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4 Reasons Why Science Needs Social Media

Embracing digital platforms can help academics tackle modern challenges and make a bigger impact

here’s a Social Network for that” could well be the catchphrase for the times we live in. On top of monoliths like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and, increasingly, G+ we see a raft of specialized and niche platforms catering for “smaller” communities, many of which still number several million users.

I work at one such network, called Mendeley. It connects researchers around the world, and it’s doing extremely well with over 3 million users so far. But when explaining the concept of a social network where academics and researchers can collaborate, I’m always surprised that some people don’t instantly get it.

Part of the reason for that is that academia still has a “walled garden” aura about it which makes people think of scientists as brainy weird folk, constantly locked away in a lab by themselves. Nothing could be further from the truth though. Scientific discovery is rarely a solitary effort, and it often involves collaboration from many people in different disciplines, institutions and countries.

And here are 4 good reasons why embracing the social media revolution makes sense even for old-school scientists.

Reputation

Researchers build their reputations carefully over the course of many years, but until recently, the only meaningful way of measuring the impact of their work was to count how many times the papers they published were cited in other publications. This “impact factor” determines most aspects of their careers, from jobs to funding and tenure. Considering that the process of submitting, approving, editing and publishing a journal article can routinely take a year or two, however, there has been a steady movement towards adopting other forms of measurement, known as Altmetrics. Platforms like Mendeley can tell you not only how many times a paper in their database is read, but what kind of person chooses to read it, and which parts of it have proved most relevant. If more people embrace this, we could see a world where scientists can find the latest and most relevant research without waiting for the “impact scores” to filter through.

Collaboration

Governments are also catching on to the fact that if we want to tackle the big issues facing the world today, we need collaboration to work on a massive global scale. I recently reported on an initiative where governments from across the world came together to pledge to pool their scientific knowledge and resources to find a cure for dementia by 2025, a hugely ambitious goal. Since governments drive the research agenda, however, it’s reasonable to assume that collaboration will be a top priority in coming years. It’s inconceivable that effective complex projects like this will materialize without technologies that support efficient interactions, such as sharing information, co-annotating and writing documents simultaneously.

Information

Huge amounts of scientific data are generated every single second, and much of the challenge researchers face lies in processing it in meaningful ways. Technology can automate some processes, but much still needs to be done by humans. This is where social technology can harness the power of crowds in the most amazing ways. The Citizen Science movement has seen huge advances in a myriad of disciplines, with people coming together to gather and process all manner of data, helping to, for example, chart new galaxies and fight ash die back disease.

Funding

Most research is still funded through traditional channels, chiefly governments and universities, but in the near future it is not inconceivable that when considering funding applications, alternative metrics like the ones mentioned above will actually form part of the picture. The other possibility that social technology opens up, however, is that the public can get directly involved in funding research it believes to be important. We’ve seen the rise of crowdfunding in all sorts of areas, and research is no different. A recent Indiegogo campaign, for example, raised over $300,000 in one month to fund a new stem cell trial for Multiple Sclerosis.

Has social technology changed the way your industry works? Do you think that areas like research will benefit from these changes? Let me know in the comments!

Written by

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

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