Are you on Facebook? Twitter, perhaps? Maybe LinkedIn? What about a social networking site dedicated to materials science? If you are not, you may be more alone than you think…

While, social media and social networking emerged from the so-called Web 2.0 era, it seems that some groups have already embraced it fervently. Business users, for instance, have latched on to the potential marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO) benefits for raising their profile and boosting brand awareness. One study suggests that uptake in the business world is almost 90 percent, but says just one in seven scientists are actively using online social networks.

Richard Lackes, a Business Information Management researcher at Technical University Dortmund, Germany, points out that scientific research is essentially a communication-driven process and that most of its participants are young and part of what we might refer to as the Facebook generation, so this 1 in 7 is surprisingly low.

Tenured professors and bench jockeys may not yet see the benefits of Twittering or poking other researchers on Facebook. However, there are several networking sites that have sprung up to feed an alleged demand for social media for scientists as well as special-interest groups within the like of LinkedIn and Facebook. Moreover, a US-centric “Facebook for scientists” has been funded, with $12.2 million under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to build a social/collaborative network for scientists and researchers.

Social networking for scientists is only just beginning to take off. At the moment, there is some duplication of effort and hard-pressed researchers may not relish the prospect of finding one that is actually useful to them on a day-to-day basis, no single site as yet addresses all the needs of research scientists, the creators of the various networks are hoping to change this.

At first glance, it might seem easier to simply sign up for a general site like LinkedIn or Facebook. Indeed, many scientists are already reaping the rewards of linking up with other like-minded users using specialist sub-groups and pages on these systems as well as Twitter lists, for instance.

Ijad Madisch of one scientifically oriented network, ResearchGate, suggests that it is simply a matter of time before social networking becomes indispensable. “LinkedIn (as a professional network) needed a long time to go ‘viral' and to reach that what they are now,” he asserts, “I think for scientists it will be the same. We are just now in the early evolution of scientific networks.” He points out that ResearchGate, which has been around for about a year, already has more than 150,000 members and is growing with more than 1,000 new sign-ups each day.

Victor Henning of another site for researchers, Mendeley, suggests that social networking sites for researchers will have to offer more than conventional sites to be successful. “Most of them are ‘me-too' products that deliver little or no additional value over LinkedIn (and considering that networks depend on critical mass, they arguably deliver much less value),” he says. “That's why, even though social networking is a feature on Mendeley's website, we don't primarily see ourselves as a social network.” He adds that Mendeley aims to deliver value to researchers independent of network effects, by helping them to manage and share their research paper collections.

Other sites include Scilink, LabRoots, Biocrowd, Laboratree,, LabMeeting, Nanopaprika, and Pronetos, which have all been around for a year or two and are fast growing their user bases.

Oxford's Richard Price of affirms that social media sites can take a while to get to critical mass. “It took LinkedIn from 2003 to 2007 to get to 10 million members; growth then really accelerated, and it is now at 45 million members,” he says. “Twitter launched in 2006, and it wasn't until January 2009 that it really took off.” He believes that at least one of the academic networking sites will get to critical mass; it is just a matter of time. He reckons that critical mass is probably 500,000 to 1 million members.

Most of the networks around at the moment are not nearly so large, but some have numbers on a par with the biggest learned societies.

The current system of offline networking, the conference circuit and sabbaticals, works well because of the nature of scientific research. “We get ideas, focus on them, test, and then stop and think about the results,” comments Brian Krueger, who runs the Labspaces science news aggregator site. Then, “We use scientific meetings to stimulate further hypothesis development at the thinking stage and to add new angles to our research. I'm not sure you can get the same out of an online science social network.”

However, others are convinced that social networks will ultimately save time and be of benefit to scientists who use these tools. “I think what will be critical for social networking to be taken up by scientists in general, and materials scientists in particular, is ways that it can be seen as saving time, rather than consuming time,” says Dave Flanagan, editor of Advanced Functional Materials. “There are a lot of interesting social media applications out there that scientists use right now, some adapted from mainstream apps (eg, Twitter) and others tailored for scientists like Mendeley.” He adds that once they can totally fill a workflow need, such as chemical structure drawing, NMR representation, analysis and molecule characterization, they will become even more useful.

Dortmund's Lackes is also convinced that online social networks could offer a great opportunity for enhancing collaboration among scientists. He suggests that a new approach is needed and he and his colleagues are developing a model that will fill the gaps in the likes of LinkedIn and Facebook, making them more relevant to scientific researchers by exploiting the API (Application Programming Interface) of such systems to pull together users and information based on particular criteria.

Regardless of how inventive such a system is, and is already using the Facebook API, they will always be faced with the problem of trying to achieve a critical mass that will make them essential tools for scientists.

Although there may be no obvious benefits to new users exposing themselves on a social network, Tweeting, or Facebook poking, only a little investment in the time and effort required to learn how to use these new tools quickly pays off with new friends and leads.

An interesting point to keep in mind: The openness and perceived security issues on an internet-based social network are in direct conflict with the idea of keeping one's data private until it is time to publish. However, even that issue is being addressed by the Open Notebook Science movement, pioneered by chemist Jean-Claude Bradley of Drexel University, which seeks to make the entire primary record of a research project publicly available online as it is recorded.

There is enormous growth in some parts of the world. András Paszternák creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community, also known as “Nanopaprika”, says that in Eastern Europe, young researchers are networking using online tools more and more. “I think the future of these networks is in collaboration and integration,” he says, “The war of the research social networks has begun…only the best, most interesting, and most scientific will survive.”

The biggest changes may come when an application designed for the mainstream is discovered and adopted wholesale by the scientific community. “This could be Google Wave, or something that won't be released for another five years,” says Flanagan. An alternative scenario is that people who understand science and technology will watch scientists, see and understand what they do, and come up with ideas of how to save them time or make something easier. “What will we look back on ten years from now and say, I can't believe we got along without that?” asks Flanagan.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70017-1