"Social Media", courtesy of XKCD http://xkcd.com/1239/
“Social Media”, courtesy of XKCD http://xkcd.com/1239/

The temptation to bury one’s head in what one knows and thinks is important is compelling. As a publisher I know about the print world, but I am also quite taken with the digital social world: LinkedIn, for example, is a critical part of my professional networking. As I consider our publishing future at the American Mathematical Society (AMS), my individual concern is to figure out how this translates to the world of mathematics.  How should we connect mathematicians as they think and publish? What do mathematicians really want from their publisher, their society and their library?

Every discipline has its own culture, and whether you are a humanities scholar, a social scientist, scientist or mathematician, your way of engaging with research and education will be quite different. The question I want to raise in this article is, do we as publishers, societies and libraries understand how to grapple with the needs of academics with such a range of cultures?

For example, mathematicians approach their academic endeavor differently to scientists. Theirs is not a world of labs and vast experiments. Mathematicians, like scientists, collaborate across continents, but in smaller groups, needing only to think, and gain access to the literature. Mathematicians write, and although the journal article is a primary vehicle, much of what appears in a journal has been shared openly before — likely as a preprint in arXiv. Mathematics is a vertical science; every new achievement is built on top of a previous one, and thus citation of mathematics articles is longer than for most fields. Monographs are still important to mathematicians, not just to read, but to write. Moreover, the culture of mathematics is a quiet one: mathematicians expect their work to be noticed and do not see the need to self-promote.

Perhaps a good place to start is with the apparent dichotomy between the personal and professional that we so often observe in social networks. Leafing through past Scholarly Kitchen blog posts, I reread David Crotty’s piece from 2009.  The title, Scientists Still Not Joining Social Networks, says it all and remains true to this day. While Facebook marches on, and elements of our personal lives are transparent, our work lives remain securely bounded. If you were to believe the hype from almost every publisher, social media has invaded the workspace.  But when it comes to a researcher’s daily activity, we are looking at an antisocial world.  And to be honest, many scientists like it that way.  They continue to see social media as time-wasters, not work-enhancers.

This marked inactivity leads us to a number of interesting questions:

  • How do publishers, scholarly societies and libraries respond effectively to the cultural differences that drive academic endeavor in different disciplines?
  • How may a library, scholarly society, and publisher enhance a researcher’s ability to discover materials they need?
  • Are researchers actually receiving the help they need?

The recent  Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey of 2012 (Housewright, R., Schonfeld, R. C., Wulfson, K., 2013) was recently discussed by Rick Anderson in his Scholarly Kitchen piece of April 11th, 2013, entitled Interesting Findings from Ithaka S&R’s Latest Faculty Survey. Building on Rick’s commentary, I used the survey as a resource for an initial run at these questions. The survey delves into faculty preferences for materials used in research and teaching, discovery of information, dissemination of research, with a look at the role of the library and scholarly society. Reading the results of this survey, I was struck by how little has changed, from a faculty perspective, since the previous survey in 2009. In contrast, from my perspective (as a driver of publishing for a scholarly society), it has been a time of constant change. So where is the disconnect?

It must be said that there is no better way to stop a party conversation than by announcing your job as an academic publisher. Nobody really knows what we do.  In this sense, researchers are no different from anyone else.  The truth is that they want to publish their research and access research from others, but do not particularly care to understand the dynamics of publishing and library services.  This would be just one step too far in an already overloaded and stressful life. The survey offers us glimpse of where we should be focusing our energies.

The survey reveals that, increasingly, discovery has moved away from the library building to the digital resources provided by the library and other organizations. The trend is to rely on specialist electronic resources in a particular field, such as MathSciNet for mathematicians. In the humanities the trend has reversed slightly with a refocus on library catalogs. As libraries think through the nature of search, there may be a greater integration of specialized discovery tools with library services through specific approaches using APIs.

The survey results imply that chasing enhanced access is perhaps a red herring. What really matters is developing products that address the range of cultures in academics, recognizing that, along with innovative approaches to the digital world, we should not just ditch the value in print formats — or, as The Onion (25 April, 2013) puts it with their usual sarcastic panache, declaring “Print Dead at 1,803” years of age.

It is clear that collaboration models vary widely across different fields. Publishers, scholarly societies and libraries may hone their offerings to take account of these wide ranging needs. This brings us back to social networks and blogs. The Ithaka survey reveals that only a small share of faculty turn to these resources to keep up with current scholarship or to share their findings, with markedly lower use of social media outlets in the sciences compared to the humanities. There is certainly a place for a social approach to scholarship, and it appears that for this to succeed, the concentration should be on content and collaboration and less on personal opinion and shared experiences.

What is the definition of social in academics? Perhaps the way to look at this is reflected in the approach of an interesting new project that I recently became aware of. Knode’s stated approach is “It’s not who you know, it’s who you should know.” The idea behind this start-up is to concentrate on content, linking experts and their knowledge in a highly disambiguated environment specific to the needs of researchers.

In summary, perhaps the fundamental question that librarians, scholarly societies and publishers should ask themselves is what help can we provide to researchers that they really need, but are not receiving currently? Below is a figure from the Ithaka survey that reveals a number of areas where the faculty we serve clearly need us to step up and help.

Figure 35 from the Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2012
Figure 35 from the Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey 2012

We need to ask how we may account for cultural differences between disciplines in the publishing and information services we provide. Let’s not discard what we know works, and yet let’s not ignore our ability to shape how research may be done through digital social tools.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


12 Thoughts on "Antisocial in a Social World"

These are strange, and loaded, questions. The low number of yeses suggests that these activities might not be appropriate. Libraries negotiating publishing contracts for example. Are you suggesting that these things should be done?


The question itself asks whether “your college or university library, scholarly society, university press, or another service provider” has provided any of these services.


Indeed Roger, which makes this a very bad question. As an issue analyst I am very sensitive to the precision of questions. This one is dreadful. Do we really expect libraries, societies and presses to offer similar services? These services, if you want to call them that, are normally provided either by mentors or by lawyers, although first time authors should always ask around. Here is my contribution: It is hell. Get used to it.


The question in our survey, as reproduced in this post, asks whether the respondent utilizes each of these possible services, whomever may be the service provider. It neither assumes nor suggests that the same services should be offered by different types of service providers.


That is just not true, Roger. By listing these people you are suggesting that they should provide the service, compared to others not listed. Else why list them? I repeat; these are bad questions. They are advocacy questions.

The point here was to raise questions rather than answer them. The Ithaka survey is worth a look, but no I am not suggesting these points as answers.

Good to know, Robert, but it would be more fun if you were defending these strange ventures. Questions two and three are especially interesting to me because the concept of impact is so poorly understood. One wonders what these questions are asking?

Robert: Interesting discussion. I should add that your findings are those that existed back in 1970 when I started.

It seems to me that academics have set up their social networks without our help, i.e. flynet or other such means of exchange between folks of like mind.

Also, I think that publishers are very secretive when it comes to the financials of the business. I have negotiated all too many contracts and was most successful when explaining the finances of the industry and then how the royalty, advance, grant fit in. Author’s always appreciated having this kind of information because with it in hand they did not view the publisher as predatory.

Lastly, perhaps we are doing our job by just staying out of the picture as to how and why one either partakes or not in social media.

I am reading this 2009 book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, and the authors note how tenure and promotion committees and many scientists take a negative “view of popularizers within their ranks, and of public outreach generally.” Unfortunately, many scientists are strongly discouraged from discussing important issues and their research findings outside of their small scholarly sphere. But, some scientists are starting to realize there are many positive aspects to reaching the public through social networks. For example, this book, Social Media in Clinical Practice, just got published today, http://scienceroll.com/2013/08/08/social-media-in-clinical-practice-handbook-is-published/

The Ithaka survey points out that faculty find free on line materials more and more important. I wonder if the faculty know that much of the free access to the on line materials are paid for by the library through subscriptions?

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