• September 18, 2014

Social Networks for Academics Proliferate, Despite Some Doubts

Social Networks for Academics Proliferate, Despite Some Scholars' Doubts 1

Max Whittaker for The Chronicle

Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist at the U. of California at Davis, used a scholarly social-networking site called Mendeley to organize and post the research papers of his late father, an NIH researcher.

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 Academia.edu, one of a growing number of networking sites designed specifically for scholars.

"Friends told me that it's basically Facebook for nerds, which I'm very happy with," says Mr. Geltner, a professor of medieval history at the University of Amsterdam.

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. It lets people know what he's working on and helps him connect with others in his field. "I like the fact that I can read someone's paper without having to be their friend or follower," he says.

Still, he isn't averse to helping out a scholar in need. When a query popped up in his Academia.edu window from a doctoral student in Australia who was looking for a link to a court decision issued by King Henry III of England, he thought of a colleague in Texas who had digitized that 13th-century scroll. "I sent it to her, and in minutes she could move on with her research," he says.

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

The free sites, which also include Mendeley.com, ResearchGate.net, Zotero.org, 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. Some scholars who are already feeling overwhelmed by the demands of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and e-mail either shy away from the new sites or dabble in them and then let their accounts sit dormant.

Jessica Medaille, senior director of membership development at the International Society for Technology in Education, says that Linked­In remains the most popular networking platform for the society's members, and that she isn't aware of some of the new faculty-specific sites.

"We've struggled with the question of whether we should have our own private platform," she says, "because people are in enough social channels already that having more isn't necessarily an advantage."

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.

Richard Price founded Academia.edu as a site for sharing research papers after finishing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Oxford, in 2007, and moving to San Francisco.

The site, which attracted $6.7-million in seed capital from a variety of investors, signs up 3,500 new users a day, he says.

"With networks like Twitter and Facebook, information whizzes around at laser speed," Mr. Price says, "whereas in science, and research in general, the average time lag is a year before a paper gets in a journal and is distributed to the rest of the world."

With the Web, of course, distribution is instantaneous. "When you read a paper and want to comment, you'll be able to respond immediately," he says. "The conversation will take minutes and hours instead of months and years."

This approach has been used for years in some scientific fields; the arXiv preprint service, for example, has offered such features to physics researchers since 1991.

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."

Asked whether quality and credibility suffer when researchers post papers online instantly, without going through a formal peer-review process, Mr. Price acknowledges that that is "an important concern."

But Academia.edu 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 one of the world's largest research-collaboration platforms, with 1.6 million users and some 180 million documents indexed in its database.

It also offers personalized recommendations on what to read next, much the way Amazon.com suggests books based on a reader's previous purchases.

Michael A. Blank, vice president for business development, describes how Mendeley takes over some of the tedious tasks scholars spend much of their time doing.

Instead of having to sift through hundreds or thousands of research papers stored as PDF files on his computer, a Mendeley user can drag and drop entire folders to a site that automatically organizes and extracts key information. If he needs to cite a study, he can click on an icon and punch in a keyword or author, and the study will pop up properly cited and formatted. He can repeat the same steps for the bibliography.

"It frees up their time so they can do their experiments, write up the results, and publish, which is the lifeblood of any researcher," Mr. Blank says.

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.

Mr. Eisen, a self-described "obsessed open-access advocate," described the impact in a blog post last year: "Thanks to the social features of Mendeley, more and more people will see and have access to those papers, thus ensuring that they do not wallow in never-never land but continue to have some potential impact on science and society."

'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.

"After six years of running Zotero, it's not clear that there is a whole lot of social value to academic social networks," says Sean Takats, the site's director, who is an assistant professor of history at George Mason University. "Everyone uses Twitter, which is an easy way to pop up on other people's radar screens without having to formally join a network." 

 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.

"There were two fundamental things that really annoyed me," he says. "If you make a mistake, you don't share the results with other people, so they end up making the mistakes again. And if you need help with a problem, it's almost impossible to find people if they aren't in your laboratory."

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.

The way science is usually done, he says, is that scientists sit on information for years before it's published, guarding rather than sharing discoveries so they can get credit for being first.

"I want to change the mind-set of scientists," he says, "so they start thinking, 'I want to share everything I'm working on, whether the results are negative or positive.'"

While the top sites in the field seem to be thriving, others have fallen by the wayside. Pronetos.com, a social-networking site for scholars of all disciplines that started in 2007, was shut down a few months ago, after it peaked at 8,000 users.

"We wanted to make a great literature clearinghouse wrapped around a social-networking site, but there was no interest," says the site's founder, Christopher Blanchard, an adjunct professor of community and regional planning at Boise State University.

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, FacultyRow.com provides online forums so scholars can link up through text or video chats. Members, who post profile information about themselves, can apply to be dubbed "super professors" on the basis of their academic accomplishments, including their publications, their passion for their subjects, and the clarity with which they teach (applicants can post videos of themselves in the classroom).

Jeff Finder, a former Wall Street stockbroker who founded the site in 2009, says that he selected all of this year's 145 super professors himself, but that next year's picks will be judged by a staff that has grown to five. He says the site, which is vetted for accuracy, has some 91,000 registered members, in 103 countries.

"Our job is to identify who the top academics are and help them monetize their knowledge," Mr. Finder says. "A lot of academics don't know how to market themselves."

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."

Corrections (4/30/2012, 12:36 p.m.): Because of incorrect information provided by Mendeley.com, this article originally misstated the size of the academic social-networking site. Mendeley has 1.6 million users, not 1.9 million, and claims to be one of the world's largest research-collaboration platforms, not the largest. The service's 180 million documents are indexed in its database, not its online catalog. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.