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Why Don’t Scientists Blog More?

28th October 2014
By Phill Jones

A Thought from the STM Frankfurt Early Career Researcher Panel

Recently, I moderated an early career researcher panel for this years STM Frankfurt conference. The session was very successful, it created a lot of discussion during the conference both in terms of questions for the panelists and a very healthy debate on twitter (I counted about 125 original live tweets about the session in the #stmfrankfurt and #stmpostdocs threads, not including those from myself), as well as a news piece at Research Information Network. On a personal level, I received many comments from people publicly and privately thanking me for shining a spotlight on the issue. I also learned a lot from the experience, some of which I’ve tried to convey in two posts at the Scholarly Kitchen, one posted before the conference a second one summarizing the panel in retrospect.

The young and the gifted (and Phill Jones)
The Early Career Researcher Panel at the Frankfurt STM conference

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic shift in publishers’ end user demographics. The number of postdocs has risen sharply to the point that they now make up the majority of academic researchers in the sciences. Ever since I left academia to pursue a career in publishing innovation, nearly five years ago, I’ve had the feeling that it has been challenging for publishers to keep up with this rapid change in the profile of their customers.

Meanwhile, technology has changed the face of scholarly publishing and continues to do so. As I’ve written before, I believe that the publishers that continue to thrive will be the ones that adapt to those changes and find opportunities to use technology to better serve their markets. This will be impossible without taking a long hard look at the needs of end users and in many fields, those end-users are mostly postdocs.  My goal for the session was to start a conversation between the publishing community and postdocs, to foster the kind of understanding that will enable publishers to adapt to the emerging needs of the new academic community.

In my Scholarly Kitchen posts, I’ve written at length about the conditions under which postdocs often find themselves working, so I won’t reiterate those points here, suffice to say, many publishers in the room were honestly surprised to learn just how difficult the life of early career stage researchers has become. Instead, I’d like to focus a little on one of the questions that was posted on twitter, the answer to which surprised many in the audience.

Howard Ratner, who as a publishing industry veteran, current president of SSP and the chief executive of ORCID, will be familiar to many readers. Perhaps inspired by the panel on social media in scientific communication that preceded our panel, he asked via twitter whether postdocs use twitter to communicate their science.

Ratner-tweet

When putting the question to the panelists, I decided to broaden it slightly and ask about personal scientific reputation management in general, asking not only if they tweet, but whether they or their colleagues use blogs or any form of social media to communicate their work. The answer surprised many in the room. None of the postdocs on the panel were using twitter or really any other form of social media professionally, choosing to focus purely on their lab work, and authoring the highest impact papers possible. They saw this as their primary means of career advancement. Under such pressure to achieve those goals, they simply hadn’t given the idea of using social media to promote themselves or their science any thought. In my experience, they are not alone. While some notable examples, like Jonathan Eisen claim that the judicious use of social media can and does help him form collaborations and obtain funding, even Simon Chadwick, who spoke at the panel session on social media felt that social media didn’t make an impact for him in terms of his ‘bottom line’.

Meadows tweet

What are we to learn from this as publishers? Should we throw our hands in the air and simply say that scientists aren’t interested in social media after all?

I don’t think that we should. Instead, let’s take a closer look as to why uptake of social media among researchers has not been as fast as many predicted. Postdocs are so highly focused on their core work, that they have no time to think about other ways of furthering their career. In short, the postdocs on the panel didn’t have a social media presence because they simply hadn’t considered it.

Social media confusionIn many cases, this issue is compounded by the fact that postdocs have very little career development support. For most, the only person that they can turn to for guidance is their supervisor. This overreliance on one source of advice puts postdocs in a vulnerable position. Despite the fact that there are several potential benefits to having a social media presence in terms of building reputation, forming collaborations and getting grants, being able to take advantage of those opportunities depends on receiving training from a person who built their reputation in an era before it became possible to do so using the social web. In short, when it comes to online reputation management, many researchers simply don’t know where to start.

The situation has led to what I think of as an archetypal ‘faster horses’ problem. The concept, based on a supposed quote by Henry Ford states that if Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have asked him to breed faster horses. In other words, customers understand their problems, but they don’t necessarily have a handle on what the best solutions are. What successful companies like Apple, Google, and others have done to tackle this issue is to gain a solid understanding of customer needs and then innovate to fit those needs. It is therefore incumbent upon us as publishers and technologists to develop the social web of science in ways that are intuitive, fit within researcher workflows, and offer clear value.

Publishers and other technologists have experimented with creating scientific social networks. While some have amassed large numbers of registered users, such as Mendeley and ResearchGate, arguably their success is due in large part to their use as a content sharing hub rather than a social network. Nothing has really achieved the kind of utility-like status that facebook has reached in people’s personal lives and LinkedIn has achieved for business. What this tells me is not that researchers cannot be engaged on a social level, but that as an industry, we haven’t gotten it right yet.

In my next blog, I’ll take a look at why I think that some of these attempts have fallen short of expectations in terms of modernizing scholarly communication.

In the meantime, I’ll offer one small piece encouragement for those who feel that science is on the verge of becoming social. After participating in the panel at Frankfurt, and seeing Simon Chadwick’s talk, one of the panelists, Farron McIntee, decided that perhaps she should be involved in social media after all. If you’d like to follow her, you can do so @FarronMcintee

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to the three very talented young researchers that generous gave their time to speak on the panel at the STM Frankfurt conference;  Jonathan Foster of the University of Cambridge, Anna Villa-Piqué from the University of Göttingen, and Farron McIntee, from University of Washington in St. Louis.

I’d also like to thank Elsevier, Wiley, and the STM association for generously sponsoring travel and accommodation for the panelists. Tom Reller, Alice Meadows and Janice Kuta were all particularly important in helping organize the session and facilitate the sponsorships.

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