What Would You Call a Social Networking Site for Scientists?

Today, the NIH announced that they are spending $27MM of your Recovery money on creating a social network for scientists in the biomedical research community.  You can read about it here.

The goal is summed up as follows:

These Web-based initiatives will bring the power of Internet-based tools, as exemplified by social networking, to biomedical research. Modern technologies for communication and collaboration have the potential to enhance interdisciplinary research, enabling individuals to connect with each other and with resources — irrespective of location — to address challenges in new ways.

That’s very nice – but I wonder if this is really necessary?  Frankly, most of the social networks among scientists that I know involve a couple of pints.  And though I don’t want to be a Luddite, I wonder if it can be successful.   Do I really need a social network to help me solve scientific problems of a common sort (Hey peeps, I’m out of ammonium sulfate, anyone in 92121 got any in da house?)?   

Because I’ll tell you, the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard about this was two little letters: “I” and “P” as in Intellectual Property.  The who “owns” what question is always a contentious issue that plagues researchers from the — whose name gets to go on a paper, or whose name gets to go first on the paper questions on the academic side – to the industry ones of who had an intellectual contribution worthy to be on a patent to which organization owns the rights to this new discovery and can license it out to the highest bidder(s)?  Can you imagine “Hey peeps, I’m looking to cure Parkinson’s Disease with this new compound I made, anyone got a validated preclinical animal model in da house?”  Somehow I don’t think so.

I think this also raises the question of how many social networking sites do you really need?  I have three that I can think of – Facebook, Vox and LinkedIn – which seem to adequately cover the personal and professional sides of life.  I’ve eschewed Twitter because I think it only enforces America’s short-attention span problem.  Though I did just get a GoogleWave test-account (thanks, DeWitte!) – and I’m not really sure how to classify that.  So – is this new endeavor supposed to be a less “career networking” and more a "work networking" site than LinkedIn?  Perhaps.

I’m sure being supported by the government, they’ll come up with some terrible name out of committee – NerdNet, Science Communication And Networking Tool (SCANT), Fritter?   Maybe the social network itself should organize and name itself.  

What do you guys think?  Good idea, bad idea, I'm not a scientist so who the heck cares and I want my $27 mil back?

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19 thoughts on “What Would You Call a Social Networking Site for Scientists?

  1. had to laugh when I got to they’ll come up with some terrible name out of committee – NerdNetbecause the first name that came to my mind was Nerdweb, CentralNerd, … not on the creative side, I'm not.and heh on Gwave. someone mentioned that it 'was neat to see your friends typing on real time' and I thought – 'heck, I did that over 20 years ago (in a terminal green screen via a lightning fast 300baud modem in one of the prehistoric BBSs'

  2. I have no idea about whether the NIH social networking site would be a good idea (sounds complicated, at the very least)… but in general I think that "vertical" social networking holds a ton of promise. With a vertical social networking site, your goals/topics are constrained, and that can produce a lot more meaningful discussion and action. For example, when LinkedIn started groups, I became a lot more active in discussions, because they relate to my field. I wouldn't otherwise connect with random marketers on the web. I could also see vertical social networking sites becoming extensions of annual industry conferences — a way to continue the conversation with those people you only see once per year. Generally, I think vertical networking sites have a lot more promise to be meaningful and actually make us — yikes — productive than your run-o-the-mill Facebook thing.

  3. Facinating! What I don't understand is why they can't just use free blogs like the rest of us. Yes that would pose a huge problem with patent issues etc etc blah blah but as you pointed out, that issue could arise anyway. As with so many other internet options, it creates whole new troubles for a species whose technologies are maturing faster than our social selves. In fact as you pointed out, our emotional maturity may actually going somewhat backwards (sort of your point combined with my point….) ;)

  4. LOL at the cartoon. I think people are really trying to find ways to make social networking more useful than for just sharing photos etc. I must admit, I find all the photo hsaring wonderful. I'm still giggling at the cartoon, I am a complete facebook addict! but not at work as we are not allowed to access internet except for looking up stuff like, "Overdose of seratonin" or "Overdose of ritalin"

  5. Hapa — it's an interesting thing that you mention the LinkedIn groups — since my lay-off, I've used LinkedIn more too — but I have to say that the content on the groups that I've seen hasn't really been that high caliber — a few discussions, but mostly they seem to have become where some folks start "discussions" that are barely veiled advertisements for their company's services. I'm not sure that another social networking site could avoid that — but it would be interesting to see if it could stay more science-focused.

  6. Emmi — I think the problem with the free blogs is that by signing up for those there is no control over content and process — and that essentially your community lives or dies with the outlet that you choose. Think of the spate of Russian spam-commenters that we had here on vox not too long ago. You'd hate to have to go to a 3rd party to get that cleaned up.

  7. Katie — controlling the internet for scientists has always been a bit tricky for companies — there's so much that is needed to look up that you don't want to curtail someone's access to information — but certainly there are plenty of roads to abuse. If I had a company, I think I'd block FB and Twitter.

  8. That's true. I was thinking more of a closed community, though. When I started my Vox groups I noticed there were private-only options, or scientists can simply use the privacy features. From what I understand, spammers can't influence those forums or blogs if those settings are in place. It sure would be better than doing it on the taxpayer's dime. Plus which, it may be more "democratic" to use a third-party social networking site, that way no one entity can profit. Just my random thoughts….LOL

  9. Hmmm, interesting. Reading this reminded me… Have you heard of Academia.edu? Kind of an interesting concept, and I wonder if a social network for scientists would take a similar format.

  10. It has been done before (e.g., http://blogs.sciencemag.org/, LinkedIn); it has rarely been done well. There are three problems in addition to the ones you bring up: 1) The internet is ill-suited for exchange of detailed information in the language of science (i.e., mathematics [a]). Using XTML helps a little with this problem, but still requires the scientist to learn yet another obscure formatting language [b]. This raises the barriers and reduces the odds that the best scientists will join in the conversation.2) Blogs are good for informal exchange of opinions and ideas, but too few people are willing to allow disagreement with their concepts on them. Even the mildest suggestion that perhaps the various laws of nature might apply is seen as a personal attack, instead of a comment on the science itself. Thus the quality of the discourse suffers. It either degenerates into childish tantrums and snide remarks, or drifts into esoterica.3) Papers have a half-life of five years, but the internet is forever. I can still find things I posted as an undergraduate floating around on the web; luckily, few of them are embarrassing (other than in a "Great Ghu! How naive could you be?" sort of way). However, others might not be so lucky. And both fellow professionals and prospective employers are checking the web more and more. Thus, every post you make could kill your career – even before it gets started!John[a] As a noted author once said, if you can't do mathematics you aren't a scientist – you are just a button sorter with delusions of grandeur.[b] For my dissertation, I had to know ed, vi, LaTeX, GMT, html, and nroff – and I was one of the lucky ones!

  11. I had never heard of the academia.edu site — it's too bad that they haven't expanded it for former students — it's always fun to root around in your academic family tree!

  12. John — its a good point about the difficulty in exchanging "formatted" data and characters and how that's poorly suited to science on the internet — I had never really thought of that. I bought my first computer to write my dissertation — mine was the first generation at my school that didn't send their dissertations to typists and fear the "library lady" with the margin-ruler!

  13. I envisioned this concept more useful for inter-company or worldwide; for example, if a biomedical firm had one department that could easily communicate with each other over specific issues they're having. It's easier to post a blog saying "anyone have ideas on how to solve this…?" than it is to collect email addresses or try to contact each person seperately.
    Then there's worldwide; ESRI works with a program (I forget the name) where scientists collect photos of one species taken all over the world (by anyone) to determine where these species' habitats are found. If a website attracts photographers (who get permission to join) then it's easier than a biologist chasing down a thousand photos.
    Interactions which use high tech data language aren't the only good use of social networking, I don't think. I can see copyright issues being a problem, but especially within organizations, if everyone agrees to behave like a grown-up, I think it can be a great time saver.

  14. I envisioned this concept more useful for inter-company or worldwide; for example, if a biomedical firm had one department that could easily communicate with each other over specific issues they're having. Mostly that's done via intra-company technical meetings. At every "professional" job I've held (i.e., those that required an advanced degree), the company has held such meetings on an annual basis. And then there are the peer reviews where we critique each other's work – fun, but a lot of work! And, of course, we go to society meetings (AAPG, AGU, SEG, etc.) to get a broader perspectiveESRI works with a program (I forget the name) where scientists collect photos of one species taken all over the world (by anyone) to determine where these species' habitats are found. IMO, that's less about professionals interacting and more about finding clever ways of getting data. NASA does something similar with cargo that gets washed overboard, and there are scientists that do the same with beach sand and light pollution.John

  15. I had never really thought of that. That's because you can express your concepts in words, most of the time. They may be darn long words, but they are still words. Most of the concepts in my science start out as math and get denser from there (which is why geophysicists are tensor than other scientists!).John

  16. Ha – great website, I'm sure there's no shortage of resources there. Peer review, society meetings etc, certainly valueable. Certain orgs. can be shortsighted when they decide that they are too busy to have such gatherings, like the "I'm too busy to get organized" excuse. And yeah, outside data is a seperate matter (like citizen science, hardly brain surgery but it can be valueable).

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