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Not With A Bang: The First Wave of Science 2.0 Slowly Whimpers to an End

Sunset Wave or دلشوره

Image by Hamed Saber via Flickr

We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Like social movements, business fads have a limited lifespan. Hunter Thompson’s immortal description of the end of the 1960s springs to mind when taking a look back at the rush to integrate Web 2.o tools and science, with that “five years” timeline immediately leaping out.

The Nature Network launched in 2006, organized around researchers in Boston, then went global in 2007, five years ago. It perhaps offered the high-water mark in terms of the irrational exuberance by publishers and other companies in building big Web 2.0 tools for scientists. For a time, the widespread adoption of these tools seemed inevitable, and business models were an afterthought when investing in revolutionary new technologies.

Five years on, reality has reared its ugly head, and, as is often repeated here at the Scholarly Kitchen, culture has trumped technology. It turns out that what works well for some cultures does not immediately translate into success in others. Rather than focusing on the needs of the research community, much of what passed for Science 2.0 was an attempt to force science to change — to make the culture adapt to the tools rather than the other way around.

Beyond the lack of community buy-in, monetization of Web 2.0 has proven problematic, even for sites with enormous levels of participation.

This last month has seen the dying gasps of some of these corporate-backed attempts to crack this market.  As noted elsewhere, the needs of a for-profit corporation are generally at odds with the needs of members of the social networks they run.  The big publisher-backed build is slowly fading into oblivion, replaced by smaller, ad hoc networks created  and run by users.  The question of how or even whether these tools will ever see mainstream use by scientists is still open. But the idea of them as huge profit centers for publishers has been pretty well refuted.

2collab officially closed its doors on April 15.  For those who missed out, 2collab was Elsevier’s stab at an online reference management/social bookmarking platform. It always seemed a bit undercooked, a “me too” attempt to keep up with Connotea (from Nature), Mendeley, and CiteULike.  Though still something of an unproven market, there doesn’t seem to be a need for multiple sites offering the same sorts of things. What traffic there is has largely coalesced around CiteULike and Mendeley.

CiteULike is now sponsored by Springer with no obvious business model beyond serving up Google Ads. This may be intentional, as it has always positioned itself as something of a public domain community resource, rather than as a product to be sold. Mendeley’s management continues to prove themselves adept at attracting attention, but still haven’t offered up much by way of a business model either.  A quick look at the papers added to Connotea today as I write this shows that the site is being overrun by link-farming spam, with perhaps four out of the first 50 papers added today being legitimate (about 8%).

Connotea falling into such a state should perhaps not come as a surprise. Nature’s once stalwart efforts in social networking have slowly ground to a halt.  Much of the talent behind their initial push has either moved on or transitioned into other efforts, including ones that seem more product-oriented.

Nature’s flagship blog, Nautilus, officially closed on April 19, following Nascent, which has been inactive since February 2010.  Connotea’s blog was last updated in January. Nature’s recruitment of their editors to blogs has always been something of a mixed bag, and their results perhaps echo that seen throughout the non-science world: some people enjoy blogging, others do not.  The Nature Network’s stable of bloggers mostly deserted last December, and a check today shows a mere 36 blogs that have been updated in the last month.

Speaking of networks that saw mass defections, word leaked earlier this week that National Geographic will be taking control of ScienceBlogs.  Started in 2006, ScienceBlogs was once the posterchild for the Science 2.0 movement, declaring itself  in early 2010 to be  “the leading social media site in the science category, with more than 130 acclaimed blogs, 11 content channels, a jobs platform, and a fast-growing audience of more than 2 million unique visitors a month.”

April 2010 seems to have been ScienceBlogs’ peak, with traffic dropping off rapidly as their Pepsi-fueled blogger exodus of July 2010 saw many of their writers leave for other networks. Traffic now is about half of what they saw last April, and, like most businesses on the Internet, there’s a lesson here about selling out at the right time.  ScienceBlogs rapidly went from being so dominant that it was nicknamed “the Borg” (“resistance is futile”) to being just one among many science blogging networks.

While ScienceBlogs and National Geographic have long had a strategic partnership, National Geographic Digital Media will now assume management of the website. SEED will retain ownership (as one commenter noted, “SEED managed to sell content and content providers it neither owns nor edits to NatGeo, and will continue to receive a stipend for its continued nonparticipation”). Given the history of ScienceBlogs and corporate sponsors, this may lead to an uneasy partnership as bloggers are asked to submit to National Geographic’s “standards and practices”.

This may prove difficult. particularly for one of ScienceBlogs’ most popular authors, PZ Myers, who has been described as a “one-note atheist crazy cat lady.”  How Myers’ strong anti-religion views sit with those running the National Geographic Society and how it wants to present itself to the world will be interesting to watch.  For the moment, Myers’ readers seem particularly concerned that they will no longer be able to curse in the comments of the blog.

In the long run, we may see yet another exodus of ScienceBlogs authors to one of the many independent blogger-run networks, which offer a smaller audience, but the freedom to pursue one’s own interests rather than that of the overseeing corporation.  Community-driven networks are supplanting business-driven networks.

But the apparent absorption of more bloggers by an old media information source is yet another piece of evidence that Web 2.0 is having more of an incremental effect on science than a revolutionary one.

On one hand it’s great to see real scientists with real knowledge of their fields speaking directly with an audience of non-experts. On the downside, it seems like many newspapers and magazines are recruiting bloggers for science coverage as a cost-cutting measure. Bloggers seem willing to accept lower pay (or even volunteer) as compared with trained professional journalists. Given the wild variability in the quality of blogs, and their often personal nature, I worry that the increased base knowledge of the authors may not compensate for the loss of the professional trained journalist. Perhaps this is inevitable, given the shift of our news media from reporting to editorializing.

The clear trends are:

  • moving away from corporate-backed social networking tools for scientists
  • abandoning expensive efforts with little hope of monetization
  • moving toward smaller, user-created and controlled networks

Web 2.0 hasn’t failed for science — it has merely failed to live up to the initial hype and failed as a get-rich-quick scheme. As this first phase draws to a close, expect to see more and more integration of social tools into the traditional science workflow rather than attempts to make networking an end unto itself.

(article updated 4-30-11 to remove incorrect statement that CiteULike was an open source project)

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About David Crotty

I am a Senior Editor with Oxford University Press' journal publishing program. Prior to that I served as an Executive Editor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, and was also the commissioning editor for their book publishing program. Many years ago, I was a research scientist, receiving my Ph.D. in Genetics & Development from Columbia University, and doing postdoctoral research in neural development at Caltech.

Discussion

43 thoughts on “Not With A Bang: The First Wave of Science 2.0 Slowly Whimpers to an End

  1. As one of the remaining Nature Network bloggers, I wouldn’t say that “a mere 36 blogs” is a bad thing… In fact, it’s still a lot! One of the reasons many of my former fellow NN-ers started their own network was because they wanted a smaller network. And while I can easily keep up with all of their Occam’s Typewriter blogs, I only follow about 5 or 6 Nature Network blogs.

    Other than that, you make some good points about culture vs technology. A lot of tools get built for no apparent reason than that the people who made it thought it would be cool, but nobody actually wants to *use* them.

    Posted by Eva | Apr 27, 2011, 5:45 am
  2. oh, that was a typo … it was really science 0.2 … such early days yet, in arriving at full-species omniscience.

    Posted by gregorylent | Apr 27, 2011, 6:35 am
  3. The science blog networks are converging on the functional form of their predecessor, the specialized listserv. They should do well there, as well as being a major improvement in communication. But as you say, there may be no money in it.

    I dislike this use of the term “culture” as it suggests something arbitrary or entrenched or even wrong. Culture is what works, moreover it is highly adaptable.

    Posted by David Wojick | Apr 27, 2011, 7:23 am
    • I do think the listserv comparison is apt. But I don’t have the same negative connotations with the word “culture”. I think understanding the culture is vital when trying to create anything “social” for a particular group.

      That’s why the efforts of so many bright MBA’s have failed for science. Instead of starting with an understanding of how scientists work and communicate and building something to match, they’ve taken pre-existing social networks and tried to shoehorn them into the culture.

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 27, 2011, 9:33 am
  4. I have so many issues with this post but I’ll try to articulate a few points. First, the whole monetization of the blogosphere was a poor move. Many scientists are already chafing at the monetization of other forms of scholarly communication so trying to monetize something in its early adopter stage is problematic at best. Second, you omit the activities of societies in this space. Their missions are often to support communication in their area of science so blogs are a natural fit. The societies that are supporting blogs are doing quite well. Third, the movement to small independent networks is more like a continuation of the early blogosphere – the corporate efforts are more the outliers.

    Posted by Christina Pikas | Apr 27, 2011, 8:58 am
  5. David,
    You were one of the few outspoken critics of science blogging from the beginning. And the basis of your criticism was deep understanding of the culture and rewards system of research scientists.

    Now that the science blogging bubble has appeared to pop (or more appropriately, to deflate) to do you see similar patterns emerging that would indicate another potential hype bubble in science publishing?

    Is there anything that you’d like to warn us about now before we thank you again in 2-3 years?

    Posted by Phil Davis | Apr 27, 2011, 8:59 am
    • Thanks Phil, though I think my criticisms have been more reactive than predictive. Publishing seems to employ a lot of experimentation, of throwing things up against the wall and seeing what sticks. Social networking still has tremendous potential for science, but one has to look at the actual real world implementation, which so far has been lacking.

      We see a lot of attention paid at publishing meetings in recent months/years on things like semantic technologies and worries about peer review. Whether either of these will live up to the promise/danger proposed is still an open question. Like social networking, the implementation of semantic technologies and alternate review systems so far has not been as groundbreaking as hoped. But none of the above should be counted out.

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 27, 2011, 9:42 am
  6. I found this article very interesting. You might want to look over a study that two colleagues and I presented at the last American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington DC. See:

    http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/about/sections/sts/conferences/research2010-covingt.pdf

    Posted by Matt Marsteller | Apr 27, 2011, 9:34 am
    • Thanks Matt, looks interesting, but PowerPoint presentations are always hard to parse just by looking at the slides alone (and really, a good talk just uses the slides as visual cues rather than as complete sets of information).

      Have you considered posting your talk somewhere like SlideShare where you can add a set of notes or text to accompany each slide?

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 27, 2011, 9:43 am
  7. May I make a couple of small points?

    NPG does not have a “flagship” blog as such as they serve different audiences and purposes, but if we did, it would be our extremely busy, popular News blog, The Great Beyond, at http://blogs.nature.com/news/thegreatbeyond/, which posts multiple times a day and has thousands of readers.

    I have been unable to post on Nautilus for some time for health reasons but as stated in the notification post, we are at Twitter (@NatureAuthors) and authors, potential authors and peer-reviewers can interact with us there.

    There are a lot of social media activities going on in spheres you don’t mention, Twitter being but one example. There are lots of experiments that are worth making in the social media sphere, one very important aspect of it all for editors, journals, publishers, etc is to enable our readers and communities to interact with us easily and us with them.

    Posted by Maxine | Apr 27, 2011, 10:30 am
    • Maxine – you are certainly correct about The Great Beyond. But this is a blog in name/tech only: isn’t it essentially just ‘chunked’ news stories written by staff science writers and freelancers?

      If so, I’d say the popularity of The Great Beyond compared with NPG’s other 2.0 experiments actually supports David’s argument.

      Posted by Richard Sever | Apr 27, 2011, 1:53 pm
    • Perhaps my perception of Nautilus as being a leader from NPG then is a complement to your efforts, rather than a deliberate strategy by the company. I always found it to be a useful source of information on what the company was doing.

      Twitter is an excellent example though, of publishers adapting to a social media and using it appropriately for things like marketing and customer service, rather than trying to force it to be a profit center (though I have no doubt that someone has likely already pitched building a separate “Twitter for scientists” network).

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 27, 2011, 2:00 pm
  8. A note: CiteuLike is not open source (in the sense of software). Connotea is FLOSS, but its development seems to have stopped since 2008…

    Posted by Jesús Tramullas | Apr 27, 2011, 12:26 pm
  9. re: your last sentence, i agree that science 2.0 so far has failed to live up to the hype, and there are indeed many lessons to be learned as you pointed out. however, your other comment that it failed as a “get-rich-quick scheme” doesn’t ring as true. none of the services you mentioned appear to be of that sort, but quite the opposite: legitimate attempts by publishers and startups to be innovative and entrepreneurial, investing in new capabilities to better serve the community. I applaud these types of initiatives and hope they attempt more in the future, despite knowing that most will fail, for that is ultimately where growth and discovery will emerge.

    Posted by Bill Park | Apr 27, 2011, 1:09 pm
    • Perhaps it is harsh for the efforts mentioned in this piece–these are all professional efforts by corporations, efforts that were well-backed financially that did last for years.

      But it’s an accurate phrase for many of the more fly-by-night efforts that were generated, countless “facebook for scientists” pitches that offered little that was interesting or innovative. There was a period where these were coming at a fast and furious pace which seems to have come to a close.

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 27, 2011, 1:51 pm
  10. Speaking as an “insider,” it’s really not as bad as all that. I think the net effect of the “professionalization” of science blogging will be more content on a greater variety of subjects. And market forces are raising the wages of science bloggers who can draw an audience. Enough so that even this “mainstream journalist” now relies on blogging for at least half his income (and I’m not exactly starving).

    Posted by Christopher Mims | Apr 27, 2011, 4:52 pm
  11. But, I should add, great job surveying the field! This is a very thorough post and I commend you for chronicling the myriad failures of publishers to capitalize on this potential market. Which is precisely their problem: they see it as a market, not a service. Also, they’re not technology companies, and none of the sites you listed got the TLC they needed in order to be responsive to the needs of their users. There is still room for someone to do it right… I wonder if the right combination of talent will ever come together to make it happen.

    Posted by Christopher Mims | Apr 27, 2011, 4:54 pm
    • I agree with you, Christopher – actually, one of the biggest challenges for publishers is not only to realize that their role has changed (or for most of them, will have to change) and that they have lost a lot of their exclusivity, but also to partner with organizations that are better at e.g. technology. Another point is that I don’t think that Science 2.0 is whimpering, I think that institutional approaches to Science 2.0 are not 2.0, because they are not (mainly) user-driven or user-generated. Unlike classical business models for subscribing to content, you cannot force a business model upon an online community. Smart publishing houses know this, and they are working hard at finding out what will be the best way of dealing with this process of change. David Crotty is right: publishing is actually just a lot of throwing things against the wall and see which of them stick.

      Posted by RR | Apr 28, 2011, 4:20 am
      • Excuse me, but if it is (1) a service, not a market and (2) you can’t force a business model on it, how do we pay for it, much less make a profit on it?

        Posted by David Wojick | Apr 28, 2011, 7:22 am
        • A great set of questions, ones that every social networking project faces.

          If it’s a service provided by a publisher, then does it just become a marketing expense, something to build into your modeling and pay for with the money generated by actually saleable products?

          Or does the creation and maintenance of these networks move outside of the realm of for-profit companies and become community and user-driven? Many community sites (thinking of those organized around particular experimental model organisms) have been created via grant funding, though maintenance of such sites is often a problem after the initial grant runs out. Or perhaps it’s paid for by society member dues.

          Posted by David Crotty | Apr 28, 2011, 10:09 am
    • That’s a great point about publishers trying to stretch outside of their core competencies (as noted by RR in the response above. Publishers tend to have a mindset that gears them toward concrete projects, complete the book/journal issue, ship it out, it’s done, move on to the next one. Big networks like this mean constant iteration and evolution over time, basically a permanent commitment to development. And while it’s possible to bring in talented people for this development, it’s much harder to change a firmly entrenched corporate mindset, a long established way of doing business.

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 28, 2011, 10:05 am
  12. Change is not a detriment and the adaption problem is not where you seem to place it, on scientists or tools – instead, media companies thought they could swap out user-generated content for paid content and subscriptions and still support their bloated cost structures.

    NN loses money, yes, but it was always a marketing expense. And SEED never made money, not 5 years ago or 5 months ago, so that was a failure of their model and market. The common denominator is print. The actual Science 2.0 site has lots of writers, a million readers a month, and is profitable – but does no print.

    Posted by Hank Campbell | Apr 28, 2011, 10:39 am
    • I don’t think many of the big publishers behind these ventures expected to swap out their subscription revenue for that provided by these new products. It was more of an additional revenue stream that was sought.

      I do think that media companies are still in the process of trying to get rid of the high salaries demanded by professional reporters and replace them with unpaid volunteers (see the Huffington Post or the science coverage of many newspapers and agencies these days). That’s still happening (and given the HuffPost’s regular profits and recent $315M windfall, it seems to have paid off fairly well).

      I do wonder about the origins of the NN though, if it was really conceived of as a “marketing” maneuver. I’m willing to bet it was more that management spotted a potentially important trend and took a shot at cornering the market on it, with an assumption that a business model would be worked out later after dominance was achieved. This is much in line with nearly every other social networking startup out there though. Build it up, then figure out how to profit later (or don’t).

      And SEED stopped their print efforts in 2009. Doesn’t seem to have helped much.

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 28, 2011, 2:25 pm
  13. Interesting analysis, although I think it depends on how one defines “success.” Also, the “monetization problem” is hardly limited to science blogs. :) But your best point, I think, is this:

    “Rather than focusing on the needs of the research community, much of what passed for Science 2.0 was an attempt to force science to change — to make the culture adapt to the tools rather than the other way around.”

    That said, not all science blogging is geared to the research community. We all blog for different reasons, and different audiences.

    Posted by Jennifer Ouellette | Apr 28, 2011, 12:37 pm
    • Thanks Jennifer, good to hear from you. I’m definitely defining “success” here from a business viewpoint, of investing money and turning a profit. As noted in the article and many of the comments, this has not turned out to be a real strength of these “2.0″ approaches in science.

      That doesn’t mean that the approaches are without value or should be thought of as failures. What it does mean is that the initial goldrush to cash in (and in some cases corner the market) on a new trend has failed to pay off.

      Posted by David Crotty | Apr 28, 2011, 2:14 pm
  14. That was interesting post, double bump for the HST reference. I can’t prove it, but I think this is a trend across the blogosphere as a whole.

    Posted by Mocha Bear | Apr 28, 2011, 4:16 pm
  15. I think this past 5 years were necessary to help the market crystallize a bit to uncover what scientific researchers really want and what they don’t…which leads to your final, accurate comment:

    “…..As this first phase draws to a close, expect to see more and more integration of social tools into the traditional science workflow rather than attempts to make networking an end unto itself….”

    I think this is definitely the way things are going in this space, and for obvious sound reasons. There are some aspects of the full-blown networking sites that have real value and should be better integrated with all the other online tools that researchers use and like, etc.

    Great, thorough post otherwise!

    Posted by Cali Swain | Apr 29, 2011, 8:55 am
  16. I may be a small science & photography blogger- but I will keep it up as long as possible! Go Science!

    Posted by Chanel Hason | Apr 29, 2011, 8:17 pm
  17. Web 2.0 has had zero effect on how actual scientists engaged in creating new scientific understanding of the natural world do their work.

    Posted by Comrade PhysioProf | May 7, 2011, 5:51 pm
    • I disagree strongly. Many, probably most, scientists spend time with blogs and other Web 2.0 systems. While the effect has not been revolutionary, nor profitable for publishers, I am sure it is real. Web 2.0 now plays a significant role in scientific communication.

      For example, as I mentioned above, blogs play a role analogous to listserves, only better in many cases. This is a major role in knowledge diffusion.

      In fact I do the science of science and your post has me thinking about how to model the role of blogs in science. That in itself is progress.

      Posted by David Wojick | May 8, 2011, 6:34 am
      • I have to disagree with both of you.

        David–science blogging remains a niche activity. Every study, even this one which has issues with a sample bias toward those using online tools shows only a small minority using blogging in any way (14.6%). Scientists do read blogs, but the blogs they read are things like BoingBoing or The Huffington Post. Science blogging seems to reflect behaviors seen outside of the world of science, where writing and commenting on special interest blogs is something that only appeals to a small segment of the population. In the extensive network of biologists I’ve built over the last 25 years as a scientist and as an editor, I’ve yet to find any of my contacts who read or write science blogs (albeit this is anecdotal evidence).

        Comrade–While I agree that Web 2.0 resources for science have failed to live up to the hyped idea that they were going to completely replace traditional means of information dispersal, I think your statement goes a bit too far. I can think of a lot of community resources that have aspects of the “2.0″ approach in them that are valuable and frequently used. Think of things like Flybase, Wormbase, Wormbook, the Arabidopsis Information Resource. None of these, however, are particularly profitable as business ventures…

        Posted by David Crotty | May 8, 2011, 8:44 am
        • “Web 2.0 now plays a significant role in scientific communication.”

          It plays absolutely no role at all in the communication of substantive scientific information between working scientists engaged in the pursuit of novel scientific understanding of the natural world.

          “I can think of a lot of community resources that have aspects of the “2.0″ approach in them that are valuable and frequently used. Think of things like Flybase, Wormbase, Wormbook, the Arabidopsis Information Resource.”

          These things are the opposite of “Web2.0″ and represent nothing more than Web-hosted versions of traditional scientific databases. This is because–like traditional databases–these things are subject to absolute top-down curation by an official administrative hierarchy.

          Posted by Comrade PhysioProf | May 8, 2011, 11:27 am
          • I suppose it depends on how one defines “2.0″ (and why I said they reflect “aspects” rather than that they are pure expressions thereof). Wikipedia defines Web 2.0 as

            “associated with web applications that facilitate participatory information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design,[1] and collaboration on the World Wide Web. A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them.”

            I’d say that the community databases linked in the comment above enable participatory information sharing, interoperability, allow users to interact and collaborate, create content, etc., etc. The idea is that Web 2.0 methods are creeping in to the traditional media where useful, but not causing a sweeping revolution and replacing them. Those sites are certainly more “2.0″ than a database like Current Protocols. Anyone can submit a sequence to Flybase, authors to CP are commissioned by the editorial boards.

            If employing curation or having a top-down authority disqualifies one from being “Web 2.0″, then much of what we think about as Web 2.0 fails that test. The Scholarly Kitchen is certainly not Web 2.0 then, as comments are moderated and bloggers are invited to participate by the site’s editors. ScienceBlogs is subject to curation by a centralized authority, so that’s out. Scientopia has a “code” enforced by a governing board. Occam’s Typewriter enforces community guidelines. Facebook has a centralized authority that curates and moderates content, as does Reddit, Slashdot, etc.

            Wikipedia itself, which is very strictly run by a de facto centralized authority of around 500 people would also fail the text.

            Posted by David Crotty | May 8, 2011, 12:21 pm

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