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Contributed Article: Social Media for the Scientist

Will life-science researchers embrace the online tools for networking?

By | September 14, 2012

image: Contributed Article: Social Media for the Scientist Flickr, Victor1558

Today, networking is the way that much of global business gets done. According to a survey of more than 170,000 professionals by Kelly Services, 48 percent of respondents from Asia Pacific countries said they thought it was acceptable to use social media for personal use at work, compared with 31 percent in Europe and only 16 percent in the United States. Whether it’s a simple connection on Facebook, or a group of professionals assembled via online connections to perform an intricate project, global online networking is a key ingredient to being successful on the world stage.

Science is getting closer to this kind of openness, but there are still huge challenges due to a scientific culture that has valued knowledge hoarding and the prestige that comes with being the “first” to make a critical discovery. Many scientists still are very cautious about openly sharing research results before publication. And while the practice of publishing information in scientific journals made research theoretically “open,” those journals are now seen by some as old-fashioned. The prohibitively expensive cost of subscribing to key scientific journals has left many also wondering if it is a truly open forum.

Of course, it all boils down to whether science can ever truly embrace social media over the more traditional methods of networking, and thought exchange such as emailing and publishing research progress in shorter formats. One advocate of open science, Michael Nielsen, thinks it’s possible. In his 2011 book, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science, Nielsen writes that opening the scientific process will help everyone by providing the ability to dramatically increase the rate of scientific discovery. A problem that might have taken years to work through, in other words, might take only months in a system that welcomes knowledge sharing through social media. Social media is already being implemented pretty commonly on specific medical and scientific projects throughout the world by professionals who appreciate its power. Take medical practice as an example.  As the practice in medical-residency education states: “see one, do one, teach one.” This is why social media is so crucial to the development of medicine today.  With forums such as Twitter, physicians can communicate in real time with each other to discuss current practices and share experiences.  This is invaluable in a time where the amount of useful information is inversely proportional to the amount of actual information available.

Many clinicians utilize resources such as UpToDate®, a website that offers textbooks and articles that help physicians make a diagnosis or research a patient’s symptoms. However, when doctors want to discuss how treatment details for a certain condition, sending a tweet to the medical community can result in several real-time opinions that express the most current view of practicing physicians. As Nielsen noted in a 2011 op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, “These projects use online tools as cognitive tools to amplify our collective intelligence. The tools are a way of connecting the right people to the right problems at the right time, activating what would otherwise be latent expertise.”

But what will it take to make social media interactions the norm within the life science research community?  To date only a handful of social media tools are used with any regularity by the scientists, and many others have come and gone over the years. OnlyResearchGate.net, a mash-up of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, reserved only for scientists seems to be catching on, allowing professionals to easily share ideas, research papers, and more. In addition, 26 percent of life scientists surveyed by Kelly Services Marketing Research said they were more likely to use social media to search for jobs than traditional methods. While that percentage is lower than other sectors (the highest, at 36 percent, being for information technology workers), it suggests that some researchers have already begun to rely on social media for keeping up with their field.

With regard to the world’s largest life sciences companies, however, what the workforce of the future will look like with its mobility, virtual offices, internet based communities, and a borderless global economy is probably the best argument for these organizations to explore social media. Already, fundamental changes in the pharmaceutical industry have made it more challenging to keep revenues up while still trying to cut costs and save money. The global nature of large pharmaceutical companies requires them to connect groups from different cultures across the globe for successful collaborations. However, the company-wide retreats of yesteryear that helped create a sense of community and spurred creativity are all but impossible within the current economy. Although an imperfect replacement, online social media can bridge that gap, encouraging employees miles apart to interact in relaxed setting and build relationships that can improve a project’s level of innovation and efficiency.

Whether or not an individual scientist or an entire organization is ready to embrace social media, it’s a conversation that will need to take place. The entire industry has already reached the tipping point of reinventing discovery. Through social media, we’ll be able to find new and better ways of sharing these vast pockets of knowledge across the world. And who knows--we may even be able to get to the point where it is not only incentivized, but expected, that scientists will make social media an integral part of their workday.

Mark Lanfear is global practice leader for the Life Science vertical at Kelly Services, a leader in providing workforce solutions.

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Comments

July 22, 2013

Whether or not an individual scientist or an entire organization is ready to embrace social media, it’s a conversation that will need to take place.

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