simple SEO Google slogan, “Content is King”. All the cool features, tweaks, and programs will get you nowhere if the major content generators start incorporating similar features. Advantage will always be towards content, prove me wrong at your own peril.


  7. David (Crotty), thank you for the link to Richard Gayle’s post. It’s an interesting read with some good data points. One hurdle to attracting more “business sector” scientists to the social networks is access. Access to the popular networking sites is typically not allowed from a work asset – either by policy or by technology making it hard to attract that group. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it typically isn’t an endorsed or approved scenario. Maybe the sites mentioned on these posts see things different. They may see more business sector participation because they’re not “general purpose” and they offer specific value in return.

    Anyway, really good discussion…I’m learning a lot.

  8. Thanks David [Crotty]! In short, our business model is “freemium”: At some point in the future, we’ll introduce premium features in addition to the free ones. Everything that’s free will always stay free, and more advanced functionality will be made available to power users for a (very reasonable) monthly subscription fee. These premium features could be, for example, more detailed research statistics or custom statistics queries; less/no restrictions on sharing, upload space for documents, or group management tools; more detailed/custom recommendations once our recommendation engine is up and running; more functionality in Mendeley Desktop etc.

    If you look at the more business- and work-oriented social networks like LinkedIn or Xing (in Europe), this model has worked very well for them. More to the point, we don’t see ourselves primarily as a social network, but rather as software with leverages the respective strenghts of the desktop and the web – and the “free version/premium version” model has obviously been around in the software industry for a long time.

    By the way, I’ll be in New York from around the 3rd December and then make my way up to Boston until the 10th December. Now, CSH is on the other side of the Long Island Sound, but if you’re in NY and would be interested, I’d love to meet up for a quick chat and a coffee?

  9. Congratulations Victor, glad to hear it and looking forward to following your site as it continues to grow. Curious though, could you share a summary of the business model for Mendeley with us? It seems a tough nut to crack, even the biggest social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook don’t seem to have much of a way of making money, other than trying to sell ads. Is there a better way to monetize a social networking site for scientists that most of us have missed? I know Sermo has an interesting business model, and SciLink appears to be doing well selling services outside of its social network. Any others?

  10. Joerg, I found myself nodding in agreement when I read your comment. You may not have heard of us (Mendeley), but I think you’re right in that networking alone will not be the killer feature for scientists.

    Our vision centers around useful standalone desktop software combined with web features – we’re always using the “ for research” analogy to describe it. Basically, you can use our free desktop software to manage & share research papers; data that flows across our servers is anonymously aggregated to create research statistics and (in the near future) reading recommendations and introductions to people with similar research interests.

    The point that made me respond to your comment, though, is the bit about VC investments. I hope this doesn’t come across as smug, but I’m happy to say that we’ll soon be announcing a substantial VC/Angel investment which will let us build something really exciting for the science community!

  11. The problem, of course, with securing funding for any such site is that no one seems to have come up with a viable business plan. It’s pretty tough these days to get investors to come in on a promise that one day we’ll figure out how to monetize it, but for now, there are no revenues to be had.

  12. Nice roundup of the discussion, David! Reading your comments, I think any such web 2.0 site for scientists will need to offer more than networking to succeed. It might be something storing lots of data and offering features such as open notebook science. But I’d say we have to wait at least for the end of the recession before any venture capitalist will put larger amount of money into such a project for the science community.

  13. David, I think you’re right. People do duplicate subscriptions and certainly many will lie fallow. At the several tens of thousands level, it’s unlikely to be duplication and mostly inactives though, although the proof would be in the actual network activity. As to academia/industry, spot on.

  14. I’m not sure how seriously I’d take any of those numbers on memberships at a given network. I know I’ve signed up at least 3 times at the Nature Network at different times, and all but one account are laying fallow. Ditto for most others, people come in to check it out, sign up, then never return. The more important question is active members.

    As for the comments on industry versus academia, I’ll point you to this post by Richard Gayle, who notes that academia accounts for only a small percentage of working scientists. Any networking project that ignores this is missing the boat on the majority of potential users:

Comments are closed.