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July 04, 2007

Nature Network - a thinking person's social network?

Writing in the Education Guardian, Jessica Shepherd discusses the rise of Nature Network (NN) - a social network for "scientists to gather, talk and find out about the latest scientific news and events".

Comparisons with Facebook (Fb) are obvious (a "Facebook for professors, postdocs and PhDers in the sciences"), but it is perhaps worth thinking a bit about the similarities and differences:

  • Fb mixes up academic and social use in quite an interesting way - interesting in the sense that some people don't mind these things being mixed up, whereas others absolutely hate them being mixed up.  Do students want their lecturers in the same social network as them, for example?  Do lecturers want to be in the same social network as their students!?  Do researchers want to mix up their research (work) with their social (private) activities.  I suspect that these are questions with no clear-cut answers.
  • Fb leans towards the social, but we are seeing some work-related use.  NN leans towards work, but (in the blogs at least) we see some social-related use.
  • Fb is a platform, meaning that people can develop their own Fb applications and then share them with others.  NN is not (as far as I can tell).  I think this is a significant issue because it more easily allows Fb to morph from its original purpose into whatever its users want it to be.
  • Fb allows one to pull stuff in from elsewhere.  Oddly (I think) NN doesn't appear to do this.  It is more closed than Fb in some senses.
  • Fb is completely global.  NN is limited to some areas of science.  I've joined for example, but I don't expect to get much out of it because I'm not a scientist or a researcher.  I think that it will be interesting to see whether researchers prefer global social networking tools or discipline specific ones.

It is also interesting to ponder why Nature are doing this kind of thing.  I think it is because they (rightly) recognise that the Internet is fundamentally changing the nature of scholarly communication.  Communication that used to happen primarily thru the peer-reviewed, published article and the conference paper is now beginning to happen in other ways.  Of course, there is some resistance to this - a scholarly communication momentum that needs to be overcome - a sort of peer (review) pressure I guess :-)  But as Timo Hannay from Nature notes: "We are increasingly seeing the online world with its informal rapid communications complement the slower, more formal communications of academic journals".

Blogs and social tools like Fb are beginning change how scholarly communication takes place and NN is part of this.  Note the discussions in NN about how to cite blog entries, whether it is acceptable to share Powerpoint conference slides, what the relationship is between this kind of activity and the RAE, and so on.

My personal view is that the capabilities that the Internet affords us in terms of immediacy of communication, ease of 'publication' (I use that term in its most general sense), instant citation, the 'wisdom of the crowds' (by which I mean crowds of researchers!) and so on will have an impact on how scholarly communication happens.  I don't know how quick or drastic any resulting changes will be - but it seems certain that there will be changes.  Nature, as a publisher, have to think about their role in the new world.  So do all other academic publishers.


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Slightly at a tangent to this, but it brought to mind the
EYE Project run by North East Museums (http://www.twmuseums.org.uk/eyeproject/) - loosely connected I suppose in that it is to do with nature! But in this case asking people to record sightings of wildlife and using this information for conservation and research purposes. Not a social network, but a blending of amateur and professional (so not so dissimilar from the social/academic split), taking advantage of amateur interest in order to promote wildlife protection.

I attended a talk about this project recently. At that point the 'WikiTOID website' was supposed to be going live imminently, but it still doesn't seem to have appeared.

Andy - you ask why Nature Publishing Group are putting effort into creating NN? I think your answer is correct - they are seeing the changes in publishing, and the way that the Internet is becoming the main space where scientific communication takes place. They have a number of programs ongoing - from tehir support for RSS and Connotea, to several recently established web sites for science communication:


It's an impressive range of new initiatives from NPG.

I'm one of the editors of Nature Network. Thanks for the balanced and insightful take on Nature Network. You raise some good points with respect to how people might use the site, which we are indeed considering carefully at Nature.

What you see now is by no means the finished product. The Network is still only four months old, and development continues apace. Our functionality is nowhere near that of Facebook just yet, but as the months go on you'll see new features and increased integration with other sites.

I'm happy to answer any questions about Nature Network in this thread.

I note that there's an interview with Timo Hannay in the Confessions of a Science Librarian blog at http://jdupuis.blogspot.com/2007/07/interview-with-timo-hannay-head-of-web.html
which touches on many of the issues raised above.

Just an update on a couple of points really. WikiTOID is a software platform that is being adapted/customised for the purpose of species recording in the North East. WikiTOID, is the title of a seperate research project from which spin out projects like EYE have/are being made possible and hopefully enable more people to record species sightings - it is not a 'social network', as is being described in Andy's original post. EYE is still in testing, so not currently open to all to view just yet, currently there is a holding portal/website where the public can find out a bit more about the project. Please be patient. I prefer the approach of releasing, rather than announcing something will be released as it raises expectations and leads to posts knocking the fact that something isn't 'going live imminently', you can't stop others using such language though.

I am just starting "MYourScience", a new site for the Scientific Community, which is following a similar idea compared to Nature Network.

I don't think comparing NN to Facebook is very serious. They are two different things, having in common only the technology.

We are in the year 2007, so it is hight time for the Scientific community to open the eyes and pick up the state-of-the-art and cutting-edge tools in online communication in order to overcome some communication gaps.

In Science there is a long tradition in written communication, now it's time to learn lessons in online communication and how to bring out the best of it for the Scientific community.

Webmaster MYourScience

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