The evolution of social network practices in science

Paris metro on a weeknight and numerous heads are tilted towards a book or a Smartphone that holds their attention. Of those engaged with the latter, many are using a social network, or are busy tweeting. The emergence of social networks dates back to approximately 2004, but only since 2008 has their rapid growth reached the general public. Professional social networks have also developed in parallel, but their use remains marginal. The fairly conservative nature of the professional milieu should be kept in mind when considering this, particularly concerning the field of research, where the coffee machine remains the place of social exchange par excellence.

Paris metro on a weeknight and numerous heads are tilted towards a book or a Smartphone that holds their attention. Of those engaged with the latter, many are using a social network, or are busy tweeting. The emergence of social networks dates back to approximately 2004, but only since 2008 has their rapid growth reached the general public. Professional social networks have also developed in parallel, but their use remains marginal. The fairly conservative nature of the professional milieu should be kept in mind when considering this, particularly concerning the field of research, where the coffee machine remains the place of social exchange par excellence.

Overview of social research practices

 Logo social network

Facebook has just passed 650 million users worldwide (in March 2011 – source: Facebook), 50% of whom connect on a daily basis. This confirms its position as the leading social network (SN) internationally, ahead of Twitter (200 million users), LinkedIn (90 million) and Viadeo (35 million) *figures from January 2011 – source: Facebook, Twitter,and Of 2 billion internet users worldwide, 32.5% have at least one Facebook account. Today in France, there are 47 million internet users, of whom 20.5 million have active Facebook accounts. Indeed, approximately one third of the French population have a Facebook account.

Diagram facebook twitter
Left: Diagram of the evolution in the numbers of Facebook accounts, February 2011 – source: Facebook February 2011 – source: Facebook. Right: Evolution of the number of Twitter users worldwide January 2011 – source:

Use of social networks by scientists

According to an inquiry conducted by the URFIST on the informatics practices of researchers (URFIST EPI)*, the use of numerical documentation is predominant in all research domains. This study was conducted between October 2010 and January 2011, in the French departments of Gironde and Ille-et-Vilaine and the Paca region. It involved a long questionnaire about both professional and private information research practices and received responses from researchers of all disciplines (59 % ‘lecturer-researchers’) of which 681 were complete, and 325 were incomplete.

opened book, lying on the bookshelf
Evolution of Scientific publication practice

To summarise, according to this study few of the researchers questioned (less than 20 %) say that they consult a majority of documents in paper form, whereas 40 % estimate that 75 % of the total number of documents they consult in the framework of their research are in digital format. The researchers questioned estimate that they spend at least 2 hours per day working on the Internet. This information research practice explains the desertion of university libraries. Indeed, 66 % of respondents stated they never go there. The library, whether in digital format or not, is considered to be an ‘information reservoir’ according to its traditional function. The research and mediation intermediary is largely put on the Internet.

However, if this study shows an evolution of science information research habits towards the digital, other results underline the very weak use of specific digital tools such as online storage of web research (-5 %), the syndication of web content (RSS feed for example, - 17 %), warning email services associated with keywords and specialised social networks.

Thus it appears that the mass use of the Internet by scientists occurs in the most part following the general public model of internet use (Google for 95 % of respondents, 73 % use primarily Wikipedia, 45 % of respondents use Google Scholar, and so forth). Regarding resource management, 43 % of respondents stated they ‘don’t use any bibliographical management tool’ and the search engine is the preferred tool amongst those who practice research storage.

Among the research tools, search engines are by far the most widely used – source: URFIST info.
research tools

This underlines the unequal adoption of web 2.0 tools in both a personal and professional framework. Evolution towards an efficient use of web 2.0 tools adapted to scientists would be beneficial to all in terms of saving time and centralising information. This process may not, for the time being, be compatible with the conservative perceptions of bibliographical research practices and general conceptions of social networks. Amongst the changes in research habits, we can note the multiplication of open-access archives. 38% of respondents said they place their scientific production in an open access archive. To cite but one of these, the implementation of the ‘HAL’ system in France, 2006, makes an open-access and multidisciplinary archive available to teaching establishments, public and private laboratories, as well as to French and foreign researchers. This archive is used for the placement and diffusion of scientific research articles, and PhD manuscripts.

Specialised open-access archives targeting a particular domain, such as ‘PLoS ONE’ that includes biology and medical publications, or arXiv that includes mathematics and physics publications have appeared in the last few years. There are also numerous specialised databases such as Biobanques, a project supported by INSERM to facilitate access to biological databases and samples. These many initiatives show the willingness of different research units at the national and international level to bridge the gaps between them in an effort to share data and archives. These initiatives have a goal and a method in common: shared digital archives.

Practice and opportunities involved in specialised social networks

Open space
Is there a place for social networks in companies?

In between the classic coffee room and work meetings, the professional social network has not become democratised as a tool of sharing and exchange yet. We can notice however the development of the CMS (Content Management System) over recent years, that, although not social networks, are tools that allow an evolution towards a new practice of information management. At this time, on top of data sharing the CMS already offered internal means of communication as well as project management tools. The digital (web interface) nature of these tools provides significant added value to medium and large companies for which the distances between personnel and the multitude of actors act as breaks on the diffusion of knowledge and expertise.

The development of social networks (SN) in the private sphere has lead to new exigencies in companies regarding these tools. These demands translate most importantly into improving visual interfaces so they become more accessible and intuitive, but also into improving interactivity.

Though less well known than classical social networks, company social networks (réseaux sociaux d’entreprise, or ‘RSE’ in French) have only recently emerged. These company networks incorporate the elements that have made classical networks so successful: the rapid diffusion of information to all, ‘networking’ that allows people of similar interests to meet, and the ability to personalise one’s SN use.

The contribution of digital tools to the company can thus be described as binary. At the individual level, there is the possibility of meeting new people within the structure, and to revive or maintain contact with old acquaintances. This could result in using time more effectively for information research or for making contacts, either with specialists or in collaboration with others.

What is more, the individual is placed at the very centre of the social network and nothing occurs without an action on his or her part. The opportunity for an average user to manage his/her social existence and digital image within a large structure can allow him/her to voice individual competencies beyond the realm of close colleagues. Thus making known each person’s specialisations is a bilateral benefit for the members of SNs as well as for the structure itself.

Diagram presenting an evaluation of company social networks via DOTU of the business USEO (this example: Bluekiwi). In this example 11 functions managed by SNs are analysed on a scale from 1 to 3.

This new community method of managing knowledge through interacting with individuals and competencies is thus a societal contribution to the company that benefits from individuals outside of the framework originally imposed upon them. The organised management of content and collaborative projects inherited by CMSs is a tool accepted by all. The additional dimension of collective memory of exchanges and data should also be noted.

A USEO diagram presenting the orientation of company social networks (individual focus, resource sharing focus etc).
Companies social network

Higher education studies and social networks

Given that the image of the individual is primarily based on what he/she communicates about him/herself, social networks have been easily integrated into daily personal habits. We have just seen how social networks become integrated into companies. Let us now turn to the question of how social networks can be used in the framework of study.

We base our information on a study undertaken in May/June 2010 by ©C’est un signe in the aim of informing actors in higher education and professional fields of how social networks are used by French students.

The quantitative study undertaken by ©C’est un signe shows that 95 % of students in business and engineering, in specialist and technical schools as well as in universities are users of community services. The study draws the conclusion that the generation of 15 to 24 year olds is disenchanted. Those people tend to compensate for this by what can be termed an Internet and social network ‘hyper-connection’, in search of trust, authenticity and a sense of belonging.

Distribution student social networks
Distribution of student use of different social networks *Source: Solucom.

Unsurprisingly Facebook is listed as students’ preferred social network, followed by Viadeo, Copains d’avant, Twitter, Myspace and LinkedIn.

A study on the integration of the students into school communities. Source: Study (c)C’est un signe.
 integration students school communities

Is the presence of schools on social networks legitimate? A large majority of students responded positively to this question, although the concern that such a presence could be considered an intrusion of the ‘professional sphere’ into the ‘private sphere’ was also expressed.

Despite a significant willingness of students to become members of a student community, it is notable that 81% of these young people are not members of a community that represents their school. For those who would become members, only communities managed by students are considered sufficiently engaged and attractive to stimulate student interest. The only notable exception to this is the University of Pierre and Marie Curie (UPMC), and particularly its Facebook page that receives 6 times more responses than Facebook pages of other schools. Through initiatives such as ‘Curieux X wanted’, the UMPC is looking to develop its network of former students and promote the UPMC PRO, its professional online university community for graduates. The university plans to do this using web 2.0 (and, notably, Facebook and Viadeo).


Distribution of research methods used to find information about schools. –May/June 2010 – Source: Study (c) C’est un signe.
Distribution research methods information schools

The study emphasises that an establishment’s membership of a social network must entail a genuine willingness to change its relationship with students by giving them unrestricted speech. By doing this, the establishment exposes itself to individual responses and criticisms. As a consequence of such a weak result in this regard the student still consult the school website in order to find information related to their school.

This underlines strong school support for web 1.0 (the unilateral version) that requires no student contribution. Thus, despite a student expression of its legitimacy, the participative Internet has not yet been incorporated into the heart of higher education institutions.

To summarise, social networks in France have been gradually adopted into individual habits. The transition towards the democratisation of specialised social networks, as well as by large structures such as companies and higher education institutions, are the object of numerous considerations stemming from a general social will, but also from a genuine interest on the part of large institutions. The benefits of social networks for the professional domain as well as in the field of research have appeared. Access to both new means of communication and sharing tools for open access archives encourage the pooling of competencies, the enhancement of bibliographical access, and, generally, an improvement in communication between science professionals.

A future article will be devoted to new scientific practices and will further expand upon the rapid growth of open access archives and the new demands confronted with large science publishing houses.

*Please follow the links provided for exact conditions of studies cited.

(c) morganimation; Irochka; Arap; -

Find more :

1) Etude USEO pour les CMS et les RSE 

2) URFIRST info, l’actualité des sciences de l’information

3) Etude ©C’est un signe