Do scientists use social media? Considering that the Web was conceived as a medium for scientific communication, it seems to make sense that they would. Yet, evidence has been scarce.

BioInformatics LLC conducted a survey in November 2007 that found some interesting trends:

  • 77% of life scientists participate in some type of social media
  • 50% see blogs, discussion groups, online communities, and social networking as beneficial to sharing ideas with colleagues
  • 85% see social media affecting their decision-making
  • Discussion groups and message boards are still the most-used types of sites, but online communities are gaining fast
  • User-generated content is not completely trusted for product information, but it is more trusted than information in printed trade magazines, editorial web sites, or online portals

More evidence was recently released by Elsevier’s 2collab team. They conducted a survey of 1,894 randomly selected academic faculty and government contacts derived from their Science Direct user database. The results may be surprising, especially given some recent thinking about the utility of social media in academia:

  • Over 50% of respondents envision social applications “playing a key role in shaping nearly all aspects of research workflow” in the next 5 years
  • Over 25% currently use social applications
  • Nearly 25% (23%) believe social applications will have a major influence on grant application and funding within 5 years
  • More than 25% believe social applications will have a major influence on finding jobs

Elsevier’s survey went a little further than the earlier survey, asking respondents to name sites. This generated a Top 11 list of social media sites in the sciences:

  1. Nature Network (36%)
  2. BioMed Experts (35%)
  3. Facebook (35%)
  4. MySpace (34%)
  5. LinkedIn (33%)
  6. ResearcherID (19%)
  7. CiteULike (18%)
  8. 2collab (18%)
  9. (15%)
  10. Connotea (14%)
  11. Digg (14%)

One of my normal conceits around what works and what doesn’t is “workflow.” Things should fit into a user’s workflow. This leads to faster adoption, better integration, and long-term utility. It makes sense in a lot of ways.

So, it’s tempting to think that workflow is a major requirement for scientists. New offerings have to fit into their workflow, or they won’t be adopted. Hence, the best social networks would fit existing workflows.

What is surprising to me is that social media designed specifically to “socialize” traditional workflow functions aren’t used as much. In fact, Connotea, 2collab, and ResearcherID rank lower than most.

These results actually make me question the workflow mental model. Nature Network isn’t about workflow. BioMed Experts is about browsing social networks and connecting, so isn’t much about workflow. Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn? I don’t care how much you force-fit those into workflows, they aren’t about work. (LinkedIn can be about finding a job, but not about doing a current job.) Each one is about social connections. Even the respondents who agreed that social networks will factor in to research workflow could be envisioning the social aspects of research. In the BioInformatics research, only 2-10% of respondents agreed that social media, “[s]implifies my lab workflow.” Wikis did the best job (10%), while blogs, aggregators, discussion groups, communities, and podcasts all registered 6% or lower.

Here we have a mixed list of top sites for social interactions. The less used ones are those geared toward professional activities. The most popular ones are more social.

Maybe scientists find these things fun and interesting in a purely social sense. Connecting during their downtime and building a network of friends and colleagues with relative ease may be rewarding, diverting, and interesting. It may help their research indirectly.

Maybe it’s not about workflow per se.

Maybe it’s about people.

Maybe social networks are really about socializing.

(Shout out to Daniel Pollock at Outsell Inc. for reminding me of the 2007 survey and pointing me to the Elsevier infromation. This entry was inspired by a write-up he distributed recently connecting the two (Outsell analysis [paid content]).)

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


8 Thoughts on "Scientists Use Social Media"

As Jakob Nielsen always says, there are huge differences between what users say they want and what they actually do online, so I tend to take a lot of these comments with that in mind, and instead try to focus on what people are actually doing. I’m curious how skewed their data is, as questioning a selection of users of an online service about online services may not give a balanced picture of the mainstream. Those surveyed may have already “drunk the kool-aid” as it were.

That said, you’ve hit the nail on the head as far as addressing how poorly most of the social networking sites integrate into the normal science workflow. Most are just attempts to shoehorn things that have worked in other contexts. And most demand that the users change their behavior, and that the scientific culture adapt to the tools, rather than creating tools that are adapted to the culture.

The SciTechNet(sm) blog has been running a list lately of all the entrants in the “social networking for scientists” arena:
It’s impressive how many are jumping in here, creating an overcrowded market which is a big barrier to adoption:
“Low barriers to entry make competition cut throat:
Commodity software is always a concern, and when this occurs, there are so many entrants the market is confused –unable to determine who to purchase from, and competitors may eat into each others margins. Take for example the crowded community platform space (aka white label social networking) industry that has over 100 vendors –all offering very similar software.”

I’m somewhat skeptical of the 2Collab survey – I did contact the media person and to get a copy… the copy they provided was a pdf of a powerpoint. I asked for more information – and they gave more demographics (strangely – only 5.6% of respondents from the US, 3.3% from the UK and from Mexico, 12.8% from China) but they didn’t give me the survey instrument … and based on the actual instrument questions used in the Mark Ware Consulting [2008] study, I don’t take the wording for granted. Also the population they sampled from is researchers who have created individual logins – and this number is really low at my institution AFAIK… maybe you have more information?

We often assume that the point of social networking is to make connections and share information, which can lead to fruitful outcomes like a new job. Yet, if you look at the way social networking sites are being used, they function more as identity formation than anything else. For instance:

1. These are the people who I think are cool (inference: you should therefore think that I’m cool too.)

2. These are the bands I listen to, the books I read, the colleges I attended, the political parties I ascribe to (inference: this my public version of identity.)

Danah Boyd explores the meaning of “Friend” in social networks Its a very enjoyable read. See:

Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8: Writing community into being on social network sites
First Monday (Volume 11, Number 12 — 4 December 2006)

This is an informative post.

Scientists of the modern times utilize these social networking sites to share their ideas and researches even to ordinary people.

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