Home Science CommunicationCommunity & events Scientists and Web 2.0 – Allen Press talk

Scientists and Web 2.0 – Allen Press talk

by Eva Amsen

A couple of weeks ago I went to Washington D.C. to talk about scientists and the internet at the Allen Press seminar. I shared the session slot with Andrea Powell of CABI and Will Fisher of ASHA. They told the audience about the web 2.0 tools they had implemented, and I talked about how web 2.0 tools are received among scientists. Anna Jester of Allen Press then asked us to write up our talks for their newsletter, which was a great motivation for me to also write a blog post about it. (It’s the same text I also submitted, and, yes, I asked if I could also blog it. It would be sad if I didn’t have any netiquette after giving an entire talk about the internet…)

National Press Club, where the conference was.

Me, speaking

Scientists and Web 2.0

Modern day research can’t do without the internet: people use it to e-mail colleagues, look for articles, submit manuscripts, and search databases. But in recent years the web has also become a distraction from work. The image of the web as a frivolous time waster is one reason that researchers may be hesitant to adopt web 2.0 tools in their daily workflow, but that is not the only obstacle in getting scientists to become more active online. In general, many people use the web only passively, without commenting on blogs or editing wikis. And when it comes to discussing research, there are some extra hurdles: If you leave a comment on a published article, the author may very well be your next peer reviewer, so you don’t want to be too critical. There is also a fear of being scooped. What if you accidentally give too much away online?

Another major factor that makes scientists reluctant to join a social network, blog, or comment on research articles is simply that there is no incentive to do so. There are certainly scientists who are very active online, but this small group of people is doing that in their spare time. There is no professional benefit to leaving a comment on a research article. The same is true for science blogging.

Science blogs make for an entertaining read, and they’re fun to write, but blogging is not for everyone. Arguments in favour of scientists blogging often mention that it makes for good outreach, or it improves the overall image of blogging, but that is no direct professional benefit to the blogger. The ones that blog are often those that already like writing, or want to improve their communication skills. A modest, but growing, number of scientists is now also on Twitter. It costs very little time to use Twitter, but the fleeting nature of the site does not appeal to everyone. Twitter is like standing in a crowded room: You might pick up on an interesting conversation, but you have to go in there knowing that you won’t be able to follow what everyone is saying.

Maybe scientists don’t want to openly talk about science online, but they can still use online social networking sites. In fact, scientists already have offline social networks: they are part of a department, and they know people in their field all over the world thanks to conferences and peer review. It seems like a good idea to move those networks online, and indeed there are many online social networking sites for scientists. Too many. Networks become scattered rather than organized, because there is currently no default scientist social networking site where everyone is connected. Some are more popular than others, though, and this may change once one network reaches a critical mass.

Other sites are meant to share your library of papers with your peers. But sharing what you’re reading is not important if all you need is a tool to cite references into a manuscript. Many scientists swear by the citation manager they’re currently using, and will not easily switch to a new tool. A social reference manager will only catch on if it can also make writing papers a lot easier _and_ if enough people use it that it becomes a default tool.

Altogether, there are a number of reasons why scientists are not eager to adopt web 2.0 tools: the frivolous image, a reluctance to use new tools, lack of time, lack of incentive, and fear of negative effects on their career. Before promoting the use of web 2.0 tools or sites by scientists you should ask whether it’s really beneficial. Does it save time? Does it make work easier? Can it be used passively (without the need to contribute)? If it does, it may catch on, but this is a tough audience!


Lincoln Memorial

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Martin Fenner April 27, 2009 - 7:37 PM

Very well said. We need a *Like* button here on Nature Network…

Eva Amsen April 27, 2009 - 8:47 PM

I don’t mind comments just saying “like”. I seem to hardly get any comments anymore at all, so even one word messages are welcome here.

Craig Rowell April 27, 2009 - 8:58 PM

Eva – I liked this very much. I thought your slides were very good and your text was quite clear in defining the situation. I also like the fact that I found your blog post not through my NN front page, but it was tweeted by someone and popped up on my “Spreadtweet”:http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/page/2/ while I was away from my desk running a gel. Hip hip hurray for web 2.0!

Stephen Curry April 27, 2009 - 10:33 PM

Nice photos too!

Cath Ennis April 27, 2009 - 10:37 PM

@I don’t mind comments just saying “like”. I seem to hardly get any comments anymore at all, so even one word messages are welcome here.@

Eva Amsen April 27, 2009 - 11:17 PM


Cath Ennis April 28, 2009 - 12:21 AM

“metronome” was the first word that popped into my head. I’ve no idea why. But about 2 minutes later I realised that a metronome might be a useful thing to have, as I want to start playing my guitar again. Then it occured to me that there might be an iPhone app. And there is! So I installed that, plus a tuning app.
So, if anyone else ever doubts the usefulness of web 2.0, here’s another counter example.

Elia Ben-Ari April 28, 2009 - 2:15 AM

Thanks for the blog post on this topic. I’ve been looking into this issue a bit and also am getting the impression that most scientists do not see the possible utility/benefits of web 2.0. It will be interesting to see if that changes.
By the way, your photos are nice but the photo labeled “cherry blossoms” is in fact a magnolia tree!

Eva Amsen April 28, 2009 - 2:51 AM

_”is in fact a magnolia tree!”_
Thanks for letting me know! I’m changing it now. I thought they were the wrong size, but I thought I just remembered them wrong. I’ve had some of the photos up for weeks elsewhere and nobody told me yet. I’m bad at naming plants. Animals I can do – plants not so much.

Lars Juhl Jensen April 28, 2009 - 10:00 AM

Well said Eva. It is somewhat ironic that you show a magnolia tree, though, considering what happened to the Web 2.0 service ma.gnolia 😉

Bill Hooker April 28, 2009 - 10:57 AM

Like. 🙂

Eva Amsen April 28, 2009 - 2:42 PM

Lars, I completely forgot that site ever existed! Which, I guess, is part of the problem. I don’t think I ever used it (not even passively)

Ryan Jones April 29, 2009 - 12:24 AM

This is a great summary of the sorts of feedback we’ve been hearing at “Pubget”:http://www.pubget.com. We’re not a social network, but we are web two-point-oh-ey. And we’ve been delaying the build-out of some social features because of the trends you’ve described.
My two cents: The scientific community will indeed be slower to adopt social tools because of the reputational risk as you mentioned (metronomed??), but not because they already have real world social networks. _Everyone_, in every profession, has real world social networks, and that has not slowed the growth of this medium.

Eva Amsen April 29, 2009 - 2:46 AM

I was thinking of peer review in particular (as well as labs on the same floors/departments) that are already groups you would want to work with. Scientists probably have been in touch with people in their fields, directly or indirectly, by reviewing each others work. That’s unique to academia (okay, not just science) and doesn’t exist between, say, shopkeepers or real estate agents.

Frank Norman April 29, 2009 - 10:09 PM

I had a frustrating experience today. Two senior scientists aqre trying to get me to help them, and create an info service by scanning and manually filtering stuff. Actually we already do some of this and have an RSS feed of relevant items. I showed them the link and they said “Oh, what’s RSS? We would never click on something like that”, like it was something quite beyond the pale. Later on I mentioned something about blogs. One of them said “what’s a blog?”.
It’s fair enough in my book if someone doesn’t know what RSS is, but to refuse to even look at it just seems like laziness. And to have no idea what a blog is – is that really credible?
Thing is, they seemed quite belligerent in this attitude of ignoring these things. Made me feel I was the stupid one for daring to think that perhaps they might take an interest in information resources.

Eva Amsen April 29, 2009 - 10:33 PM

Yep. That sounds familiar. I know several people who don’t know what RSS is, and (think they) have never seen a blog. It’s really that far outside many people’s daily life/work experiences.
Also the fear of the RSS button/link sounds familiar. Maybe not with RSS in particular, but many people are scared to click things online if they don’t know what it does. And yes, scientists too.

Richard P. Grant April 30, 2009 - 9:10 AM

There are two issues, as I see it:
# getting scientists to overcome the usage barrier (distrust, new-fangled etc.)
# is there actually a _use_ for social media?
Those points are backwards. There is no incentive for people to do #1 if you can’t show #2.

Martin Fenner May 1, 2009 - 5:00 AM

RSS is really a good example of something really useful and really easy that is still very much underused by scientists. We could probably do more for the promotion of Science 2.0 by explaining RSS and the use of a feed reader than by talking about all this more advanced stuff. Journal table of contests and stored PubMed searches via RSS would be a good starting point.

Heather Etchevers May 1, 2009 - 6:14 AM

_I seem to hardly get any comments anymore at all, so even one word messages are welcome here._
(Here’s a second few-more: what an official-looking, intimidating setting for your talk! And I agree with your conclusions. There has been a bit of a discussion on LinkedIn about “Sigma Xi”:http://sigmaxi.org/ creating a new social site, where someone official from Sigma Xi asked if people liked the idea in a yes-no response, and I went and wrote a novel instead. But in essence, many people who do seem to use social networking wrote back that, no, we’re spread thin enough as it is. I think perhaps that many of those who answered yes, were only on LinkedIn and did not know the other options.)

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