Networks and networking

Why is a network important to my research?

Building up your own network, or joining an existing network can enable you to ‘filter’ the information that reaches you, as well as enabling you to discover new research contacts and channels of communication that only exist online. You will already have an offline network, within your office, your research group, your department, and in your research field; online you can have the same type of network, but maintain connections in one place, and take advantage of other people’s knowledge and experience outside your institution and immediate research field. Discussion, appraisal of other people’s work, meeting a like-minded individual, following up on a recommended article: all of these are potential networking activities that can take place offline and online, and all can provide further value to your research and career. Networks lead to collaboration, collaboration leads to creativity, experimentation, research projects, funding and employment.

What is a network?

In this context we are treating a network as a collection of individuals with a shared interest in communicating with each other. The shared interest could be based on individuals’ work or personal interests, it could be based on professional promotion, or based around a very particular research group. Within a network there are individuals, who can be referred to as connectors or ties, who are members of other networks, and these connectors can link their networks to each other. This means that you don’t have to be a member of hundreds of networks, as your connectors will enable you to decide whether you want to pick up any information they introduce to your network from another network.

Networks can provide you with a wealth of information, harvested by other people in that network. In this sense a network can be an information-gathering tool, as well as a communication tool

Different kinds of network

Keeping in mind the above, networks can exist online and offline, and can be as simple as the coffee group you go to every month with other researchers in your department. It may be a member of this network is a member of a professional group, or social interest group which is of interest to you: sometimes related activities or information might come up in conversation which you then take advantage of. You haven’t had to become a personal member of these groups but you have used your coffee group network to gain information that is relevant to you.

Online you can use networking services to create a network of people you already know, and join services that wouldn’t describe themselves as networking services but can perform that function, such as Twitter. There are networking services aimed at academic communities, professional communities, networks that you can join by being a Facebook fan or ‘like’ing a society or institution page, networks of bloggers who have similar interests to you and more.

Social media take on networking

Online networks can be professional networks, such as LinkedIn, social networks such as Facebook,  blogging networks such as PLoSBlogs, or can be a combination of social media tools, such as RSS feeds, reference management software, Twitter, and blogs which form your own network. Some networks will require more participation than others and your reason for joining a particular type of network will in part dictate how much use you make of these.

Building/developing your own online network

Making use of already existing networks can save you some work if you don’t want to start completely from scratch, but beware the temptation to join many networks. Do you want to be a connector, or do you want to join one network, and let other people be connectors. You’ll find you become a connector without even trying; if you follow a person on Twitter who tweets about a particular paper one day, you might find you pass on the reference to someone else in your research group who doesn’t have a Twitter account, nor any interest in one.

If you decide to set up a blog, think about the blogs and feeds that you link to in your blog roll; people like their work to be read, and if you mention their blog, you’ll probably find they’ll respond in kind. Pick blogs that you like, that are of interest, and that you think your audience might also be interested in. You may introduce your readers to people they would never have encountered before, and make new connections yourself, thus setting up your own network.

If you join an existing network, think about how much time you need to invest in building up your profile on the network. Relatively well established networks, such as LinkedIn or ResearchGate have developed much functionality, attract advertisers, and are used by thousands of people. If you come across a new networking service, be aware that if still in development it could not be the ‘next big thing’. This article in Nature raises some of the challenges faced by scientific networking sites.

Read Vitae’s guide to establishing networks for researchers.

Networking services and tools

Twitter:  a case study

Type of network:  Microblogging

About: ‘The fastest, simplest way to stay close to everything you care about.’

Twitter is a microblogging service that asks you to tell the world what you are doing in 140 characters or less, but can be used to build up a network of like-minded people. By selecting other Twitter users to follow, you can build up contacts across a wide range of interests. Many in the academic and research communities use Twitter for professional communication of their research, pointing followers to notable items such as papers, articles, news stories, blog posts and so on. As well as sharing text you can send links to other resources, photos and other media.  It is good practice when sending links is to use a short URL (Twitter shortens URLs automatically, but you can use URL shortening service such as TinyURL or bitly).

For an introduction on using Twitter to build up research networks, this online presentation by an academic member of staff at the University of Sussex provides useful advice and tips for those starting out.

Use Twitter Lists: this allows you to set up groups of people that you follow and don’t follow so you can see all their tweets in one place. An example is Imperial Tweeters.

You will also find much discussion of published articles and papers on Twitter. It’s debatable as to whether this is valuable or not in furthering the concepts of peer review and open science, but you can decide for yourself by following debates when they arise. Some of the pertinent issues are raised in Trial by Twitter published in Nature.  SpotON London also investigated the potential of using Twitter to engage the public with science (more on that here).

Other useful networks for researchers:

Network Type About Useful for
Academia Research sharing ‘Academia.edu is a platform for academics to share research papers. The company’s mission is to accelerate the world’s research.’ Sharing and following research in your field
Figshare Data sharing ‘Figshare allows researchers to publish all of their research outputs in seconds in an easily citable, sharable and discoverable manner.’ Sharing and discovering research data, collaboration (under development)
FriendFeed Social network ‘FriendFeed is a service that makes it easy to share with friends online. It offers a fun and interactive way to discover and discuss information among friends.’ Communication, discussion, networking, collaboration, following information from external sites
Frontiers Social network / publishing ‘Frontiers is an online platform for the scientific community to publish open-access articles and network with colleagues.’ Networking, open access publishing, peer review, article metrics
GitHub Code sharing ‘GitHub is the best place to share code with friends, co-workers, classmates, and complete strangers. Over a million people use GitHub to build amazing things together.’ Collaboration, sharing and discussion for code writers
Google Plus Social Network ‘New ways of sharing the right things with the right people ‘ Communication, discussion, networking, collaboration
LinkedIn Social network ‘…professionals use LinkedIn to exchange information, ideas and opportunities. Stay informed about your contacts and industry. Find the people & knowledge you need to achieve your goals. Control your professional identity online’ Employment-focused networking, personal promotion
Mendeley Reference manager/social network ‘Mendeley is a free reference manager and academic social network that can help you organize your research, collaborate with others online, and discover the latest research.’ Sharing and following research in your field, collaborative working, storing research papers.
Occam’s Typewriter Blogging network ‘Occam’s Typewriter is a community project to bring together current and erstwhile scientists who like to write.’ Personal promotion, networking, discussion
PLoS Blogs Blogging network ‘The PLoS blogs network has been set up to bring a select group of independent science and medicine bloggers together.’ Personal promotion, networking, discussion ‘promot(ing) greater understanding of breakthrough science for a variety of reader types’
ResearchGate Social network ‘For scientists. Connect with researchers, make your work visible and stay current.’ Professional networking, promoting personal research, current awareness

You can find a more comprehensive breakdown of networks for researchers here.

Actions

1. Join LinkedIn and/or ResearchGate. Bear in mind that in order to get the best results from these networks, you need to remain active so ensure that your contact details, interests, and CV/research/work experience is kept up to date.

There’s plenty of advice online about maintaining profiles, and how to use LinkedIn to your best advantage, but a short top 10 tips should get you started.You can import contacts from email programs easily and set up a network instantly.

Don’t spam people! Only request connections from people you want to be connected with, and don’t be afraid to ignore connection requests from people who you don’t know, or who don’t have interests that you share.

For more experienced users, and when you’ve decided LinkedIn is the networking tool for you, there is further advice on keeping up to date with your connections, and enhancing your profile.

2. Thinking about Twitter? Select the people you want to follow carefully, and you could find that current awareness activities are greatly enhanced.

Using Twitter for research

a) Pick your favourite science/technology/business writer: chances are they’ll have a Twitter account. You can view their tweets, and see who follows them without signing up for a Twitter account. You can start to build up a picture of the different levels of communication that can take place between Twitter users, as well as the types of information that you can find

.b) Pick a scientific ‘hot’ topic, and search Twitter. There is a lot of noise surrounding topics, but public communication and understanding of science takes place in a variety of social media spaces, and Twitter is certainly one of those.

c) After these investigations, set up a Twitter account if you want to. Use the Imperial Tweeters list to start building up your network.

3. Vitae has a simple suggestion for starting up your networking activities if you’ve written or contributed to a paper or conference presentation. If you’re more at the literature review stage, see if you can find the researchers you’re citing:‘Find blogs related to your area and make a comment on them to let their readers know what you’ve written; look to see if any of the people you have cited in your paper have a social media presence. If so, link up with them and let them know that you’ve cited them.’

4. Erika Cule, a member of the Occam’s Typewriter blogging community, blogged about her experiences in setting up a science blogging workshop at Imperial in March. You could take up the invitation at Occam’s Typewriter to contribute a guest blog post.

References

Hempel, J. (2010) How Linkedin will fire up your career. Fortune. 161(5). Available at http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=48902290&site=ehost-live.

Mandavilli, A. (2011). Trial by Twitter. Nature. 469(7330) 286-287. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/469286a.

Research Information Network (2011) Social media: a guide for researchers. Available at: http://www.rin.ac.uk/our-work/communicating-and-disseminating-research/social-media-guide-researchers.

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