The use of social networks by researchers in their professional activities is a phenomenon on the rise. The precise landscape may differ between France and the United States, for example, but common trends emerge regarding their use in science and academia. Certain disciplines, for instance, are more active on social networks than others. Which research fields benefit the most from scientific social networks, and why? Which available tools are the most useful for scientific research? The future evolution of such networks is uncertain, but the utility they offer to researchers is worth a second look. The following presents a view from France on the social networks currently available and their use among scientists.
This article is part of our dossier on Scientific Social Networks and was translated from the French by Abby Tabor.
Social networks allow us to extend the reach of our influence and to exchange with others, well beyond the few people making up our private circle and the colleagues that we cross paths with each day. This sphere of close contact can be extended to included even acquaintances that we see only rarely, due to the distance that separates us, for example. But social networks also put us in contact with all kinds of people that we would never have met by way of a common interest, a mutual friend, or anything else.
Similarly, scientists generally work individually or within a small research team. But it is rare that the isolated work of a scientist is not part of a national or even international collaboration. In academic studies and scientific research, the benefit of social networks for bringing together scientists and institutions seems obvious, given their ability to extend our sphere of contact and exchange. However, until now, social media have been adopted by only a minority of scientists; their systems of exchange, via specialist conferences or international publications, do not evolve readily.
It seems that the benefits of social media vary according to the discipline. In social sciences, digital technologies have already modified practices, including the digitization of databases or the digital and cartographic analysis of data. Blogs and social networks, tools that are more than necessary in these disciplines, are expanding rapidly.
Research Logs for Historians
In an article for the blog Homo Numericus, Pierre Mounier, a professor at France’s School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) and associate director of the Center for Open Electronic Publishing at Revues.org, looks back at the symposium “In the Web of Social Media: New Means of Communication and Publication for the Human and Social Sciences”, held at the German Historical Institute of Paris.
Pierre Mounier analyzes the use of social media by historians. Through his experience with hypotheses.org, an academic blogging platform, he shows that research logs allow historians both to structure their work – in this way, the research log is an integral part of the work of the researcher – and to communicate internally (with colleagues) as well as externally (i.e. popularization). The log allows historians to share their literature review, comments on their readings, hypotheses, results…via a flexible and personalized tool. They are, thus, free to use the log as they see fit. They do, however, take a risk in revealing all the steps of the research process: their drafts, reflections, and raw data.
Social Networks for Environmental Sciences
The journal VertigO, a French-language electronic journal of environmental sciences, in open access, conducted a poll on scientific social networks from November 2009 to January 2010. 159 French speakers and 23 English speakers responded to questions about what they expected from scientific social networks and their opinion of existing networks. The vast majority of respondents were in the field of environmental sciences, due simply to the mailing lists used for the diffusion of the poll.
This preliminary study showed that the principal uses of a social network in the scientific world are collaborations and information searches. In addition, although the survey respondents seemed unconvinced by the networks currently available, they expressed interest in joining an open, multidisciplinary professional social network, involving many different participants. And, in spite of having little time to devote to it, respondents stated that they would be ready to contribute to the content of such a network and to share information. In exchange, they expected an active network, led by dynamic community managers, providing quality content.
Social Media by Discipline and by Academic Field
There are already several networks for social sciences (SAGE, hypotheses.org) offering a variety of tools: research logs, discussion forums, blogs, resources, event calendars, sharing of documents and the literature review… Information and communication sciences also bring together numerous social media players, as do the fields of scientific and technical culture (Knowtex) and science and art (Bamboo, Artscience Factory, ArtScience Labs.) In these disciplines, the interest of social media is acknowledged and these tools have been widely adopted.
For the so-called hard sciences, similar networks have already become established in the English-speaking research world (ResearchGate, colwiz, Academia.edu), albeit with a limited reach. In France, while some initiatives have recently emerged, it seems that the hard sciences do not view social media with the same interest as social or communication sciences. Very specialized media, like the bibliographic tools Mendeley and Zotero, have seen the greatest success, their interest being, above all, individual and, only secondarily, collective. Aggregators of scientific blogs are also successful ([email protected]é des sciences in French, ScienceBlogging, ResearchBlogging, ScienceBlogs, and others in English), but it seems that the demand among readers for such blogs is greater than scientists’ need to maintain them.
Universities’ own social networks have appeared in recent years (Carnets2 at the University of Paris Descartes). Even if these networks are supported by universities, and instructors and researchers remain their most sought after participants, it is the students, recent graduates and young researchers, for the most part, who bring them to life. The social tools used on these university networks are also different from those used in research (for example, e-learning).
In conclusion, social and communication tools have not been adopted in the same way by all scientific fields. Certain tools (blogs, research logs, bibliographic tools…) appear to have greater success than others (e.g. forums). But, although a majority of scientists are in favor of scientific and professional social networks, they may still view them as too time consuming. Several initiatives are currently in development in the world of research, but it is not yet clear whether they will be adopted to varying degrees by different groups, or if a network will emerge in a way common to all scientific disciplines.
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Find out more:
Scientific research networks, MyScienceWork’s Scoop.it topic https://www.scoop.it/t/scientific-social-network
Our dossier: Scientific Social Networks https://www.mysciencework.com/omniscience/
Social Media, Libraries, Librarians and Research Support http://pintiniblog.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/reseaux-sociaux-recherche/