Ten years ago, on February 4, 2004, a new social networking site called Facebook was launched. While it was by no means the first, Facebook is arguably one of the largest and most influential social networks today. It's worth taking a step back to look at how powerful the concept of social networking has become, and what its potential is for the future, especially for scientific research and discovery.
Several players have been the drivers of social networking. Its origins can be traced to the Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS) launched in 1978 by Ward Christensen, an IBM field technical sales specialist, and his collaborator Randy Suess. During the past 15 years social networking platforms such as MySpace, LiveJournal, LinkedIn, Foursquare and Reddit have launched to great fanfare. Facebook originated as a social networking platform for students at Harvard. It was referred to at the time as a college version of Friendster. By 2009 it was ranked as the most used social network with more than 200 million users, twice that of rival MySpace. Today it is estimated that there are more than one billion Facebook users across the globe.
Less traveled, but no less important are those social networks geared to scientists such as Labroots, Quora, Research Gate, Mysciencework.com and Mendeley.
The basic premise of social networks -- allowing users to build a custom group of friends and colleagues with whom you can choose to selectively interact -- is its broad appeal. But this premise has, in fact, been around for many decades in science research. Contrary to the popular image of the lone scientist toiling away in an isolated lab, just about all scientific discovery is a collaborative effort that requires extensive networks of lab teams. Whereas 20 years ago these networks might have been confined geographically or within the same university system, today those networks are more likely to be virtual and global, especially since so much research is now cross-disciplinary. Teams of neuroscientists for example need a computer programmer, possibly an electrical engineer as well as genetics and analytics experts to help track, manage, and interpret the massive volume of data to develop reports. Larger, well-funded research teams may be fortunate enough to have such resources as part of their own on-site teams, but more often than not, they may be spread around the country or the world. In addition collaborations also appeal to funding agencies which see such efforts as a cost-effective way to provide crucial support to the core team.
Beyond this collaborative interaction of the research environment is the time-honored, critical scientific social network that, for 130 years, has governed the submission and peer review process of the scientific journal. The networks of editorial board members, teams of reviewers and experts have proven to be an effective process for providing feedback for authors, vetting new research and discerning its value to advancing science. With these networks now online and leveraging the full power of virtual communities, scientific publishing stands at an opportunistic crossroads, especially pertaining to the peer review process.
There is certainly merit to crowdsourcing through scientific social networks as a complement to the formal peer-review process, especially during the draft phase of a research paper where objective third-party insights would be helpful to authors in the finalization process, but only to a certain level. Publishers stake their reputation on the quality of our peer-reviewed journals; at Elsevier, for example, we reject almost 70 percent of submitted articles. Retractions are costly, not just on a monetary level, but also for credibility, so being able to trust the content of an article is crucial. This formal part of the peer review process should remain in the domain of the journal editor.
That said, social networking of science certainly offers a myriad of ways to benefit the research process and millions are leveraging social networks to explore, trade ideas and encourage debate; all laudable uses. Academic social networks like Mendeley for example, part of Elsevier, allow researchers to download journal articles from a variety of sources and create a personal library to share within a private group. Members can discuss, annotate and benefit from the free flow of ideas between like-minded colleagues at research facilities around the world regardless of affiliation, all of which drives citation and usage -- a vital metric in research.
Sites such as Quora, LabRoots and the science groups of LinkedIn, encourage open discussion. These might include questions about a specific area of research, suggestions for funding, job openings, working overseas and even specific challenges faced in the lab. A random sampling of hundreds of research discussions on LinkedIn and Quora illustrate how these networks are being used:
"I'm doing research about elongated skulls, cranial deformation in ancient culture, could anyone help me to understand if this ritual could influence the brain?" "What is the significance of the Stone Weierstrass theorem?" "Please check out my new article."
"I want to know if someone has heard about dementia in teenagers. Thanks." "In which physical phenomenon is the subcritical pitchfork bifurcation observed?" "Why is that 2 shell in argon which is located closer to the nucleus has lower energy than the n = 2 shell in neon?" "I request you all to look at my piece and share your thoughts." The corresponding answers from researchers around the globe demonstrate the power of the reach of these networks and the connections they develop.
The ability to create virtual labs where colleagues around the world can build their own libraries of papers and collaborative groups is now a staple of the research process. Looking to the future, development of alternate realities using such products as Google Glass, which allows a user to view the world with the internet overlaid, will create any number of intriguing ways for researchers to interact and discuss real-time field/lab research or papers in development. In addition, the targeting of researchers with pertinent information based on their social media posts, might generate automatic alerts and links to relevant articles and authors, much in the same way consumer product companies target prospects based on their purchasing history.
The potential for dynamic new discoveries from this exchange is as limitless as the human spirit.