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Social Networks for Scientists Won't Work

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A "Facebook for Scientists"? It may sound silly, or redundant, but it's becoming more of a reality. Maybe.

A new startup based in Germany named ResearchGate has already convinced roughly 1.4 million researchers to become members and begin sharing. On it, you can search your email accounts to find people you know, read PDF documents of research papers, and chat with others about why a particular lab technique isn't working for you. Reportedly, the service is appealing to young researchers in their 20's.

None of this is particularly original. There have long been scientists on Facebook and LinkedIn and connecting via other websites like Scienceblogs. There have long been stores of PDF documents online, and searchable databases of them (particularly if you work at a university). There have long been job boards where you might find your next gig. And there have long been discussion boards or similar places where you could ask questions about lab techniques or which conference to attend this year.

The Economist writes about ResearchGate as if it's the only social network for scientists out there, but that's far from the case. Others have come before, and some are already gone. One that sounds somewhat similar was called Labmeeting; here, it's highlighted in a June 2008 post in TechCrunch, with a vast vision (co-founder Mark Kaganovich: "What we are trying to do is change the way information in biomedical research and the medical community is distributed and retrieved.") and a $500,000 seed round of funding from Peter Thiel and others. But Labmeeting.com no longer directs anywhere, and Crunchbase lists the fledgling company as in the "deadpool" as of 1/1/11.

It's not really clear what ResearchGate is doing that's fundamentally different than Labmeeting.

But the ecosystem seems even worse, because many others have tried and failed, or tried and not necessarily caught on, or tried and are much more like "science publication management software" than a social network where people openly share. They have names like Academia.edu, Laboratree, Mendeley, myExperiment, and Epernicus. Scitable.com was launched by the Nature Publishing Group in 2009 as "a social network for scientists and scholars" but it currently looks like... a very nice website, or extremely fancy blog -- which is fine in itself, but it's not a social network, not really. The National Institutes of Health was reportedly funding yet another social network for scientists; I'm not sure if it ever happened.

It's easy to measure total users or total PDF's uploaded or other metrics and claim some success. And we're not really picking on any particular social network effort here. But why haven't any of these platforms truly caught on in the scientific community? Fundamentally, it's because they are add-ons to "the way things get done" and not replacements for the way scientists work day-to-day or how their careers are judged (i.e., you don't get promoted for great science tweeting).

This story about Science 2.0 reminds me of a slightly older debate about Intelligence 2.0, whereby the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) built Intellipedia and other social tools with which analysts could collaborate in real time around information, data, breaking news across agencies and job descriptions. It sounds great, and there were users, mainly younger ones passionate about innovative tools and approaches. Here's a great video about "Living Intelligence," also known as Purple Intelligence (i.e., mixing red and blue) -- It's a great video, a vision of how intelligence analysis could be.

But at the end of the day, living intelligence is not the vision by which the IC operates, for the most part. The way that analysts are measured is not by how many edits they made on the wiki page for a town in Iraq, but rather by writing old-fashioned reports for their agency or other traditional tasks. The problem is that Intellipedia was an add-on to what their job was; not the way they did their primary job. That negative feedback loop is enough to ensure that the innovation of Intellipedia never really makes it past the "chasm of death."

The same is true of science, which I have some firsthand experience with (I have a Ph.D. in animal behavior genetics and did academic biology research for about a decade). The scientific community fundamentally operates under the notion that a peer-reviewed research paper published in a traditional research journal is the discrete end-product of a series of experiments aimed at testing one or more hypotheses. Anyone who has actually been a laboratory scientist knows that this is a complete farse; I need not even elaborate on why. Nevertheless, publishing such papers is the primary yardstick by which you are judged as a grad student, postdoctoral fellow, and professor, even at the more senior levels. On top of that, the same exact research published in a "good" journal vs. an "okay" journal is somehow emotionally different to the reader. The only reason why is perceived prestige of some publications vs. others regardless of actual long-term value of the research.

Social networks for scientists will face precisely the same challenges as those within the IC. These are two-fold. One, a culture of secrecy whereby the more "secret" information (vs. community / shared information) is perceived as more valuable. Two, a culture of discrete publications (vs. living knowledge and data sets) whereby people are primarily judged by traditional processes dating back, in the case of science, a couple hundred years. And while there are some well-intentioned, smart people discussing Science 2.0 and what it would take for that to happen, it is in my opinion extremely unlikely that the entire system of how academic science operates in the U.S. will change within the venture capital-backed funding cycle of one of the science social networking companies like ResearchGate.

From what people tell me, the IC is slowly changing. Certain individuals over a period of years have fought the good fight to change the workflow of intelligence analysts, leveraging new social technologies and making the work and the products more agile and indeed, "living." The full story is for another time, but the point is that it can happen. I know some of the individuals involved in the IC story, and their road has not been easy. The roadblocks thrown in their path have been significant. They traveled a very long, complicated path because they believed in a vision, a better way of doing things. But most importantly, they didn't just talk amongst themselves, but rather took the fight to the middle management of intelligence agencies, and to the senior leadership.

There are some voices like this in science, to some degree or another. Will they persevere against the system?