Web 2.0 fails to excite today's researchers

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With the current enthusiasm for anything '2.0', David Stuart asks what it will take to change the way that academics work

Web 2.0 technologies have fundamentally changed the way that many people share personal information. It might be an exaggeration to say that everyone is constantly twittering, blogging their daily thoughts, or uploading their holidays snaps to Flickr but there is an increasing number of people who are. Even those who aren’t publishing vast quantities of their own information are often using these technologies to follow the goings-on of family and friends.

The potential of Web 2.0 technologies for collaboration and communication in a more professional setting has also been widely recognised, with the ‘two point oh’ moniker being added to a host of organisational types and professional activities. However, within the world of scholarly publishing, despite the huge potential of Web 2.0 technologies for the transforming of the research and publishing process, adoption is seemingly a slow affair. The question is, are academics waiting for the right tools, or are they just too stuck in their ways?

It is hard to imagine a group more suited to the opportunities of Web 2.0 technologies than academics, especially when it comes to conducting and publishing research. The importance of collaboration to the scholarly process is so widely recognised that it is often now a prerequisite of funding. The potential of academic research to have a significant impact on the wider economy has not only led funding councils to stipulate that publicly-funded research papers are made freely available online, but has also seen them encourage researchers to come up with new and innovative methods of distributing research findings. In addition to this, rising journal costs and long delays in publication time have led many academics to the conclusion that the current publication process is fundamentally broken.

Unfortunately there are few signs that academics are really embracing the new opportunities offered by Web 2.0. Many academics’ idea of online collaboration is still emailing the findings they have arrived at independently to one another, while their notion of an innovative method of promoting research results is the obligatory ‘project web site’. Such sites usually offer little more than a description of the project, a list of the partners, and possibly some photographs of awkward-looking academics standing around at kickoff meetings. It is true that the more adventurous may embrace a rarely-updated project blog or project wiki. However, overall these online elements are generally rather stale affairs, reflecting researchers going through the boxticking motions rather than embracing the true potential of web technologies.

Scholarly publishing 2.0 offers much more to the research process than the simple content management system of blogs and wikis. It does not just give the opportunity to help find collaborators for a project, and possibility of easing the communication process within a research group. It also offers the opportunity to publish new forms of data and can blur the barriers of the research group. The traditional research paper has obvious limitations in terms of the type of information that can be conveyed. It is not just video and audio that are unsuitable for the paper format, but also the huge amounts of data that may be collected in the research process. The open data movement is about sharing as much of the data as possible, while the open notebook science movement is about sharing as much of the whole primary record as possible. Both of these are focused on enabling others to use the mass of information behind a journal article to inform further research. The web also offers new opportunities for more open peer review, widening the opportunity for those who want to provide and receive feedback on research.

Publishers’ activities

Academics could once have claimed that Web 2.0 sites were too consumer-focused and unsuitable for academic needs but this is not the case now. Over the past few years numerous academic-focused Web 2.0 sites have emerged. These include social networking sites such as www.academia.edu, and reference management systems like www.connotea.org. There are also more content-focused social network sites, such as www.mendeley.com, which allows users to upload and share their research papers, and www.myexperiment.org, which offers the opportunity to share workflows and methodologies.

Some of the sites are new commercial ventures, some have emerged from an academic background and others have the backing of the big scientific publishers. Most noticeable is the presence of the scientific publishers amongst the sites designed for managing scholarly references online: www.citeulike.org is sponsored by Springer, www.2collab.com is owned by Elsevier, and www.connotea.org is part of the Nature Publishing Group. Nature Publishing Group also has the Nature Network, a social network site focused on scientific discussions in groups and forums.

The interest of scientific publishers in both Web 2.0 technologies and of a more open scientific method generally is understandable. New methods of publishing not only potentially threaten their current business model, but could potentially transform the very nature of the research process and the journal article. Some publishers are beginning to offer the opportunity to provide comments on journal articles, and experimenting with a more open peer-review process. Some are going further and even rethinking the nature of the journal article. Elsevier’s Cell Press made a bit of a splash recently with its ‘article of the future’. This is an attempt to redefine how the traditional article is presented online by placing a heavy emphasis on multimedia aspects, including clickable figures and integrated audio and video. There is also the online Journal of Visualized Experiments, a peer-reviewed journal that focuses on biological research in a video format. The efforts of publishers to embrace new technologies reflects a perceived need to offer tools to authors (and readers) before they start looking elsewhere.

Conservative response

Despite all the innovation though, the embracement of new technologies is mostly underwhelming. Elsevier’s survey of academic faculty last year showed an expectation amongst the scientific community that social media will play an increasingly important role in the coming years. However, there seems to be a long way to go. In terms of web traffic (according to the web traffic site www.alexa.com) there is no single academic-focused site that may be considered universally popular. The most popular sites are those backed by the scientific publishers focusing on the management of scholarly references. Such sites benefit from the wisdom of crowds but are also of use to the solitary researcher.

Even when it comes to areas that have gained significant interest, the indications are that, in general, academics are a rather conservative group who despite the potential benefits of new technologies are reluctant to risk the status quo. When Nature Publishing Group ran a voluntary open peer-review trial it found that not only did the vast majority chose to opt-out, but those that did participate received few comments.

While it may be the case that there are a significant number who dislike the process of open peer review, it is less likely to be the case when it comes to the embracing of open archiving. However, institutional repositories have found it notoriously difficult to get academics to deposit their research papers. Although academics seem to want to benefit from open access, they do not want to have to go to the trouble of depositing their papers in repositories.

Maybe it is harsh to single out academics for criticism when it comes to their non-adoption of Web 2.0 technologies and their inability to move beyond the traditional academic paper. After all, it only takes one or two librarians to provide a library with a veneer of embracing Web 2.0 technologies. In comparison, academics are generally solitary creatures, and individuals are noticeable by their absence. There are also many academics who are actively looking for ways to embrace the new technologies and to embed them in their research practices. However, looking at a few of the many social networking sites you will quickly realise how small a proportion they actually are, with the same faces appearing on site after site.

The traditional paper

Much of the blame for the slow adoption of the Web 2.0 technologies seemingly lies with an over-emphasis on the traditional research paper. The research paper is understandably the primary focus of academic interest, especially with increasing emphasis being placed on bibliometrics in, for example the UK’s forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF). However, while academics will rightly argue that science has benefitted from the traditional publication system in the past, an overemphasis on it now seemingly prevents them from embracing the potential of a more open science. Academics worry as much about being scooped and not getting credit for their work as the potential for slipping standards in scholarship. Maybe if the REF gave more attention to more subtle webometric indicators, academics would get the push they need to start taking new forms of publishing seriously.

Today we are still a long way from academics fully embracing the potential of Web 2.0 technologies. Although this is likely to change in the future, it seems more likely that this will be the result of a new generation of academics with changing attitudes to open science rather than due to any new changes in the technological sphere.

David Stuart is an independent web analyst and consultant and honorary member of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton, UK