Sunday, April 29, 2012

Social Networks for Academics Proliferate, Despite Some Doubts

April 29, 2012

As a medieval historian with some decidedly old-school habits, Guy Geltner wanted to expand his online presence, but he shuddered at the thought of "friending" or "Tweeting" to get other scholars' attention.

Then a colleague introduced him to, one of a growing number of networking sites designed specifically for scholars.


The profile he set up includes far more information than his university's Web page could accommodate, including links to research papers, books, blogs, and forthcoming talks. [snip].

On the Web, "when you read a paper and want to comment, you'll be able to respond immediately," says Richard Price, founder of "The conversation will take minutes and hours instead of months and years."


The past five years have seen a proliferation of sites like, which, with 1.2 million registered users, is one of the heavyweights in the field.

The free sites, which also include,,, and a number of discipline-specific platforms, typically offer users a way to organize their research, create personal profiles, and search for people with similar scholarly interests.

While the number of faculty-networking sites is growing, and their registered-user figures soar into the millions, their impact on higher education is less clear. [snip].


Academics' communication overload is apparent on some of the networking sites, where discussion groups are empty shells and some profiles haven't been updated in a year or more.

Still, the founders and regular users of the sites insist they are having a profound impact on how scholars go about their work.


New Pace of Distribution

Mr. Geltner, the medieval historian, says some scholars upload papers that haven't been published elsewhere, as well as conference presentations and works in progress. He prefers to publish in a peer-reviewed journal rather than an online site, "but I reserve the option to change my mind, at least as a way to experiment with the medium."


But can help scholars organize their accomplishments into what he calls "a rich analytical dashboard," which a job candidate or grant applicant can print out to show, for instance, the number of page views an article has received.

A competing site, Mendeley, is a program for managing and sharing research papers that includes both a desktop application and a social-networking site.

Victor Henning, a co-founder, says he and his colleagues created the site in 2007 to deal with hassles they faced as doctoral students.

Their first step was to develop software that automatically extracts the title, author, volume number, and other bibliographic details from stored papers, sparing researchers the pains­taking process of plugging that information in by hand.

They then decided to link the researchers and to build an online research database, using the concept of crowdsourcing. The London-based site has evolved into the world's largest research-collaboration platform, they say, with 1.9 million users and some 180 million documents indexed by its online catalog.


Jonathan A. Eisen, a professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of California at Davis, used Mendeley to distribute the research papers that his father, Howard J. Eisen, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, published before he died, in 1987. After struggling to free papers locked behind pay walls, Jonathan Eisen compiled the articles and posted nearly all of them on a Mendeley page he had created for his father.


'Everyone Uses Twitter'

While Mendeley's users tend to have scientific backgrounds, Zotero offers similar technical tools for researchers in other disciplines, including many in the humanities. The free system helps researchers collect, organize, share, and cite research sources.

It hosts group discussions, but social networking isn't a major focus of the site.


Another big player in the field is ResearchGate, which allows scholars to share research papers. Ijad Madisch, chief executive officer and a co-founder, says he came up with the idea for the site in 2007, while he was a research fellow at Harvard University and got hung up on a problem involving tissue engineering.


Today the site has about 1.5 million registered members—more than triple the number in October 2010—in 192 countries. About 6,000 people sign up each day, says Dr. Madisch, who is a physician.


Scholars aren't interested in sharing original ideas on such sites, he now believes, "because they're afraid they'll be ripped off" and because they simply don't have the time.

Among the smaller sites that are seeking out faculty members, provides online forums so scholars can link up through text or video chats. [snip].


He says FacultyRow enables them to do that by sending out news releases and helping professors who use the site land jobs as paid tutors or consultants.

But money isn't the primary factor drawing researchers to networking sites, says Dr. Madisch, of ResearchGate.

"We have thousands of new discussions taking place every day—scientists helping scientists without getting anything for it," he says. "Three years ago, people were smiling at me and saying that scientists aren't social. They won't share information. They were wrong."

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