How Scientists Are Increasingly Using Social Media

How Scientists Are Increasingly Using Social Media

Social networks are growing in almost all communities. One interesting manifestation has been the spread of social networks into academic communities. Thinking about this at first this may seem a bit strange. After all, the idea of esteemed scientists sitting around and liking comments of other professors may bring a smile to the face. Yet social networks have real value for academia, and the benefits of this have already been realised by savvy professionals in this field.

According to Richard Van Noorden (2014) writing for Nature, there are several reasons why social networks have proven popular in an academic sphere. One is the ability for academics to follow discussions that are happening about topics of relevance to them. Another important one is being able to post their own content, find peers that may be relevant to their field and discover recommended papers. The ability to comment on research was also considered of value to many. If this still seems all very odd then maybe considering some examples may help.

ResearchGate has been set up as a social networking website that is free to use for academics. A person can use the site to network with others and find the information and equipment needed to be able to progress research. This has the potential to cross international borders and certainly academic disciplines. Indeed the tool has proven invaluable in enabling academics on different continents with different specialist areas to make advances in their fields. A specific example is provided by Nature of a PhD student in Nigeria studying microbiology getting in touch with a geneticist from Italy and making progress in the field of fungal infections. It is collaborations like these that drive the success of ResearchGate which has already seen 4.5 million signups, and which attracts a further 10,000 on a daily basis.

How scientists use Social Media infographic


Some academics have been disparaging about ResearchGate and this led Nature to run a study to better understand how researchers use social networking. The research received 3,500 responses from almost 100 different countries. The findings of this study showed that ResearchGate has a well-known brand, and more scientists had heard of it than had heard of Twitter or Google+! Additionally almost 50 per cent reported going to the site regularly, making it almost as important as Google Scholar and more important for researchers than either Facebook or LinkedIn. was found to be another important social networking site for researchers, though less prolifically used than ResearchGate.

There was also an interest in understanding what researchers do on these sites, precisely. One important activity for many was simply making sure to keep a profile up to date on the site just in case any other researcher might want to get in touch. Another interesting use for researchers of these sites was uploading papers to be able to see how often these papers got downloaded, as well as where and when this was happening. Interestingly the most cited papers are not necessarily the ones that are the most downloaded. Academics in some cases reported scepticism about whether this actually improves their career opportunities, but anyway some reported satisfaction of simply knowing that their work was being read or discussed by others. Unfortunately one problem that has emerged as a result of this has been some illegal uploading of papers.

An interesting innovation of ResearchGate has been the launch of functionality known as Open Review. This encourages the platform’s user base to critique publications. The critiques are supposed to be in-depth. Interestingly, and maybe surprisingly to some, this feature has already attracted in excess of 10,000 reviews. There is a hope that raw data sets will also be uploaded eventually. However this does create some concerns about copyright for some. There are also worries that have been expressed about the potential monetisation of these sorts of services that are being offered by ResearchGate and others, such as selling data on users. However, to date sites have been monetising through advertising such as posting job advertisements. The problem is that the limited potential for income that is possible this way has led people to express these concerns. The limited income potential is exacerbated by the fact that these sites have a narrower appeal than other social networks like Twitter or Facebook. Yet despite the cynicism, use of these sites is growing rapidly. It will be interesting to see how it evolves.