A match made in cyberspace: how networks nurture science

Academic networks offer researchers in remote places a space to connect Copyright: Shutterstock/Digital Storm

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With the growth of online science networks, geography and economics no longer dictate how research is undertaken or published, finds Smriti Mallapaty.

[KATHMANDU] Just as matchmaking sites connect romance-seekers based on their relationship compatibility, new academic social networks are connecting scientists based on their professional research interests.

These sites obviously lack the general appeal of Facebook, which topped one billion users last month.

But in the last five years ResearchGate, Mendeley and Academia.edu have each generated a user base of almost two million users. Mendeley has seen an increase of 1.5 million in just 12 months.

After the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom, the most popular countries for ResearchGate and Mendeley are Brazil, China, India and Indonesia, with between 19,000 to 250,000 users in each country.

Once registered with such sites, users can upload their latest journal papers or images from the laboratory, join discussion groups and follow updates from colleagues.  The sites offer a space for researchers to share, review and collaborate — and perhaps even a secure environment in which to conduct research.

Those who cannot afford fee-based journals and databases — a common problem for scientists in many developing countries — can search papers posted by authors themselves.

"Mendeley makes it easier for people in the global South to stay on top of research that is happening globally," suggests Victor Henning, co-founder and chief executive officer of the reference manager and online network, which has a database of almost 290 million uploaded documents.

A scientist at work

Social networks bring scientists together to communicate and collaborate

Credit: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

Because scientists in developing countries are often unable to attend conferences, it’s "harder to stay in touch", Henning says. Academic social networks offer research labs in "far-flung, difficult-to-reach places" a space to connect, he adds.

User behaviour

Devendra Gauchan, an agricultural economist at the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, says he uses Mendeley and ResearchGate, to find "new scientific information".

"We do not have adequate access to the latest journal papers and information for conducting quality research work. This information can be accessed from these sites," he told SciDev.Net.

The McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program, which funds agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Andes, uses Mendeley to inform graduate students about existing research in order to prevent them repeating it.

Johnny Stiban, assistant professor at Birzeit University in Palestine, has another reason to use such sites: he says that posting his work online gives him "an edge" at conferences. Often people contact him beforehand to find out more about his research, set up collaborations, or seek work in his laboratory.

Nian Wang, a doctoral student of botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is more familiar with Chinese sites like the online science community and blog, ScienceNet.cn, or the virtual medical society, DXY.cn. These act as communication hubs, where Nian goes for the latest scientific news, blogs by respected scientists, and job openings.

Specialised experience-exchanging sites are particularly useful.

For example, in 2008, MedicineAfrica designed an online tutorial space and social network modelled on Facebook but specifically aimed at healthcare professionals. Although made up of a modest 1,000 users, almost all participants are actively engaged. In one of its initiatives, postgraduate doctors from the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland are linked through the network with specialists in the United Kingdom for weekly tutorials and mentoring.

"Instead of uploading pictures of your night out, friends or children, you would upload an X-ray, blood results or clinical images, and would meet with tutor groups to talk about that case online," says Faisal Ali, a MedicineAfrica-affiliated academic clinical fellow in dermatology at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.

The network also offers a peer support system. It recently started facilitating regular sharing of difficult cases among dentists in different parts of Sri Lanka.

Natural progression

But there is also strong potential for science, not just scientific careers.

"What I hope is that these sites are really used by people to do science," says Matthew Todd, a senior lecturer in chemistry and an open science advocate at the University of Sydney, Australia. This entails going beyond asking and answering questions, to sharing research as it is done, to allow for real-time public scrutiny of one’s work.

"That is not happening quite so much at the moment," Todd says.   

In 2008, Todd initiated an effort to develop cheaper drugs for the parasitic infection schistosomiasis. The project engaged an online research community — The Synaptic Leap — in an open-source process of scientific development. All findings were posted on an ‘electronic lab notebook’, in real-time.

Danielle Bengsch, head of public relations at ResearchGate, tells of two researchers — one in Italy, and one in Nigeria — who met on ResearchGate. Together they discovered the existence of a pathogenic yeast in Nigeria: after meeting online, Italian researcher Orazio Romeo, who was tracking the global presence of the specific yeast but could not afford to travel widely, was sent yeast samples by Emmanuel Nnadi, a microbiologist at the University of Jos, Nigeria. They later published their work in Medical Mycology and then posted it on ResearchGate. [1]

Researchers collaborating

Opening up communication channels is particularly important for developing country scientists

Credit: Flickr: X. Fonseca/CIMMYT

These sites also give scientists exposure and "the opportunity to receive feedback from an international community of experts," says Bengsch.

If such examples are to be the rule rather than the exception, there have to be changes in the way scientists use social networks. Firstly, more people need to sign up. "These sites can contribute to science, but people are not aware of them," says Sanjay Batra, a senior research scientist at the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow, India, who is also involved with Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) projects for malaria and tuberculosis.

For many scientists in developing countries, the limiting factor is connectivity. "Researchers have poor access to regular Internet," explains Gauchan.

Others say they have to convince employers that social networks can be used for work and not just play. Often "sites are not allowed in the office set up because people feel that one gets carried away with other data, like interacting with their personal friends, rather than doing scientific work," says Batra.

Finding ‘kernels of activity’

After generating a sizeable community, the next problem is converting a mostly passive user base into active participants. Todd describes how "in many cases these sites are things where you sign up and there are millions of users and hardly anyone is actually doing anything". Besides a few nodes of dense chatter, many sites are simply information repositories.

Sudarsan Tamang, an assistant professor at Sikkim University, India, suggests this may be a result of the vastness of the scientific field, and the difficulty in creating productive spaces for niche researchers.

"Someone like me who is working in semiconductor nanocrystals may not be too keen to befriend people online working in string theories and parallel universe theory even though we may know each other, and if it’s purely for a social purpose, then that string theory guy may already be my ‘friend’ in Facebook," says Tamang.

The solution is for communities to come together to solve well-defined problems.

"It is a fallacy that open-source products simply emerge — there are usually kernels of activity arising from funded work, to which the community then responds," says a paper on the schistosomiasis experiment, co-authored by Todd. He has since been involved with other open-source projects on malaria and tuberculosis.

Batra, who reviews one of the OSDD malaria sites, describes the online activity as "fruitful" and "meaningful". "Since the objectives are much more defined, it is much more scientific," he says.

New metrics

The biggest obstacle, however, is the secrecy that shrouds the scientific process, with scientists fearing that their ideas will be stolen before they are formally published.

Unlike the OSDD site, even an advanced user of Mendeley like Birzeit University’s Stiban has "never seen something that is unpublished or something that is premature" on the site. The scientific community is very competitive, he says, "and if you share something too early you can be scooped very easily".

Similarly, Susan Varghese, a PhD scholar at Pondicherry University in southern India, says Indian academic science takes place behind closed doors. "Discussing your research with other researchers would be the last reason for joining" a social media site, she says.

Mendeley and ResearchGate are challenging these hardened habits. Last month, ResearchGate launched the RG Score, a metric that assesses how the online community engages with an academic’s research outputs. The tool aims to enable researchers to "turn all of their work into a source of reputation" — even "raw, negative, or inconclusive data". A score is rounded out based on the user’s quality of inputs, type of interaction, and calibre of social network.

Leslie Chan, a senior lecturer at the University of Toronto, Canada, and associate director of Bioline International, a not-for-profit organisation that provides open access to journals published in developing countries, sees promise in applications that assess scientific impact.

"Now I can use [online research impact scores] to show funders or my boss that the stuff that I do out there is not just frivolous, but there are actually people using it, talking about it, tweeting, citing, and disseminating it," he says.

Ultimately, sharing work that traditionally takes place behind closed doors is expected to make the process more transparent and speed up the pace of discovery — if social networks can gain scientists’ trust.