Friday, June 06, 2008

Small Worlds: Social Networks for Postgraduate Laboratory Scientists

Small world networks I'm pleased to announce that the University of Leicester Research Training Innovation Fund has funded this project:

The past few years have seen the rapid development of Web 2.0 services, the so-called "read/write Web". In contrast to the original development of the World Wide Web, in the Web 2.0 model, users not only consume online information but also produce it through collaborative interactions. Social networks such as Facebook have become immensely popular, but their impact has remained largely confined to social and leisure use and has not transferred to the professional sphere. Although scientists were the first inhabitants of the word wide Web, they have not moved on and these developments have not had a significant impact on practicing laboratory scientists (Nature Reviews Microbiology, 2008 6: 410). Research shows (Key Concerns Within The Scholarly Communication Process, Report To The JISC Scholarly Communications Group, March 2008) that the reasons for the lack of adoption of these potentially valuable tools are:

- Lack of time
- Lack of incentive
- Laboratory scientists are reluctant to share results and techniques
- Lack of a user base
- The pull of the familiar

The widespread availability of computers means that everyone is in constant contact with everyone else. However, this creates a false impression and the reality is that many early career stage laboratory scientists work in a professionally isolated fashion. Apart from those working in large, well-funded laboratories, many junior scientists do not come into daily contact with their scientific peers, and may be physically located at isolated sites such as hospital laboratories. For these individuals, the opportunities offered by Web 2.0 technologies could be particularly important for career development.

This project will facilitate the construction of online professional networks using freely available Web 2.0 tools to support the development of early career stage laboratory scientists in the Life and Physical Sciences. We will do this by guiding and encouraging development of clustered small world networks. Graph theory shows that small world networks, which rely on multiple tightly connected groups which are loosely connected to each other, are the most efficient design to maximize the transmission of information across a minimal number of connections. In the sciences, these subnets correspond to existing natural groupings which have the most in common, e.g. individual laboratories and academic departments. By linking these to groups with related interests, e.g. biologists with chemists, geologists with physicists, we will maximize the online interactions and the potential value of the groupings.

Taking a grass roots social network approach we will facilitate the development of online social networks among early career stage laboratory scientists by introducing them to critically important emerging research tools such as:
  1. RSS (Really Simple Syndication)
  2. Social bookmarking (, and sites for sharing journal papers and references such as Connotea, CiteULike)
  3. Laboratory wikis
  4. Online Document sharing
  5. Microblogging (Twitter)
To achieve this we will:
  • Conduct a series of focus groups consisting of PhD students, post doctoral workers and academic supervisors from the Faculties of Science and Medicine and Biological Sciences to assess the requirements for and impact of these technologies.
  • Develop online tutorials which can be used as free standing resources and as a basis for face to face training sessions.
  • Conduct face to face training sessions within the formal postgraduate training programs in the Faculties of Science and Medicine and Biological Sciences to initially introduce the target audience to these concepts, followed up by online mentoring.
  • Seed the social networks with trained peer mentors who can champion the tools provided and lead by example within their own small lab or department groups.
  • Evaluate the impact of the project by an online survey.
Duration of project: September 2008 - July 2009

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