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Usefulness of social networking for scientists: greatly exaggerated?

In Web 2.0 & all that on November 4, 2009 by Danielle Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

A study of research patterns in life scientists found that (duh) they all have different patterns of accessing information. Of course we knew this, or at least suspected it, but I can’t help but be pleased that the British Library found space for this news on its Press Room page.  It shores up the notion that libraries and ‘resource centres’ need to be flexible with different users.

“Researchers use informal and trusted sources of advice from colleagues, rather than institutional service teams, to help identify information sources.” Yes they do-another reason why perhaps an information professional must inject themselves into the teams with which they work, rather than sideline themselves. Depending on how an organisation is set up, this can be quite natural and easy (if one’s desk is ‘integrated’ into the team area, for example, as proximity tends to predict positive regard) or difficult, if the information team is isolated or in a ‘bricks and mortar’ library away from the clients.

I thought it interesting that the report highlighted that social networking tools (blogs, podcasts, social bookmarking, etc) had not proven terribly appealing to life scientists.  The full report elaborates that, firstly, “there is not the critical mass of individuals using such services to make it worthwhile” to use them to “enhance research”. Secondly, and I almost choked while reading this, “the time required in order to become a proficient user is prohibitive.” Don’t give me that. These are highly trained people who, as it says in the next sentence, may use “grid technologies” and “an intricate array of analytical tools” in their day to day work.

What do you think about the ‘not enough time’ to learn simple, user friendly web-based software argument?

I really think that the report should have written: “the scientists can’t be bothered with this social networking stuff because of general complacency and then notion that Twitter and the like will only be around for a few years before we get something new, so, again, why bother?”

Nor is this attitude unique to the life sciences. I know someone very influential, at a Canadian charity, who is crying out to use Twitter for fundraising and marketing. But she is sadly also ‘too busy’.

In other news, the “Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has acknowledged that social media has contributed significantly to the income it has raised for its current appeal. In the first week of the DEC’s appeal for Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, over £3 million was donated,” mainly via the BBC website, Twitter and Facebook.

A spokesperson from the DEC said “the biggest risk we faced was not that we might make a mistake [with using Twitter], it was that we would miss a chance to help save more lives.”

Check out #casestudieslife on Twitter to contribute to the discussion about how researchers use and access information (or not!).

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4 Responses to “Usefulness of social networking for scientists: greatly exaggerated?”

  1. Also often highly specialised scientists know everybody else in their field anyway, meeting up at conferences etc. They’d probably argue what can social networking bring that I can’t already do through emails to established collaborators and the odd call for help through a specialist online noticeboard (e.g. JISCmail); now they DO have critical mass.

  2. I think the subtext of what you have written is that someone who is highly specialised doesn’t have to bother with meeting new folks or deriving ideas and inspiration from the weird and wonderful things one can encounter, by following folks on Twitter, for example. Perhaps if they are at the end of their career and have other priorities, then I wouldn’t be surprised at this attitude (it reminds me of a psych prof of mine who was nearing retirement and obviously didn’t care much for trying to make his classes engaging or interesting. A prof whose classes I wished weren’t required!)

    I would argue that the relationships that come from Twitter, blogging etc are of a quite different nature than those fostered through meeting up at conferences. They aren’t face to face. They are international (I am following someone who is a Aussie information architect/ tech whiz who tweets when I sleep). They are strictly informational- one can build relationships without small talk (or can one?-debatable). They are ‘take it or leave it.’ If you find yourself stuck in a boring discussion online-leave it, or start a more interesting one. It is simpler to tease out people’s interests online, I find, than at a dining table at a conference.

    I think that Jiscmail serves a good purpose, but I personally find the interface for using it quite clunky (unless they’ve revamped it since I last logged in) and not optimised for discovering new and wonderful lists. I find the entire premise of listservs-that information is force-fed into your email account for you to sift through-wearying. I’d much rather login to something when I have the time, to discover discussions rather than have them clog up my email inbox. I understand that everyone does not share this view. I think that professionals are impoverishing themselves by turning a blind eye to social networking and probably missing out on grants, jobs ads, and discussions that are posted in unfamiliar (to them) spheres. It makes the web 2.0 sphere more interesting when more people are engaged.

  3. I agree with much of what you say, and I’ve no doubt that as more people become more engaged with social networking sites it will become a richer medium. Many new technologies and web-sites have great excitement for a year or two, but that they then dwindle away into the void. I suspect twitter will be around for a while yet (though the number of twitterati remains very very small compared to e.g. the number of facebook users), but in the world of serious scientific research not much can be said in 140 characters. Having said that, it’s one way to meet new people who are working on similar things, and will carve itself a role. There are hundreds of millions of people out there commenting, blogging, tweeting, status updating etc themselves (the firehose of unfiltered information that slaps us in the face every time we turn a computer on), and no doubt many of them having interesting things to say, however as with any other profession, research scientists can only flit about on social networking sites for so long before turning off and buckling down to some real work 😉

  4. The same idea behind social networks such as twitter and facebook was use for the creation of wikipedia. The community and knowledge is out there already – social networks, social knowledge sites, social bookmarking sites simply organize these existing networks in a manner which makes them more efficient.

    I wonder what scientists have to say about wikipedia?

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