Online Science

How can science benefit from online social media?

My good friend, Jean-Claude Bradley of Drexel University, a chemist and host of the UsefulChem Blogspot blog, who is very keen on the use of information technology and the notion of the open notebook was first to respond to my question when I asked a variety of contacts for their opinions: “For me the answer is clear: it is a great way to find new collaborators whom I would otherwise not have met.” I’d have to agree, I’ve known JCB for quite some time now, although we’ve never even shaken hands. He was one of the early interviewees for my Reactive Profiles column. We didn’t meet virtually through online media, however, but through a mutual friend Tony Williams, then of ACD/Labs and now increasingly well known as ChemSpiderman.

Erik Mols, a Lecturer in Bioinformatics at Leiden University of Applied Science, The Netherlands, echoed JCB’s remark: “It gives me the opportunity to discuss with people I never would have met,” he said, and added that, “It creates possibilities for my students to do their internship abroad.”

Another good friend, Egon Willighagen, who is a post-doc at Wageningen University & Research Center, provided a quite detailed answer: “It provides one with the means to mine the overwhelming amount of information,” he says, “For example, searching for some scientific piece of software is more targeted when I search amongst bookmarks of fellow bio/chemoinformaticians than if I were to search Google.” He points out that the Web 2.0 services are most useful when one’s online friends have labelled or tagged particular tools, or better still commented or rated them, as can be done with, for instance. This concept holds just as true for publications, courses, molecules, and other content.

Willighagen points out that conventional search engines do fill an important gap (WoS, Google, etc), “But, they lack the ability in itself to link this with expert knowledge,” he says, “This is particularly why Google, I think, is offering all sorts of services: to find a user profile from a mining point of view. FOAF, social bookmarking, etc, makes such profiles more explicit, allowing more targeted search results.”

Personal contact Joerg Kurt Wegner, a scientist at Tibotec (Johnson & Johnson), suggested that my original question might be couched in slightly different terms: “The question is rather why ‘social science’ is different to ‘editorial science’?”

He suggests that one of the best visualizations for this difference is Alexa’s web ranking statistic comparing Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wikipedia is a social information gathering process and Britannica is an editorial process. The graph shows that Wikipedia increased its access and popularity dramatically compared to Britannica. “Based on this, I would conclude that the benefit (not only the plain access) is higher for the social service,” Wegner says. He then emphasises that there is indeed a shared problem among scientists, that of information overload.

“Honestly, I cannot see how any editorial process can cope with this problem,” says Wegner. Social software in contrast might be able to tackle this challenge. “Social software is driven by small dedicated user groups (oligarchies),” he explains, “So, compared to an editorial process the number of ‘real’ contributors might actually not be higher. However, the enrichment of diverse and really interested people might be better. If you think that you need for science the smartest set of diverse people, then ‘social software’ cannot be a bad choice, right?”

Wegner suggests that anyone who does not believe this to be the case should carry out a search for their collaborative partners using conventional information sources. The likely result once again will be information overload. More information but no increase in our reading capacity. “Information overload solutions and social software looks like a matching relationship to me,” he adds. The final obstacle is for social software, web 2.0, online networking, social media, whatever you want to call it, to be accepted by the majority and to mature. “Has social software reached a mature status in Gartner’s hype cycle,” asks Wegner, “that means that even conservative people will realize that it is highly recommended to adopt this technology. The question here is also not if science benefits from social media, but how steep the benefit curve is. The longer you wait, the flatter the benefit curve.”

Deepak Singh of the business|bytes|genes|molecules blog adds that, “Historically communication among scientists was limited, e.g. you could get together with your peers from around the world at a conference, or through newsgroups. That’s where collaborations were born, but the scale was limited out of necessity.” Things have changed significantly. “Today, with resources like open wet-ware, etc, and more avenues for online conversation, including blogs and wikis collaborations become a lot easier and feasible.”

In addition, Singh suggests that science is no longer restricted to peer-reviewed publications as the only means of formal communication within the scientific community. “You could publish a paper and blog about the back story, or like some others, e.g. Jean-Claude Bradley, you could practice Open Notebook Science.” He points out that the likes of videos and podcasts only add to the options now available for communicating science.

Nature NetworkHowever, there is another thread to the idea of social media benefiting science and that is that it could also benefit the public with respect to science. “For some reason,” says Singh, “science ended up becoming this silo and preserve of the experts and we ended up with a chasm between experts and others.” Social media could close this gap and make it easier to create virtual communities of people who have common interests, like to share their knowledge, are just curious about things, or are lobbyists and others. “One area where I see tremendous opportunity is education,” Singh adds, “whether through screencasting, or podcasts, or just video lectures and wiki-based learning, that’s probably the one area where I am most hopeful.”

Find David Bradley on Nature Network here and on Nanopaprika nano science network here.

15 thoughts on “Online Science”

  1. Is this a homework question Michele? I’m not sure I understand it. Perhaps you should think about it the other way. Energy cannot be destroyed, only converted from one form into another, so rather than ask how energy is conserved, ask how could it not be conserved during a transformation.

    Regarding the car, a small proportion of the fuel itself is used to drive engine components (other than the obvious pistons and crank) and even to charge the battery, which is why running the air-conditioning, for instance, reduces your driving fuel efficiency overall.

  2. I am a full-time researcher from NZ, working in Japan, at a museum with many international research visitors. This multilingual environment made me very aware of:

    (1) the difficulties that non-English based researchers face when using English, and

    (2) the difficulties that English mono-linguals face when trying to access or publish research in other important research languages, such as Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, French, and so on.

    Hence my website: The Research Cooperative –

    More on this on SciScoop

    Please have a look, join if you want, and please tell any friends and colleagues about this site if you think they might find it useful.

    Thanks, Peter

  3. Yes, good point Martin. Alexa has finally recognised that it’s old system based on its spying toolbar is not the greatest way to rank websites and has add several new traffic-validated sources to its system. Good news for Sciencebase, which jumped back into the Top 100,000 websites just this week.


  4. I think a lot of people will find this post useful to understand the potential role of social software in science. Concerning openness, Rajarshi points out that he likes to keep some ideas private until he can flesh them out. That is understandable and is not really a problem for Open Science. Where we run into problems with people not being open is making claims about their research without fully backing them up with access to the raw data. And here social software is a golden opportunity because we can post these data sets freely without trying to convince publishers to change their format or policies.

  5. I asked my users of SciLink to tell me what web 2.0 and social media have helped them to do. I received many responses. The vast majority have discovered that the social web allows them to connect to a vibrant global community enabling them to share experiences, pre-publication information and ideas over the web. This could not have happened if it were not for the social web sites like ours.

    Try it out at SciLink

    -Brian Gilman

    SciLink Inc.

  6. I think social media will be a great asset in drawing more people to the field of science, too. In the past, a lot of scientific topics seemed isolated to the scientific and academic communities. Having forums, social bookmarking sites, chatrooms, and things like that should make it easier to get interested, easier to get help, and easier to stay interested over time.

    I don’t know how it will work out for current working scientists, but I can say with some certainty that I would have definitely been more interested in the field had today’s online references and resources been available when I was in college.

  7. At the same time I wonder how much of it is hype? … …But, will it end up as a lot of noise through which I’ll have to wade to reach the signal? How much faith should I put in some posting by someone I don’t know?

    One of the benefits of web 2.0 tools / social networks, is that you need not worry about a posting by someone you don’t know. The web acts as an amplifier for reputation. Individuals who comment on a blog, for instance, have the option of linking their name back their website/blog/etc. The content from this associated link can, and at least in the technology world, provides reputation. It tells me who you are, what you are doing, and specifically what credentials you have.

    If you don’t want to click to another site, then there are free commenting systems such as “IntenseDebate” and “Disqus” that have reputation management systems built in, to the point where it will display your photo alongside each comment you leave (provided you upload one of course), provide a score of your comments given by the participating community, and link to any online profiles (linkedin, facebook, flickr,etc) you want.

    Sure this assumes that one willingly provides & links to such information – but from my experiences in the startup/technology world, everyone does. It’s brought greater transparency to the work being done and through IM (Skype, AIM, GTalk,etc) greatly facilitated discussions with individuals within my field who are internationally based. I didn’t know our author David Bradley 12 months ago, but his blog, which features his profile, and several conversations through Skype have told me everything I need to know.

  8. Via email

    The Web remains vastly underutilized in science. There is no equivalent to eBay or Amazon for matching funding agencies (buyers) with scientists (sellers). There is not a good equivalent to Wikipedia for collaboratively refining hypotheses into optimal research designs with the best chance of succeeding.

    The biggest reason these social tools do not exist in the life sciences is the culture of secretive competition – credit goes to those who hoard their imperfect ideas/plans until the point they are published. With a cultural shift that acknowledges ideas in all media (especially Web2.0!), more scientists would be willing to share their ideas openly and participate in collaborative exchanges.

    Thanks, Noam Harel

  9. Via email

    Social networking certainly benefits science – at least the social aspects of science. I specifically benefit from collaborations and news/reviews/comments by people on their own blogs and so on.

    At the same time I wonder how much of it is hype? I think a number of these social tools have great benefits – wiki’s for collaborative projects is one example. From a technical point of view, Web2.0 (ranging from wiki’s to version control, collaborative doc editing etc) are a huge step forward. But, will it end up as a lot of noise through which I’ll have to wade to reach the signal? How much faith should I put in some posting by someone I don’t know?

    Right now, this is certainly not the case. But I think that’s because it’s mainly a small community, where everybody knows everybody. As a result the signal to noise ratio is very high. Maybe it’ll stay this way. I’ll wait and see

    One aspect, that I saw someone had commented on already, was the issue of secrecy. I must admit that I don’t support the idea of full opennes for everything. Part of this is due to the fact that I am a junior academic trying ot get a foot in the door. But at the same time, from a philosphical point of view: is it so bad that I keep some ideas until I can flesh them out and get a nice result? Certainly, opening up my idea to the whole world, would benefit both myself as well as others. But, personally, I get a lot of pleasure from mulling over a problem, trying to attack it in different ways. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everything – I personally do some work that is all out in the open.

    Another aspect related to secrecy and credit – I can see that a public posting is ‘prior art’ and essentially lets you plant a flag. But do we know anything about the longevitiy of these web resources? Are these truly permanent?

    Rajarshi Guha
    Visiting Asst. Professor at Indiana University

  10. Excellent post David. Two years ago, Tom and I started (no longer a tool for the scientific community), for some of the very reasons mentioned in this post. First and foremost, we wanted to created an online community through which researchers could extended their typical conference conversations, and through which new, multi-disciplinary collaborations could be born. OpenWetWare, in that respect, is a tremendous resource, and a job well done by the founding team from MIT.

    The final obstacle is for social software, web 2.0, online networking, social media, whatever you want to call it, to be accepted by the majority and to mature.

    One of the major forces we encountered during our experimentation with the medium was skepticism and general lack of interest. While there was some excitement among the communities newest members (graduate students), obtaining support from more established researchers was difficult to come by. That however, was two years ago, and a good deal has changed. Your blog, and the blog of your peers within the sector is a clear indication of an accelerating trend to adopt web 2.0 and participatory media type tools. It is very encouraging!

    From a scientific perspective, the opportunities born from the medium are simply tremendous. We hope they lead to a faster clarification of ideas and experimentation. From a business perspective, I’m not sure it makes sense just yet. Business models for the scientific community are either subscription based, i.e. Science Magazine, advertising based, or a combination of both. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) business model on author fees are interesting and hopefully sustainable. Until greater participation on these tools by the scientific community occur, the advertising dollars allocated to conferences and journals (online journals) are unlikely to shift in a meaningful way.

    Overall, web 2.0 type tools can be of great benefit. The trick is just adoption and participation. They are the toughest nut to crack for any web based endeavor. I’m confident however that science will get there, slower than the consumer market, but sure enough.

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