Academic social networking sites ... and journals

Some ten years ago, the great commercial success of social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, encouraged several (so-far failed) attempts to establish social networking sites intended solely for researchers (e.g. 2collab – 2007-2011, Epernicus – 2007-2010, Nature Network – 2007-2013). The results of some studies (Education for Change 2012) suggest that these attempts were premature, as researchers, at that time, were reluctant to exchange information outside the circle of their closest collaborators. We should also bear in mind that these early projects were largely limited to social bookmarking and reference management.

However, some projects have survived (Academia.edu, ResearchGate, Mendeley – since 2008), and the situation has changed over time: new generations of researchers have emerged, electronic devices with internet access have become ubiquitous, software platforms have been improved, and the financial support of some big and influential investors has been provided.

How do they work?

Academic social networking sites operate basically the same as other social networks (e.g. Facebook or LinkedIn): upon registration, users create their profiles and connect with other users sharing similar interests. Typical activities include posting publications (metadata and/or full text), browsing and searching, following other members’ activities, commenting and discussing.

Recent improvements of their software platforms are aimed at enabling open peer-review and research data management (Van Noorden 2014).

What are their sources of funding?

Funds raised from investors are the most important financial resource for the development of academic social networking sites. ResearchGate and Academia.edu offer paid advertising options, whereas the users of Academia.edu and Mendeley can subscribe to additional services included in the so-called premium packages.

Although their founders and owners nominally support the principles of open science, there is a fear that academic social networking sites may be fully commercialized at some point. Elsevier's purchase of Mendeley in 2013 shows that this fear is not unfounded.

Why do researchers use them?

What is the researchers' primary motivation to create and maintain profiles on social networking sites? We are not likely to get a pinpoint answer to this question. The topic has been discussed in several studies and their results differ.

Motive: being present, being visible

There are still many researchers who refuse to use social networks for various reasons: they do not have time, or do not perceive them as a relevant platform for scholarly communication, or they are annoyed by numerous emails offering them something they do not really need. Even the users are divided and their attitudes towards academic social networking sites cover the full range between unreserved enthusiasm and reluctant acceptance due to persistent e-mail alerts and the awareness that most colleagues have already joined, fuelled by the fear of missing some important information exchange. This is confirmed by a study published in Nature (Van Noorden 2014) in 2014, which showed that most respondents (and the study covered more than 3500 people from 95 countries) used academic social networks passively: they maintained their profiles and followed the activities of other users more or less regularly, but were not eager to join discussions.

Motive: prestige

Jose Louis Ortega has reached a similar conclusion (Ortega 2016). Based on a survey conducted in 2015, he has observed that the collaboration opportunities are not the primary motive for using academic social networking sites. He draws attention to the desire for personal promotion and the peculiar structure of motivation where the “egotistical interest” in controversy-generating metrics offered by these sites (Kraker, Jordan, and Lex 2015) prevails over a genuine desire for scholarly discussion. This structure of motivation (and its absurd dimension) is largely in line with the general impression that some fervent opponents of quantitative methods in the evaluation of scholarly outputs eagerly refer to the metrics generated by academic social networking sites.

The metrics offered by academic social networking sites are the subject of an interesting study published in 2016 (Hammarfelt, de Rijcke, and Rushforth 2016). It discusses the role of the elements, dynamics and logic of computer games (i.e. gamification) in the functioning of these systems. The current context for research, where it's difficult to ensure stable funding and practically impossible to get permanent employment, is beneficial for the development of such ideas and tools. Although the authors underscore possible negative consequences of this trend – such as uncontrolled competition and the rise of unethical behaviour and cheating aimed at reaching high metrics scores very quickly – based on the experience of other areas where gamification has had positive effects, the authors stress that tracking metrics on academic social networking sites is not necessarily negative and harmful.

Motive: access to full text

A 2017 survey conducted by Kudos, in collaboration with a dozen publishers, on 7500 researchers shows that academic social networking sites are primarily being used for posting and accessing paywalled articles (Rapple 2017). From the publishers' point of view, this is certainly a reason for concern, as many users enable access to copyrighted materials, thereby breaching the terms of publishers' contracts.

Why is this important for Serbian journal editors and publishers?

Both the authors who publish in local journals and their readers use academic social networking sites, and the share of the researchers who use them as a channel for the dissemination of scholarly information is no longer insignificant. As all of them need to know what they can do with the published articles, it is essential that journals have a defined licensing and self-archiving policy.

In the local context, which is still marked by the prevalence of print journals, academic social networking sites are sometimes the only place where journal articles are available in an electronic format. Some journals do not have a website but they distribute their full-text content solely through profiles on academic social networking sites. Regardless of the positive short-term effects (greater visibility), in the long run, this practice is detrimental, as it reveals the lack of professionalism and the reluctance to conform to good publishing standards. Academic social networking sites do not meet the technical requirements that electronic journals should meet. Furthermore, ResaerchGate allows individual researchers to register profiles but journal profiles are not considered legitimate (even if they are currently beyond the radar of the technical team) and will eventually be removed.


References:

Hammarfelt, Björn, Sarah de Rijcke, and Alex Rushforth. 2016. ‘Quantified Academic Selves: The Gamification of Research through Social Networking Services’. Information Research 21 (June).

Kraker, Peter, Katy Jordan, and Elizabeth Lex. 2015. ‘The ResearchGate Score: A Good Example of a Bad Metric’. Impact of Social Sciences (blog). 9 December 2015.

Ortega, Jose Luis. 2016. Social Network Sites for Scientists: A Quantitative Survey. Chandos Publishing.

Rapple, Charlie. 2017. ‘Survey Shows Author Sharing via Scholarly Collaboration Networks Is Widespread, despite Strong Support for Copyright’. Kudos News (blog). 4 April 2017.

Education for Change. 2012. ‘Researchers of Tomorrow: The Research Behaviour of Generation Y Doctoral Students’. JISC.

Van Noorden, Richard. 2014. ‘Online Collaboration: Scientists and the Social Network’. Nature News 512 (7513):126. https://doi.org/10.1038/512126a.

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