Where will the innovation in social networking for scientists come from?

Posted by Rory on January 13th, 2011 @ 11:17 am

In the last post I reviewed social networking sites specifically aimed at scientists, and in the post before that I looked at how scientists are using general purpose social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.  In this post I’d like to look ahead and ask, where is the innovation in social networking for scientists likely to come from: general purpose sites, sites aimed specifically at scientists, or new services which don’t yet exist?

Existing social networking sites for scientists

As I noted in the last post, no significant new social networking sites for scientists have been established since the initial rush in 2008, and the existing sites have their hands full trying to satisfy their users and build out existing features.  Based on the incremental changes they have been introducing to their sites, and the conversations that they are involved in — on blogs, in Twitter, in the press — there are no indications that any of the existing providers are planning major innovations.

Existing general purpose social networking sites

More innovation is coming from existing general purpose social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter than from sites specifically aimed at scientists.  Some of this innovation is relevant to scientists and some is not.  The recent introduction of Facebook’s new messaging system is an example of innovation which is not relevant to scientists, because Facebook is not heavily used for scientific discussions.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, is extensively used by some scientists — an admittedly small group compared to all the scientists out there —  to discuss their work, trends in their fields, and ‘real time’ things like what is happening at a conference they are attending.  A major question is whether this small group are early adopters who are pointing to the way scientific communication will be carried out in future, or, as argued in this post, an unrepresentative group of techies, open science proponents and bloggers who will always be outside the mainstream.  Only time will tell, but a recent study, If you build it, will they come?  How researchers perceive and use web 2.0, concluded that an increasing percentage of scientists(13% of those surveyed) are adopting web 2.0 services  (to be clear, this was a general conclusion not related to Twitter in particular) as a regular part of their working lives, and provided evidence of varying kinds that web 2.0 tools are moving into the mainstream.  This tends support to the view that innovations in ‘social’ applications like Twitter that are used by large numbers of scientists will be put to use in scientific communication as ways of communicating continue to evolve.

New general purpose social networking sites

The rapid uptake of scientists asking and answering questions relating to science, including detailed and technical scientific questions, on Quora, is an example of a new general purpose social networking site quickly finding a role in scientific communication, notwithstanding the plethora of other forums which scientists have already been using to ask and answer questions, and the ability to do that on specialized scientific networking sites like ResearchGATE.  Since not many general purpose social networking sites find an ongoing role, and of those not many will be relevant to scientific communication, it’s not likely that Quora’s example will be repeated regularly, but it is an indication that general innovations in social media can be relevant to scientists and that scientists can be among the early adopters of these innovations.

New science-specific social networking sites

Since no significant scientific social networking sites have been established since the first generation sites came on the scene in 2008, it is hard to say with any certainty what kind of innovation is likely to come from the next generation, when it does arrive.  But given the relentless waves of innovation occurring in the way research is being undertaken and ‘packaged’  it is would be highly surprising if some of these did not find their way into a second generation of social networking sites aimed at scientists.  This month two important gatherings, Science Online 2011 and Beyond the PDF, will be hosting discussions about a number of innovations which are already taking place or emerging.  These gatherings are fertile ground for pointers to the kinds of capabilities scientists will be looking for in social networking sites.

A review of social networking sites for scientists: what’s out there and what is still needed

Posted by Rory on January 5th, 2011 @ 10:33 am

Back in 2007 – 2008 a spate of social networking sites for scientists were established. In late 2008 David Bradley found about 20, which he discussed in his post on Social Media for Scientists.    Here is David’s list (with his comments):

Although other social networking sites oriented to scientists have appeared in the past two years, e.g. Bitsesize Bio, it’s interesting to note that the initial rush has petered out, and to speculate about why this is so.

Lack of demand?

Is the dearth of new social networking applications for scientists due to lack of demand?  Probably not.  A number of the ones on the list, including Mendeley, Academia.edu and ResearchGATE (which is not on the list), have each attracted hundreds of thousands of people to sign up, and Mendeley and ResearchGATE have both attracted substantial investments from venture capitalists, demonstrating external belief in the existence of a large market.

Need for time to consolidate?

A more likely reason for the lack of new entries into the market is that users of the social networks  need time get used to the relatively new forums for communication the networks offer, and are focussing on one or possibly two existing networks as the networks gradually improve their offering and add new features.

Limited needs?

Another possible explanation for the lack of new offerings is that scientists’ needs for collaboration and communication are limited to what the current social networks offer:   sharing publications, finding out what others in their field are doing, and seeking answers to research questions. If that’s true then there is limited scope for additional innovation, in which case the market may already have consolidated around the existing providers.

Is there scope for additional innovation? Yes!

A quick glance at Cameron Neylon’s late 2009 post, What should social software for science look like?, however, would seem to indicate that there is still plenty of scope for innovation!  Cameron lists ten things that social software for scientists should be able to do:

  1. SS4S will promote engagement with online scientific objects and through this encourage and provide paths to those with enthusiasm but insufficient expertise to gain sufficient expertise to contribute effectively (see e.g. Galaxy Zoo). This includes but is certainly not limited to collaborations between professional scientists. These are merely a special case of the general.
  2. SS4S will measure and reward positive contributions, including constructive criticism and disagreement (Stack overflow vs YouTube comments). Ideally such measures will value quality of contribution rather than opinion, allowing disagreement to be both supported when required and resolved when appropriate.
  3. SS4S will provide single click through access to available online scientific objects and make it easy to bring references to those objects into the user’s personal space or stream (see e.g. Friendfeed “Like” button)
  4. SS4S should provide zero effort upload paths to make scientific objects available online while simultaneously assuring users that this upload and the objects are always under their control. This will mean in many cases that what is being pushed to the SS4S system is a reference not the object itself, but will sometimes be the object to provide ease of use. The distinction will ideally be invisible to the user in practice barring some initial setup (see e.g. use of Posterous as a marshalling yard).
  5. SS4S will make it easy for users to connect with other users and build networks based on a shared interest in specific research objects (Friendfeed again).
  6. SS4S will help the user exploit that network to collaboratively filter objects of interest to them and of importance to their work. These objects might be results, datasets, ideas, or people.
  7. SS4S will integrate with the user’s existing tools and workflow and enable them to gradually adopt more effective or efficient tools without requiring any severe breaks (see Mendeley/Citeulike/Zotero/Papers and DropBox)
  8. SS4S will work reliably and stably with high performance and low latency.
  9. SS4S will come to where the researcher is working both with respect to new software and also unusual locations and situations requiring mobile, location sensitive, and overlay technologies (Layar, Greasemonkey, voice/gesture recognition – the latter largely prompted by a conversation I had with Peter Murray-Rust some months ago).
  10. SS4S will be trusted and reliable with a strong community belief in its long term stability. No single organization holds or probably even can hold this trust so solutions will almost certainly need to be federated, open source, and supported by an active development community.

By my reckoning the existing providers have made a good start on 1,2,5,6, and 8, but not 1, 3, 4, 7 and 9.  1, 3, 4, 7 and 9 all involve integration with data which is not internally generated from the social network but which scientists access or generate independent of the application.  Thus far there is not much evidence that the existing social networks are taking steps to rectify this limitation, which is understandable because (a) they have limited resources, (b) there is always immediate  pressure from users to improve existing features and add new features, and (c) it’s usually more difficult to integrate with external sources of data and/or applications than to extend the capability of your own application.

But the fact remains that, taking Cameron’s list as a benchmark, social networks for scientists are far from a finished product.  Cameron’s list, moreover, is in my view not exhaustive.   A true social network for scientists should give them the capability to share their research data.  I have argued previously that this would require:

  1. An individual, user-centric focus
  2. The ability for individual users to control with whom they share data, and when
  3. The ability to create records with structure so that experimental data can be recorded
  4. The ability to create links between records
  5. An audit trail of changes made to records
  6. A messaging capability

The existing social networks have 1 (a user centric focus) and some have 6 (a messaging capability), but none have 2 – 5, i.e. support for managing research data.

Where will the innovation come from?

So there is lots of scope for additional innovation.  In next week’s post I’m going to discuss where the innovation is likely to come from — existing social networks for scientists, general social media sites like Twitter and Quora, and/or new applications.

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Social networking sites — threat or boon to science?

Posted by Rory on December 16th, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

Social networking sites and science

Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently argued, in Long Live the Web:  A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, that social-networking sites pose a two-fold danger to the web. First,

“Social networking sites assemble. . . bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not.”

A second danger “is that one social-networking site . . . gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation.”

In the last post I took issue with Sir Tim and argued that, on balance, social networking sites add rather than subtract to the flow of information, and stimulate rather than suppress innovation.   In this post I’ll look at the impacts social networking sites are having on science.  I’ll look focus on two large generic social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter.  In a future post I’ll look at social networking sites aimed specifically at scientists.


Scientists, like everyone else, use Facebook, but generally they don’t use it in relation to their research.  Rather, like most people, scientists use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends.   As I have argued previously, the serious problems with privacy — or rather lack thereof — in Facebook put scientists off from using it for research.  An even more fundamental problem is the lack of support in Facebook for adding structure to data, which makes it unsuitable for recording experimental data.


In contrast to Facebook, Twitter is used extensively by scientists to discuss issues related to scientific issues.   Importantly, this discussion usually does not reach down to the level of active research projects that individuals or labs are carrying out. Rather discussion centers around things like research techniques and trends, approaches, technology, publications and publishing, and the research process. Twitter is not viewed as a good place for discussing active research because of concerns about confidentiality held by the majority of scientists, who are not open science advocates, and limitations on the nature of the content that can be included, which are of course far more severe than even in the case of Facebook.

Science and social networking sites

So that’s how scientists are using, and not using, Facebook and Twitter in relation to their research.  Facebook is largely irrelevant as an environment or space for conducting scientific research and scientific discussion.  I would argue, however, that Facebook is indirectly playing an important role, (a) by shaping the way  younger scientists think about how to communicate, which in turn will impact on the way they carry out science as new collaboration and communication tools become available, and (b) in stimulating scientists to think about what these tools might look like, as Cameron Neylon did in an interesting post called, What should social software for science look like?.

Twitter is already an important  environment for conversations about science, so it is more than just a model or a stimulator of new ideas.  Twitter is already making a positive contribution to science in that (a) it facilitates conversations between people who probably would not have been in contact or found each other were it not for Twitter, (b) the conversations it stimulates probably would not have taken place without the Twitter platform, and (c) the conversations are useful adjuncts to other forms of scientific communication, e.g. those which take place in academic journals and blogs.  Like Facebook, Twitter is also a model and a stimulator of new ideas about ways of communicating that will over time  find their way into specialized resources developed specifically  for scientists.  An example is the powerful stimulus that Twitter provides to the spontaneous formation and rapid development of micro communities of interest.  This has led to the growth of these communities around specific areas of scientific interest on Twitter, and there is no reason to suppose the same thing will not happen on social networking tools developed specifically for scientists.

Overall:  thumbs up for social networking sites

So the story so far is pretty positive.  Twitter is already making a significant contribution to communication between scientists, and Facebook is stimulating lots of thought about how its  new communication model can be adapted and tailored to science.

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