The Power of Online Social Networks

Written by Dr Amy Birch

You’re working late again on a project that seems to be throwing up more questions than answers. Your colleagues in your department, faculty, or university do not have the expertise you need to solve one of the more pressing problems. You’re sure that someone in your field surely must have come across the same problem – but how do find out who they are?

Academia has become a truly global enterprise, with expertise and specialist knowledge coming from across the planet. In fact, as universities have become larger and larger, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up to date with the whereabouts of colleagues in your field, even within the same city.

It is no surprise therefore, that academic social networking sites have exploded. Academia.edu and ResearchGate boast over 36 and 11 million users, respectively. These numbers pale in comparison to Facebook’s 1.79 billion and Twitter’s 313 million active users, but are pretty impressive when you take into account that only researchers can join. ResearchGate has been described as a “mashup of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn”; you can follow subject areas or other users, join specialists groups, publish your peer-reviewed papers, write short reviews on others’ papers, and, perhaps the most widely utilised tool, pose research questions for other users to help you find the answer. Ijad Madisch, one of the founders of ResearchGate, argues that this tool has enabled hundreds, if not thousands, of active collaborations leading to published research in peer-reviewed journals.

Additionally, both Academia.edu (which is more specifically a site to share papers and review research) and ResearchGate provide tools to measure your own impact, via scores which calculate the number of followers you have and downloads of your papers, and both websites do very well in Google search results which means that people searching for a particular paper on your area of expertise are more likely to find your paper if it has been uploaded into your profile.

While these two sites currently have the most active users, there are a number of other websites that are increasing in popularity. These include Zotero and Mendeley, which both started as bibliographic software but also boast online forums and private messaging tools, and LinkedIn, now as equally associated with blogging and online groups/forums as its more traditional job seeking/posting service.

At this point I’m hoping that I haven’t lost you in a blind panic about all the new sites you need to be using and, crucially, keeping up-to-date. Certainly, there has been an explosion in online tools to support professional networking in the ever-increasingly ‘connected’ world. However, it is important to make sure that the sites you are using are appropriate for your needs. This is where some research of your own is needed – find the websites that have the highest proportion of people that you want to network with, who are interested in the same subject areas as you, and who will be interested in your expertise. For example, LinkedIn is really great if you are looking for a move beyond academia as you can connect with people who may be in a profession you are aspiring to; however, posting your most recent academic paper on LinkedIn will not have the same impact as posting it on Academia.edu. This may even be a smaller, more subject-specific social networking site. When I was postdoc, “Alzforum” was the place to go for the most recent news about trials, published papers, jobs, and discussions in my own field of neurodegenerative diseases.

Finally, if you really want to make an impact – it’s not enough to be on the sites, not even enough to keep your profile updated. As with networking in real-life, you have to SAY SOMETHING. Make a comment on a paper you found interesting or start a conversation with a colleague you’ve always admired but never felt confident enough to approach at conferences. Start making connections, and you’ll soon have a rich, varied, and talented online network of peers.