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Sociable Scientists

I’ve been a bit slow noticing this article, but two weeks ago PLoS Biology published a piece on its community page entitled “Leveraging the Knowledge of Our Peers: Online Communities Hold the Promise to Enhance Scientific Research” from Thomas Sharpton and Arpan Jhaveri.

These two enterprising individuals have set up a website called SIPHS as an attempt to create in science the equivalent of social networking sites such as facebook or openBC.

It seems to me that the advantages of social networking to scientists are obvious; science is a collaborative endeavour which proceeds much faster when knowledge is shared; especially mundane knowledge like how to get a particular assay to work. Yet the fact remains that there is no prominent social networking site on the web for scientists. Why is that?

Sharpton and Jhaveri put it like this “The most fundamental limitation is […] the level of community participation[…], for some reason or another, scientists have been reluctant to join and participate in virtual communities. We believe this problem is a result of the unfamiliarity and relative novelty of community-based tools in the scientific domain, and are hopeful that by exposing information regarding their existence, researchers will be more willing to adopt them into their research repertories.”

I’m not convinced by that argument. I think that the reason that sites like SIPHS could have difficulties building a community is because scientists are already organised into communities based around learned societies and journals. Scientists have no reluctance to adopt the tools of social networking sites, but they are reluctant to join yet another community.

If web-based social networking is to become established in science it needs to be implemented around already existing scientific networks.

Discussion
  1. As it is said in the paper, connotea (www.connotea.org) can also be used as a networking tool for the scientific community: anyone can create a group (e.g. http://www.connotea.org/wiki/Group:semweb-lifesci) , write a resume (e.g. http://www.connotea.org/wiki/User:lindenb). The power of such service is that you can easily find people sharing the same scientific interests, papers you didn’t know. See also http://www.citeulike.org.

    Recently Nature has launched a beta version of a new social networking site named “Nature Network Boston” (http://network.nature.com/boston). But at this time it is limited to one town (?!) and it seems that there is not much activty.

    As a regular user of http://www.linkedin.com, I share your opinion about those social networks and science: “scientists are already organised into communities” as it is difficult to convince scientists to join such network. But social networks could be a usefull tool to keep contact with the former members of a lab, to find a postdoc, to find scientific skills (“Hey, I found there is a new postdoc working on microarray in your previous laboratory, could you introduce me ?”), etc…

    Pierre

  2. I would say I am somewhat passionate about the possibilities of increasing the scientific output and therefore solve more problems by embracing web technologies. Like you mention above, knowledge builds knowledge when shared and web technologies hold this promise of facilitating scientific collaboration and free exchange of ideas. Because of this I usually bother my colleagues quite a lot :), trying to convince them to participate more. From several conversation I come to the conclusion that it is more a matter of lack of time. In particular people who work at the bench all day mostly use the computer for email, reading papers, preparing protocols and manuscripts and to use some programs that are useful for their work. Some people use the computer to read the news but that is all. Most people don’t have time nor will to explore around the web at the end of a hard day of work. I think this is also why there is a bias for bloggers covering evolution and bio.comp subjects. If you spend a lot of time on the computer then it is more likely that you start exploring and end up participating. I think that a lot of people are not even aware of the extent of the scientific conversations going on using blogs so it is not hard to see why so few people participate in online social networks.
    In this respect I think you are right that journals have a lot of power in promoting some change, but more because it will raise awareness. For PLoS ONE this will be crucial because I think this will be the hardest part to achieve, to surround the journal with a large and active community.

  3. Chris,
    Although I think that existing scientific networks will be important in getting scientists involved, decentralized processes will also contribute significantly. Scientists tend to publish where they find information. If they find a protocol doing exactly what they are looking for on a blog or wiki, they’ll use it. And I know that they are looking for this information on Google, based on the search terms (e.g. ugi reaction procedure) used to find our experiment blog.

  4. After working on SIPHS for sometime now, it my opinion that the biggest challenges to overcome are (1) awareness, and (2) lack of time.

    SIPHS was started with the view that social networking, along with the question/answer component to the site could facilitate cross-disciplinary interactions. Because scientists are organized around journals and societies, we wanted to create a tool that would help bridge the gap between scientists in different societies. Knowledge builds upon knowledge, and a computer scientist by training, I always find it interesting to see computational tools implemented in biological sciences, and find it especially interesting when computer science adopts biological principles (genetic algorithms for example).

    Social networking tools by in large, have meet with the most success when focused on the 18-30 demographic who have or are willing to spent copious amounts of time browsing the networks they have created (facebook, or MySpace for example). Given that scientists are busy people without time to spare, my colleague and I organized SIPHS around the notion of peer support: [1] ask someone you know for a scientific opinion, or [2] ask the community at large.

    That said, Pierre makes a good comment:

    “But social networks could be a useful tool to keep contact with the former members of a lab, to find a postdoc, to find scientific skills (“Hey, I found there is a new postdoc working on microarray in your previous laboratory, could you introduce me ?”),”

    We recently added the ability to tag members in your network. This allows persons within your network to find other researchers by tag and contact them through the system. A tutorial of the tool can be found at http://www.siphs.com/start.jsp

    It is our hope that by facilitating asynchronous communications and the search for new collaborators that scientific discovery be expedited. Unfortunately, it is too early to tell if online social networks will have an impact on science. We certainly are in an endeavor to find out.

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