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Scientists Ignoring Social Networks

2009 October 19

A recent article at Scholarly Kitchen pointed me to another piece at sciencebase about the lack of successful online social networks for scientists.

A quick analysis of online social networks, such as LinkedIn and Xing would suggest that a mere 1 in 7 [14%] research scientists use such tools as part of their work. This contrasts starkly with the business world where uptake is up to 88%.

I’m not sure this is quite a fair comparison; scientific social networks are specifically designed for research collaboration, while the 88% of employees using social networks are likely not doing so for business purposes – if that number is really that high, I’d be quite surprised.  The real comparison is the number of employees using social networks as a matter of business versus the number of scientists using them to communicate with research partners.  And unfortunately, I don’t think that kind of information is available.

It does beg the question – why aren’t social networks more popular among scientists?  As I tell my graduate students in as cliched a form as possible, we are a “people business” – our field centers around communication to and from our clients, our coworkers, our employees, and each other.  Online social networks should only make that easier.  But in I/O Psychology, the closest we have to a successful social network is a LinkedIn group, and discussions there seem to center around practitioners promoting their products and graduate students hunting for internships and research guidance that their advisers cannot provide.

Why hasn’t uptake been faster?  Even the number of I/O blogs is limited; you’d think that psychologists talking about their own ideas would be quite popular!  But I think this quote captures it well:

Krueger believes there needs to be a major cultural shift if online networking is to take on a bigger role. “Scientists really don’t like discussing their thoughts and ideas in the public domain (both for scooping and patent issues),” he points out, adding that there may be an assumed lack of security on internet-based social networks and a time-wasting aspect in that there’s nothing gained from time spent online when conferences and meetings provide all that many scientists feel they need. “For adoption of new technologies in science, it has to be an order of magnitude more useful than current tools,” says Krueger, “We just don’t have the time to waste learning new tools that only marginally increase our productivity.”

So while social networks might improve productivity and communication, the perceived cost is too high.  It takes time and effort not only to learn how the network functions, but also to actively participate – and that’s time taken away from other, theoretically more important work.  Unless logging in connects you to every other scientist, the value is simply too low.

That means that social networks will have to reach some sort of critical mass before mass adoption by the scientific community will take place.  It took several years for all of the major social networks to reach that point – a slow rise over a few years followed by a sudden acceleration.  Scientists (including organizational scientists) are in general a little more skeptical than the average Joe, so perhaps we’re just seeing a lag time between the two populations.

So to that end, I have jumped in.  Behold, my academia.edu homepage.  The question I have now: what next?

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