Social Networks for Scientists

What social media to use for your research activity ?

New media outlets and social networks are improving the connectivity of researchers, engineers, PhD candidates, post-docs, and students. Today, several offer solutions to problems faced by researchers, but are still often considered time consuming. As an online extension of the work of your team or as a catalyst for new collaborations, each of these networks has its own special feature. Do you need to optimize your literature review, share or obtain information, dialogue with an instructor, or even reinforce your network of contacts? Whether researcher or student, MyScienceWork presents the new scientific social networks dedicated to your needs.

New social networks and media are improving the connectivity of researchers, engineers, PhD candidates, post-docs, and students. Today, several offer solutions to problems faced by researchers, but are still often considered time consuming. As an online extension of the work of your team or as a catalyst for new collaborations, each of these networks has its own special features. Do you need to optimize your literature review, share or obtain information, dialogue with an instructor, or even reinforce your network of contacts? Whether researcher or student, MyScienceWork presents an overview of the new scientific social networks dedicated to your needs.


This article is part of our dossier on Scientific Social Networks and follows on the article presenting “The new digital tools for scientific research.” It was originally published in French as: "Les réseaux sociaux pour scientifiques".


A new approach to digital tools and the literature review

The diffusion of information via the internet has us drowning in an ocean of knowledge. To avoid braving this torrent alone, it is wise to surround oneself with a community sharing similar interests. We recently published a look at digital tools to use for scientific research. This text ended with the mention of scientific social networks, a new category entirely on its own, which reflects the latest research practices. Among the practical aspects of social networks is the sharing of digital tools for collaborative work within communities.


Collaboration is especially practical for the bibliographic review. Most PhD students begin their dissertation work by accumulating on their desk all the indispensable articles recommended by each member of the research group. Certain programs for managing bibliographies, like Mendeley and Zotero, offer to extend this practice to the whole world. Available online, these sites allow you to automatically generate bibliographies that are compatible with other reference management tools (EndNote, BibTeX), as well as with word processing software (Microsoft Word, OpenOffice).  But these two platforms, Mendeley and Zotero, differ from classic programs (EndNote, JabRef, Papers) in their social aspect. They offer functionalities for sharing bibliographies and documents. They also let you annotate texts and encourage post-reviewing – that is, the evaluation of articles after publication. Grouping individuals by topic leads to the selection of subjects relevant to the members of these communities. This allows each participant, students as much as researchers, to benefit from the shrewd selection of high quality articles by specialists in all fields (see “Science et Curation: nouvelle pratique du Web 2.0”). Applications for iPhone and iPad are available and Zotero, developed in open source, is also available on Android.


This sharing of the literature review is an activity that can also be found on certain generalist social networks, like Facebook, LinkedIn, Viadéo and especially Twitter (see our article “Twittos scientificus”). These practices encourage interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration. They also open new channels of communication for universities and laboratories.


Networks for scientific collaboration

The classic social media outlets, Facebook and Twitter first among them, are being used more and more by universities. This practice is particularly common in English-speaking countries, but continues to vary according to the scientific disciplines.


In addition, over the last two years, social networking platforms have been developed specifically with the goal of responding to the needs of researchers, in terms of visibility, collaborations, and access to information and knowledge. These centralize information concerning people and research centers, thanks to detailed academic profiles: institutional affiliations, professional positions, list of scientific publications, etc. Each platform is used in a specific way and offers diverse functionalities.


Digital worldsToday, the digital world is part of our real daily life. (c) James Thew -

SciVal Experts seems to be the platform for scientific collaboration most used by North American universities. Originally developed by Collexis, it was bought out by the controversial Elsevier in 2010. It is a paid platform whose free version is called BioMedExperts. These platforms make it easier to search for information about scientists. They encourage scientific collaborations between and within research institutions. They do, however, suffer from certain restrictions, due to the commercial policies of Elsevier. American universities particularly mention the fact that their content is restricted to the Elsevier databases: Scopus and PubMed. Therefore, it is mainly medical and biological research centers that can make use of this solution.


VIVO, on the other hand, is a web application developed in open source by Cornell University. It offers institutions the possibility of putting in place their own social network. Its content is particularly well adapted to sharing multidisciplinary, open access publications (see our article "Open Access + Social Media = Competitive Advantage"). Very flexible, it accepts all content sources that are not covered by rights: institutional repositories, open access journals, government sources, publications to which the institution is subscribed, presentations, calls for offers… VIVO is used today by some fifty universities, but its installation@ is complex and requires effort in terms of technical development.


Numerous universities and foundations have simultaneously attempted to develop their own communication platform, like, for example, LatticeGrid, offered in open source by Northwestern University. But their isolation relative to other platforms, and the lack of access to commercial databases limits their use.  In France, Paris Descartes University is one of the first to boast an efficient social network, called Carnets2.


Social science space, developed by the social sciences journal SAGE, and SSRN, the Social Science Research Network, both offer a place for debate and discussion of the humanities and social sciences, funding policies, research governance, etc. Even more specific, e-sciencetalk is the community of grid computing systems and of cloud computing.


Originally from the west coast of the United States, the platform brings together around one million academic users. Its primary mission is to allow the quick exchange of scientific publications and is used especially by university students.


Facebook for scientists?

Despite the name “social network”, none of these professional platforms offers the functionalities for exchanging and communicating in the style of LinkedIn or Viadeo. Generally, it is not possible to follow the activities of other members, but only to consult the information contained in their profiles. ResearchGate is the network that bears the most resemblance to a “Facebook for scientists”. This site allows researchers to create a professional profile manually. From there, one can add contacts, follow the activities of users with similar interests, etc. Profiles offer a news feed like Facebook (recently renamed “timeline”). Discussion groups allow for debate on specific subjects, such as MRI measurements or the analysis of complex data.


social networksSocial networks: A new trend in communication between scientists?

An article on the blog @ccess recently presented scientific social networks as the logical next step in the emergence of free access to scientific publications. This is also the driving motivation of MyScienceWork, the first scientific social network dedicated to open access. This network is centered around a personalizable open access library paired with a semantic search engine. The goal of MyScienceWork is to allow a targeted search, specifically calibrated to respond to the need for scientific articles published in open access journals. The economic model of scientific publication is at a turning point today. (See “Scientific publication: the model and scandals”.) With free access to scientific publications (See “Open access: Towards a new practice of scientific communication”), the diffusion of content and their evaluation must adopt new models. In fact, all the working practices of researchers are being modified by the new digital tools and new publication models. Scientific social networks are accompanying the current opening up of science. They are developing the tools of the science of tomorrow, more open, more international, more multidisciplinary.


Multidisciplinary networks or specialized networks?

Among the examples mentioned above, several platforms are reserved for life sciences and medical sciences (SciVal, Biomedexperts, etc.). Time will tell if the scientific community will more readily adopt specialized platforms or, rather, more generalist platforms. Among the most specialized, we came across the community MalariaWorld.  This platform brings together more than 7,000 malaria specialists. In the Boston (USA) region, the Epernicus network, for its part, offers social networks for clinical and medical research centers. In a different category, several scientific communities have formed around open access, for example, OAD (Open Access Directory). In fact, the origin of online specialist communities can probably be found in the realm of open source IT development. The user community of the word processor LaTeX is among the most active.


Social networks for higher education

Digital work environments are extensions of university intranets and other platforms of exchange for digital pedagogical resources. Unisciel, for example, groups some thirty French institutions of higher learning. A great deal of information is available here, regarding courses of study, but also careers. The more local platform of Paris Descartes University is now coupled to the university’s social network. Thanks to these communications platforms, instructors and researchers have a place to interact with their students. Here, they can share documents with them, but also check the level of understanding of concepts covered and take student questions, via a new channel. The gap between teaching staff and students is now fitted with a bridge by which young people can catch a glimpse of the work of professors and researchers and approach their education differently. The journal Nature also offers the educational network Scitable, which brings together blogs, thematic forums and e-books, introductions to the principal research subjects in biology. It emphasizes career opportunities for young graduates. Digital universities and e-learning are also emerging trends in terms of education, which are in the process of profoundly changing ways of learning.


Somewhat different is Synapse, a platform of the European Commission. It connects numerous communities from teaching establishments, research institutions, and public administration. It is a digital meeting point encouraging consultation of, and debate between, experts and decision makers at the European level.


They are called Openwetware, biostar, UniPHY for physicians, direct2experts and Harvard Catalyst Profiles for the universities of Massachusetts… The social networks for scientists are too numerous to name them all. Some, like LabMeeting, have already disappeared. Others have raised only limited interest. Why such reserve? Why has Facebook found its place in our daily lives, while science resists adopting the new models of communication?


It seems that, just like open access, scientific social networks are testing out a realm that is in the process of evolving. Every day, science becomes more international. Each innovative thesis subject tears down a wall between disciplines. Universities adapt their curricula according to these evolutions. They collaborate to create multidisciplinary courses of study. Future scientists, members of generation Y, have lived through the beginning of the digital age. They grew up in a society that has been profoundly affected by the sharing of information on these networks. They are arriving in the professional world during a period of crisis, and see their governments getting bogged down in problems too new for the powers currently in place. They are the first to fight back against control of the internet and are not afraid to put themselves out there, online. They are aware of the risks and are masters of their online image. Finally, they have sharpened their critical thinking thanks to the internet. It is more than likely that we will soon see social networks replacing classic web sites. And we will see, throughout this fascinating evolution, the social network or networks that will respond the best to the needs of scientists.


Related articles on MyScienceWork:


Scientific Social Networks: The MyScienceWork dossier


"Open Access + Social Media = Competitive Advantage"


“The evolution of social network practices in science”


“The new digital tools for scientific research”


“Les réseaux sociaux scientifiques : différences d’approches suivant les disciplines”


Open Access: our dossier of articles covering the subject


Science et curation : nouvelle pratique du Web 2.0  


To find out more:


MyScienceWork on Scoopit: Scientific Social Networks


Scientific social networks are the future of science


What is a scientific social network? 6 thriving and inspiring examples


Faculty of 1000 and VIVO: Invisible Colleges and Team Science


Scientific social networks, pearltress par noosquest


Social Media for Scientists : It’s our job