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What Is A Scientific Social Network? 6 Thriving and Inspiring Examples

A recent article from the Huffington Post states that social networks for scientists won’t work because there is no incentive from a career perspective. The piece focuses on ResearchGate and takes a stab at the Economist’s article about the community. Here at Comprendia, we’ve never advocated that Facebook should be recreated for scientists, as there are 700,000+ life science graduates in the US already using the application,* and they are likely already connected there to lab mates and colleagues. Rather, we should broaden our idea of the ‘social network’ to include any online community of scientists, not just those which are similar to Facebook. The value of social networks for scientists lies in faster access to information relevant to their research and the communities that are made more available by new tools. Here are 6 successful examples which can be used to understand scientific social communities.

  1. Facebook Pages & LinkedIn Groups. Scientists have used mailing lists and forums for years. Facebook pages and LinkedIn groups are a ’2.0′ version of them with the benefits of centralization and easier access to participants. Life science companies, most notably Life Technologies, have fostered social networks in the form of Facebook pages centered on a topic. We discussed successful life science Facebook pages in the past, and encourage you to visit the Molecular Probes page and NEB’s Engaging Epigenetics Experts page (our client) to see vibrant networks on Facebook centered around a scientific topic. Life Technologies in itself has created a social network of 100K life scientists centered around about 10 product and brand Facebook pages. Additionally, many thriving life science and biotech LinkedIn groups exist, see our list on our partner San Diego Biotechnology Network site. Fantastic LinkedIn groups surrounding topics such as protein and antibody purification exist, but their discussions are closed to those that aren’t in the group (which we hope will change). You can check out the active discussions in this Medicinal Chemistry and Drug Discovery group (which was started by a company).
  2. Twitter Hashtags. Scientists use Twitter to share scientific blog posts and news, to find friends and colleagues around a topic or event, and sometimes to vent about their situation. Hashtags, which are text identifiers for status updates on a topic, allow a Twitter social network to form around it, something we’ve covered in depth. Some that are ongoing are #iamscience, #phdchat, and #icanhazpdf, and you can see what conversations they follow by using our guide. Twitter status updates tagged with #scio12, the ScienceOnline2012 conference in January resulted from a ‘community’ of almost 4,500 Twitterers (10 times the attendance) who Tweeted more than 38,000 updates about the conference. Hashtag ‘communities’ can also communicate as a group to the public and affect change (see #5 below).
  3. ScienceOnline. Speaking of which. The main conference takes place in January in North Carolina, and is growing by leaps and bounds. Another ScienceOnline event takes place in London in the fall each year, there are related events in New York monthly, and events are planned for the bay area and Seattle/Vancouver as well (Lou Woodley from Nature, personal communication). The IRL (in real life) events are full of hundreds of enthusiastic science communicators who advance the field exponentially, and the conversation takes place year round on Twitter.
  4. True Social Networks. As we wrote about a year ago, some of the bona fide social networks have a great following. I’m not sure why Mark Drapeau (the author of the Huffington post article ) is not impressed by ResearchGate’s 1.4 million users, as we know that scientists don’t have time for frivolous endeavors, especially when they’re under the watchful eye of their Principal Investigator. As we noted in our post a year ago, there has to be a value for them to participate, and the successful ones center around research publications. BiomedExperts, CiteULike, ResearchBlogging, and ResearchGate had the highest traffic in our quick study, and they all rely heavily on publications. I like to say that PubMed was the first social network for scientists. Back in ‘my day,’ I learned about collaborators through PubMed, and I got paper copies of their publications when I had time for a trip to the library (yes, I’m old). I usually had to wait for a conference to talk at length with fellow scientists, although we did have email. Today, the conversation can take place all year long, with new connections being made with those who haven’t published in peer reviewed journals yet. These social networks, with access to information and advice from colleagues much more quickly, will have a definite impact on scientists’ careers, contrary to the claims in the Huffington Post article.
  5. Publication Sharing/Open Access. Related to the last point is a subject that requires its own mention as it transverses from proper social networks to desktop applications, Twitter, and even a movement to make research publications more accessible. Mendeley is the rock star of the publication sharing/open access genre, boasting 1.77 million users who are sharing 169 million publications. When we speak with life scientists at conferences or client visits, we often hear about the application even from those who are not strong believers in social media. Additionally, these applications have whetted scientists’ appetites for more open access to publications. This thirst for more accessible knowledge was evidenced by the big backlash to the Research Works Act, which limited access to research findings and was brought down by a scientific social network distributed on Twitter (hashtag #RWA) and the blogosphere.
  6. Blogs. Colleague William Gunn (at Mendeley) said in a presentation we made together in San Diego a few years ago “blogs were one of the first forms of social media for scientists.” Sometimes these social networks are a bit harder to get a comprehensive understanding of as an outsider, but check out the comments for popular blogs such as ‘In The Pipeline‘ where you’ll see that even drug discovery chemists, stalwarts of hard core life science, participate in blogging communities. A thriving ecosystem of science blogs is visualized in this Google document created by Brian Reid and maintained by the community. Blog aggregators such as ResearchBlogging or ScienceSeeker feature hundreds of blogs and likely a comparable number of communities focused around individual research topics.

The scientist that is described in the Huffington Post article is preoccupied only with the end result of publications, not improving the path towards them. When I was a bench scientist in the 90′s, my limited access to information and colleagues was imposed upon me by the era. I can see that I would have grown into my current career choice much more quickly if given greater access to them. At conferences and networking events today, we are seeing a transition, albeit slowly, to a new breed of scientists who understand the importance of scientific networks. We need to adjust our definition of scientific social networks to understand the next steps towards helping scientists use them to thrive.

What areas do you think the organizations named, or communities themselves should focus on to take scientific social networks to the next level?

*According to the Facebook advertising application.

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4 Comments
  1. My main blog/RSS reader was the former bloglines, which allowed integration many types of feeds. I have found with the disintegration of bloglines (reborn under NetVibes but never quite the same), I do not follow old style blogs the same way.

    I can follow “blogs” as tumbler or other feeds that get pushed into Twitter, but it isn’t the same and I am less likely to click through to read the whole post. If there was a “science only” tumbler, that might be of interest to me.

  2. A lot of people are using aggregators (scienceblogging.org, scienceseeker.org and researchblogging.org) as their main method for finding science blogs – those three sites are in themselves communities.

    It appears that some change in Twitter API scrambled sciencepond.com so it does not serve as aggregator of science tweets, but it still collects a lot of good science twitterers.

  3. Thanks for those links, Mary. I hadn’t read those stories yet :) I think the analysis of the huffpo story is dead on. I also love how the comments section is a whos-who of science social network leaders spamming the story with links…

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