If you build it, will they come?

Added by Ellen Collins on 13 August 2010 11:21

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It seems a little – circular – to be discussing a report on web 2.0 using a blog. However, the recent RIN report, If you build it, will they come? How researchers perceive and use web 2.0 suggests that the academic community, while by no means completely sold on the value of social media to their work, is not overtly hostile either. So let’s consider this blog post a demonstration of the value of web 2.0 techniques as a way of communicating research findings…

The research, which comprised a large-scale survey of UK academics alongside qualitative interviews and five case studies of web 2.0 services, reports on researchers’ use of, and attitude towards, web 2.0 tools. These tools have been hailed by many, especially those working around the ‘open science’ agenda, as an opportunity to improve collaboration and information sharing. The report, however, suggests that such tools have not yet been widely adopted.

In fact, only 13% of researchers could be classified as ‘frequent’ (more than once a week) users of web 2.0 tools. 45% of survey respondents fell into the ‘occasional users’ category, while 39% never used web 2.0 services at all. The research also found that there is no real evidence of increased use by the so-called ‘digital native’ generation: there were only small variations between different age groups but, overall, older and more senior researchers seemed more likely to be involved in web 2.0 activities. Other work is also beginning to echo these findings.

Other conclusions were less surprising. As might be expected, many researchers valued the connections that often result from an active online presence. Social media were praised for allowing more effective, and rapid, communication, and ready access to people with expertise that researchers themselves may not possess.

However, such praise for web 2.0 tools may actually pigeon-hole them as a good way to share informal, transient information, and prevent them from being seen as a suitable location for formal results and conclusions. The research shows that social media have failed to reach parity of esteem with more established scholarly communication tools such as journal articles or conference proceedings. This is partly to do with recognition systems – there are, as yet, no REF ‘credits’ for maintaining a successful blog – and it is also an issue of trust. This faces both ways: information seekers are concerned about quality assurance, knowing full well that anybody can publish anything on the internet, and information publishers are fearful of having their findings scooped by other researchers, particularly given that there are no established ways to attribute work published on a wiki, for example.

The report is encouraging in its findings that researchers are not hostile to social media; however, it is clear that there is a long way to go before they become a standard part of academic working practices. The research suggests that we need to encourage experimentation with a wide range of tools, to allow researchers to settle upon the ones that work best for them. Readers, I invite you to begin that experimentation in the comments section below!

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