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.
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!