Social and semantic networks bring a welcome change in science

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By Constanze Böttcher, Science Journalist

At the heart of every modern, knowledge-based economy, science is a powerful driver for change and growth. As a result, the global scientific community is growing too, pumping out research at an ever increasing rate. Some say that global scientific output doubles every nine years.

Ironically, scientists have struggled to keep up with the pace of change, especially in the digital world. Of course, the Internet lets researchers quickly and easily disseminate their findings. Web 2.0 has begun to change the way researchers work through online collaboration and communication. And online, open science publishing further facilitates access to scientific information.

But scientists frequently fail to keep up-to-date with the latest research in their field or to distinguish between relevant and less relevant work. “We do need technologies that make all of this more accessible and that can sort it for us,” says Kamila Markram, neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and co-founder and CEO of open access publisher Frontiers. In her view, the solution to the problem is tailor-made, exploiting social and semantic networking technologies to meet scientists’ specific needs.

The scientist and the social web

According to social media experts, scientists can greatly benefit from social networking technologies. General networks offer large audiences for public outreach while specialist and professional platforms help researchers connect with peers. Social media also increase researchers’ professional visibility.

Today, social media technology has pervaded people’s private and professional lives. As of the first quarter of 2015, 1.44 billion people worldwide actively used Facebook every month. The business network LinkedIn had 364 million members.

Companies embrace social media for marketing, promotion and recruitment. But scientists are only just getting up to speed. In a survey of 3,748 US-based members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), only 27% of respondents said they use social media such as Facebook or Twitter to talk about or follow science.

The activity of researchers on specialist science platforms is not much better, it would seem. According to a survey conducted by Nature in 2014, most researchers are at least aware of these specialist sites. The ResearchGate network has gathered more than 7 million scientists since its inception in 2008. More than 22 million users are registered with academia.edu.

Despite the features these networks offer, the majority of respondents to the AAAS survey said they mainly stay up-to-date by reading journal articles and attending conferences, followed by e-mail alerts and the like. Only 12% said they follow tweets or other posts on social media by experts in their field.

Scientists have so much to gain by engaging in specialized social networks. They are ideal platforms for promoting their work, sharing research articles, marketing events and highlighting job opportunities. Academics may also benefit by establishing an online identity, regardless of their institutional affiliation. Indeed, industry specific platforms allows professionals to position themselves as thought leaders in their community, agrees Alejandro Reyes, a social media expert based in Seattle, US. “You are more likely to become an industry leader in an industry specific niche versus networks that are already saturated with thought leaders,” he remarks.

Stay in the loop

Certainly in Markram’s view, the traditional ways of gaining reputation have their limits in the digital age. Frontiers has therefore created its own social network for scientists, called Loop. The network, which was relaunched at the beginning of 2015, has already gathered some 200,000 elite scientists.

Loop allows researchers to create and manage an online profile that is directly linked to their publications in Frontiers journals and, currently, journals of the Nature Publishing group. Other institutions and publishers are to follow. “It is an open network. Anybody can integrate this profile,” Markram explains. “The profile is created more or less automatically. The entire platform is designed in a way that algorithms and specific software distribute [your] articles to people that need to read them.”

One expert agrees that the dissemination of publications is a key attraction for scientists. “The main benefit scientists perceive from social networking platforms is sharing research publications,” explains Sonja Utz, Professor for Communication via Social Media at the University of Tübingen, in Germany. She believes that using networking technologies to make research discoverable, irrespective of publication and organizational boundaries, is an ambitious aim but one with great promise. She holds that this high-level functionality is needed to attract scientists and compete with existing specialist and generic platforms.

But Loop is more than just another networking site, as it offers additional features. “We have designed Loop in a way that it increases researchers’ impact metrics. It increases the readership for their articles and visibility for their profiles,” Markram says. Other features such as collaborative tools will be implemented further down the line.

Indeed, finding alternative metrics based on social web tools to evaluate scholarly impact is another driver for social networking. ResearchGate, for example, offers what they call the “RG score” as an alternative for measuring scientific reputation. Studies by Utz and her colleagues found that the RG score strongly correlates with traditional reputation measures.

Indispensable Tool

For Michael Nentwich, Director of the Institute of Technology Assessment in Vienna, Austria, it is clear that social networking platforms for scientists will eventually become indispensable, although their development may look quite different between scientific disciplines. He argues that beyond publication sharing and building online reputation, social networks could play a major role in helping scientists to share “tacit knowledge” such as pieces of software or experience of particular methods.

Nentwich also holds that the culture of science is beginning to shift as sharing knowledge is becoming increasingly important. In his view, this is partly because science is gradually moving out into the public domain. What is more, science is also becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, Utz points out. “You have to step out of your institution and start networking,” she says.

This is exactly what motivates Markram and colleagues. “A lot of people have a strong need to showcase their work,” she says. “Scientists need to be enabled by social networking technologies. Our goal is to use these technologies to maximize discoverability for researchers and readership for their articles.”

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