Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Social networking challenges traditional science

The system of scientific publications has not changed much in the last couple of hundreds years, despite the digital revolution that is pretty much affecting every discipline. Researchers still publish scientific results in established journals, which appear weekly, or monthly. Despite the overwhelming success of the internet, not many scientists have adopted all the digital tools at their disposal. Currently, it can still take months to publish an article in a scientific journal, because of the sluggish peer reviewed system. However, several scientists have taken up initiatives to change this ancient publishing system. A social network aimed at scientists ought to speed up the process, and make science more open.

An upcoming digital initiative that attempts to change the way scientists communicate is ResearchGate. The social network aims at connecting scientists with each other, and enables them to share answers and publications. Because there is no centralized and controlled process, sharing knowledge among scientists is much faster, and does not involve a tedious submitting process. That also means there is no peer review system, in which a non-affiliated scientists review an upcoming publication. However, because of its openness, published results will still undergo scientific scrutiny. Perhaps even more so, because the reviewing process is no longer closed off.

As a scientific version of a social network, it is pretty similar to Facebook and Twitter, popular existing networks for sharing things. Members may choose to follow fellow scientists, or post content in the form of scientific questions or publications. In their profiles, scientists can mention in which field they are working and which academic degrees they possess. Additionally, it is possible to connect to work groups or attend conferences.

ResearchGate was founded in 2008, and for a while consisted of just 12 employees. They have been growing rapidly over the years, and now employ around 70 people. 1.3 million scientists have already signed up on the social network, and last year, about 1.6 million connections were made between people. Over 12,000 questions got answered and close to a million publications were posted. Pretty impressive numbers for a startup that is now entering its fourth year.

Conventional publications
Scientific journals such as Nature and Science all work largely the same way, and have done so for a long time. Scientists can submit papers, which will be peer reviewed by fellow scientists. Often, a fee needs to be paid before a paper is published. The whole process can take months, after which the article is published in one of the upcoming editions of the journal where it was published. Nobody really has access to such journals, except for scientists. Research institutes and universities often have subscriptions so that their employees have unlimited access, but the general public often does not know about them. And that will remain so, because journals charge ridiculous amounts of money to access a simple pdf containing a scientific publication. Nature, perhaps the most well-known in the world of natural sciences, charge 32 dollars for access, which really is way too much for content that is meant to be shared with the world, to improve our knowledge about things.

Science is still dominated by an old-fashioned publication system. Many researchers strive at obtaining as much publications as possible: it's as if publishing has become the main goal, instead of gathering new knowledge. What's worse, is that the current system is heavily outdated, and does not make much use of new technology, despite the fact that several journals have opted for open access and online publications. Social networks and tools for communicating and sharing knowledge can greatly speed up the sluggish process, and initiatives like ResearchGate look very promising. The digital age cannot be stopped: it is likely that the scientific publication system will look radically different in ten years time.

It is not the first social network for scientific purposes. A German initiative aims at connecting people with the same intestinal characteristics. This enables them to share experiences about intestinal troubles. A stool sample is required for signing up. 

No comments:

Post a Comment