Otto Muskens Otto Muskens 19 September 2009

Social networking in science

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Posted in Ethics, PhD life, Tips, Web 2.0

Social NetworkSocial networks are everywhere. Personally I like Facebook to keep track of old friends and add new ones. These friends are mostly of nonscientific background. Until recently I had never realized the importance of social networks in science. When you do your PhD and perhaps some postdoc projects here and there, it is hard to think about what it takes to become a successful scientist other than doing brilliant science. Although scientific skills are undoubtedly important, I believe that one of the key ingredients which can make or break a scientific career is a good network of friends.

Networks form the basis of the scientific community and as such are essential for providing a backbone and coherence to international research. Getting known in a field involves being on good personal standing with some of its key players. A lot depends on people willing to add you to their citation list and to invite you to a conference. Many times, friends arrange seminars and visiting professorships and set up international research networks.
Peer Review
Friends can also be absolutely crucial in peer review. In practice, everything ranging from grants, publications, to quality of research, is being evaluated by peers. Whatever can be said about the peer-review system, fact is that these are the only people who can actually judge the scientific merits of your work. I am in favor of peer review as long as the integrity of peers in giving an unbiased judgment can be guaranteed. Hopefully some of these peers will even be able to recognize and evaluate non-measurable quantities such as creativity, originality, and leadership potential. As an example of the positive impact of friendly peer reviewers I recall a time during my PhD that a publication was accepted by PRL because of two friendly referees with endless patience and constructive criticism. I still am grateful to those people, who both of them approached me at a conference later on. Fact of life is however that a referee will always be able to find a weak spot and destroy your chances if he feels like it or it is in his own interest.

It is impossible to assess how professional friendships impact scientific success because many of this takes place outside of plain view. Perhaps the suggestion that some help in the right places affects the outcomes of the scientific process is enough to stir up some responses from the reader. It will be easy to backfire my argumentation by saying that only the weak scientists need friends like this. However, as an observation, I believe that many younger scientists underestimate the power of networks in science, and how important it is to have good contacts. Probably this misconception results from the idea that networking is an activity associated with business people and not with scientists.

The younger generation of scientists and postdocs however more and more get connected through socal networking sites. I very much welcome this development as I believe that we should support each other as much as possible in achieving scientific success. Perhaps one day it will pay off to be connected on LinkedIn even for a scientist.

Related posts:
Niceness is inherent to being a good scientist

Rudeness is inherent to being a scientist

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  1. Mirjam

    19 Sep 2009 18:31, Mirjam

    Although I agree with the main point of the post (‘social networks are important for your scientific career’) I have to respond to a couple of other points:
    – citations shouldn’t depend on friendship; you should always cite the proper papers, even if you don’t like the authors. The same holds for invited talks at conferences: good science should be presented, not the friends of the organizers.
    – you ask for objective peers with integrity and unbiased judgements, but also think help of friends is great in the peer-review process; I don’t see how these two statements go together. Connected to this: I think it is bad practice for reviewers to make themselves known to the authors of a paper as it easily results in a form of powerplay: you should be grateful they helped you and maybe they expect you to do them a favour in the future
    – personally I haven’t experienced any advantage of social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Problem with these sites is that it is easy to connect to all sorts of people, but in the end a network is only alive if you invest in actively communicating with people. Maybe those sites are a tool for this, but so far I find their added value extremely limited.

  2. Otto Muskens

    20 Sep 2009 3:17, Otto Muskens

    Mirjam, your points are valid. Perhaps I am overstating a bit but my main message is that science would be helped with more friendliness and a constructive attititude toward individuals. Social networking might improve this.

    The term friend in my post refers to somebody who has a positive attitude toward you and who does not want to destroy you as a starting point. There is a vast grey area between a rejected and an accepted proposal or paper and here the peer reviewer has the choice to tip the scales either way. Getting some credit there is different from tunneling through the process on dubious grounds.

    I partly agree with your argument regarding anonymity of reviewers but I also find that if seniors are unbiased and do not have an agenda they should be free to reveal their anonymity and discuss the scientific issues. At least I appreciated it when this happened, and I believe it shows integrity and character. But maybe I am being too naive or friendly there.

    Up to now I believe that LinkedIn is the only decent professional networking site for anyone including scientists. This is mainly because of the amount of people using it. I have filled in my details in several networking sites (SciLink, Academia, Nature Networks) but it always turns out there are too few people in my field who are using these sites actively to give it a critical mass. I think scientists are just too busy to be actively involved with scientific network sites.

    The question whether or not citations are political is a difficult one. A well known example of this is the Matthew-effect. Analysis of the propagation of mis-citations indicates that 70%-90% of citations are directly copied from other sources. There are some interesting blogs on this topic here. Of course these things should not occur in an ideal world.

  3. Jacopo Bertolotti

    21 Sep 2009 10:59, Jacopo Bertolotti

    I think any of us can mention at least a few cases where a good paper was rejected just because one referee personally disliked one of the authors. Such things shouldn’t happen but they do. Therefore being on good terms with most of people in your field is a good way to obtain a fair review.
    The opposite is also true: if a paper from someone I know personally (we don’t need to be close friends, having met once at a conference is enough) comes into my hand it’s likely I’ll read it with a more benevolent approach than a paper from someone I never heard of. I know that it shouldn’t be this way but I’m a human being and, as long as I don’t cheat to favour my friends, I don’t even think there is something utterly wrong with that.
    Therefore I totally agree with Otto that networking is important. I also agree with Mirjam that networking sites (at least as they are now) are not very useful: FaceBook is nice to stay in touch with your friends and to share funny videos but it is much too childish to be scientifically useful. I also tried LinkedIn and I know as a matter of fact that in some field (e.g. information technology) it works fine; sadly I found that for scientist it is just not good. You can connect with a lot of people but it doesn’t make communication easy and the discussions in the various groups never go higher than “I’m searching a laser supplier in Maine” or “anyone knows about job opportunities in this or that field?”. I mean: nobody is speaking about science there, only about job opportunities. This is fine if you are searching a job (in the USA mainly) but useless if you want to make some scientific networking and to discuss new ideas.
    Maybe at a certian point a good social network focused on science and scientific discussion will appear (if any programmer interested in such an idea is reading I have a few suggestions!) but, up to now, the best way I found to network with people is still meeting at a conference and exchanging e-mail/skype addresses (even the old-fashioned phone number is useful from time to time).
    Maybe I’ll just prepare some visiting card and I will give them to the people I’ll meet at the next conference.

  4. Unregistered

    13 Oct 2009 4:22, Aaron R

    My main problem with most of the science oriented social networks out there now (and there are a ton of them) is that they really don’t help me with my day to day lab activity. The social network needs to be intertwined with my daily work in order to be effective. I found one site called Quartzy (, that is much more about improving lab organization than about social networking for scientists (though you do form relationships on the site). I like it a lot, because it actually helps me with my day-to-day routine in lab. I use it regularly to manage my reagent inventory and my protocols. My lab manager uses it too, so I can easily send her order requests for the things I want. It’s very easy to use, and the founders are extremely responsive. I had a minor question, so I emailed them, and I got my response within an hour. I would suggest your readers check it out.

  5. Unregistered

    26 Oct 2009 15:22, Frerik van Beijnum

    I think LinkedIn could become useful for job opportunities in science as well. If people start advertising themselves or open positions they have, unsuspected opportunities will arise. I see that my 180 connections relate me to over a million people. There must be some scientists among them who have interesting positions that I otherwise would not consider? LinkedIn then directly offers me a route to get good references.

  6. Otto Muskens

    26 Oct 2009 17:33, Otto Muskens

    @Aaron, thanks for pointing out this site It is encouraging to see that actually sharing of protocols and recipies is being done in life science. I cannot really imagine such a site emerging for phycisists. To my experience, most physics labs keep their doors hermetically closed of fear of loosing their advantage.

    @Frerik, I recently joined the Plasmonics group on LinkedIn. Although it is still very limited (and biased) in its content, I think it is a good development showing that research communities can extend online.

  7. Unregistered

    14 Jan 2010 22:32, Researcher

    What about My impression was that they aspire to become a kind of “Facebook for scientists”.

  8. Otto Muskens

    17 Jan 2010 16:21, Otto Muskens

    @Researcher, a site like will only work if it is considered by a critical mass of scientists as the place to showcase your research. Then people might do some effort in actually putting their group online.
    What I would like to see on such a community is:
    – Thematic discussion forums
    – Clickable up-to-date publication lists linked to a bibliometric database
    – Updated lists of conferences and activities (e.g. EU networks) in certain areas

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