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A new wave of digital tools causes an impact on the way researchers do their work

BRUNO NOGUEIRAThe daily life of researchers is being influenced by a new wave of digital tools, such as social networks, on-line software, and blogs, which facilitate communication and the exchange of information among people working in the same field. The profiles of the social network members are presented in a manner that resembles a scientific curriculum, which makes it easier for users to find the fields of research they are interested in. A calendar contains information on scientific events taking place all over the world and an employment center offers over 14 thousand job openings in a wide variety of fields of science. “ Social networks are specializing in and offering new functionalities. The ResearchGate network, among other examples, enables researchers to conduct some of their activities at a faster pace, lower cost and more efficiency,” says Ewout ter Haar, a professor from the Physics Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) and one of the administrators of Stoa, the social network that congregates 40 thousand professors, students and employees of the University of São Paulo.

ResearchGate combines elements of well-known social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn – the professional network – with profiles of members, comments, groups, sharing – even though, as had been pointed out in an article published in The New York Times, there is no space for “baby photos, cat videos, or self-congratulation.” Only scientists can ask or answer questions, because the discussion topics frequently focus on issues that are too specific for the lay public. Participants use their real names to introduce themselves, and specify their professional data and a list of publications. The network uses this data to suggest connections with other members. ResearchGate is a good venue for professionals to contact their peers; it is also a good tool to search for foreign researchers. In Brazil, this vocation is possibly less important than in other countries because we can avail ourselves of the Lattes Platform, a unique platform that exists only in Brazil,” says biologist Átila Iamarino, editor of the science blogs network ScienceBlogs and member of ResearchGate, which he joined four months ago. Maintained by the National Council of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), the Lattes Platform congregates 1.8 million curriculums and students from all over Brazil.

Social network users can create public or private discussion groups and share articles or material of scientific interest. ResearchGate encourages participants to transform their profiles into a repository of their scientific production, even if their articles are not available on the internet; many editors of leading publications allow their authors to divulge their papers on personal web pages. The result is that the Lattes Platform already contains 350 thousand articles. In 2011 alone, 842.179 publications were shared through the platform. However, some users feel that the platform has a lot of space for improvement. “The tools to insert research papers are not very reliable and they do not recognize for example repeated papers.

I think it’s a useful tool, but it is still being developed,” says Marcelo Knobel, a professor at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute of the University of Campinas/ Unicamp, and Dean of the institution’s undergraduate program, and occasional user of ResearchGate. “If they integrated their issues with the conference calendar and if they facilitated the way in which references are viewed and inserted, I think this platform would become a very interesting tool. I normally use Facebook to connect with colleagues, friends and other networks,” he explains.

ResearchGate has become outstanding among several other social networks, such as UniPHY, focused on physicists and engineers; Labroots, focused on the medical and engineering fields, or Academia.edu, to name some examples. “The battle is to see which network will dominate, which is what happens with other social networks,” says Átila Iamarino, who teaches a course on on-line tools for researchers.

032-035_Facebook_195Other tools have been gaining space because they offer unique functionalities. One example is Mendeley, which was first introduced as software for organizing bibliographical references, but has taken on the features of a social network. Mendeley was created to organize a researcher’s library of articles of interest to him, such as texts that he had to quote as references in his scientific papers. When migrating to the internet, the Mendeley became a social network through which it is possible to find out which are the articles that most attract researchers from a given field of research – or to find out what a specific researcher is reading and recommending to his colleagues. “In practical terms, the Mendeley has become a social filter. Researchers are constantly bombarded by an enormous volume of information, and this software helps manage this volume of information by showing who read and shared a given piece of information,” says Átila Iamarino, who at times resorts to another source to look for good scientific references: namely, the popular Wikipedia library. “Although the texts found in Wikipedia sometimes undergo changes, the scientific references in general are solid, because they are included by good researchers who are experts in that given field,” he explains.

It is natural that such methods initially attracted young researchers. “They are more motivated and find it easy to use these tools. Scientists at a certain level in their professional careers do not need these tools to such an extent to make connections. In addition, older researchers tend to be more conservative,” said Ewout ter Haar, of USP.

But what is the potential of these digital tools to transform the work of researchers as it is being conducted nowadays? The answer to this question is complex. On one hand, the transformation is tangible, as attested to by the proliferation of blogs written by scientists, who have increasingly shared the results of their research work even before it is published in journals. “Here in Brazil, scientific blogs are mostly used to divulge research work. In the United States, blogs act as a network through which researchers talk about their research work and comment on the work of their colleagues,” says Rafael Bento, who has a doctorate degree in biotechnology from USP and is one of the authors of the blog RNA mensageiro. “PLOS, for example, resorts to quotes from articles in blogs to publish statistics, complementing the quotes from official literature,” he states. The collaborative blog MathOverflow relies on mathematicians to work on joint solutions for specific problems. In another experiment called Polymath Project, comments by mathematicians, published by Timothy Gower in his blog, have resulted in new evidence for a particularly complicated theorem in a mere six weeks. Timothy Gower was awarded the Fields Medal in 2009.

Conversations among researchers, through blogs, social networks, and internet forums, function – in certain situations – as a kind of instant peer evaluation. This was exemplified in 2010, through a controversial announcement made by NASA astrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, in an article published in Science journal. In this article, Felisa Wolfe-Simon describes a strain of bacteria that uses arsenic instead of phosphorus to survive. Some of the findings described in the article were immediately challenged by researchers and science bloggers. Science journal selected the main criticisms and published eight of them in the subsequent. The referred article is still being discussed.

032-035_Facebook_195-2BRUNO NOGUEIRAOther examples of the transformation are the open access repositories, such as the arXiv, through which physicists, mathematicians and biologists announce data related to their research work, submitting this data to peer analysis prior to publication. The data generated by the CERN’s particles accelerator, for example, was first announced in the arXiv. The arXiv became renowned as a tool to share information among experts in high energy physics. Pablo Ortellado, professor at the College of the Arts, Sciences and Humanities of the University of São Paulo/ USP, refers to a trend being identified in relation to the sharing of research data. “The fact that there are new forms of peer review reflects the enormous increase in scientific production, generated by a strategy that encourages publication. As a result, the industry of spreading science has been overwhelmed by low quality articles. Consequently, it has become difficult to produce reviews of articles on certain topics, because it is humanly impossible to read everything that is or was published on a given topic,” he states. “In addition, peer review is a continuous process which is not restricted to publications in journals. When presenting his research work at a congress, the researcher is also submitting his work to peer review,” he points out.

However, this does not mean that traditional peer review, of the kind conducted by scientific journals, is going to be substituted by some other kind of review method. “When I look for a scientific article, I expect the methodology and the results to have been evaluated and approved. If there is no assurance in this respect, how can I believe what is written in the article?” says Rogério Meneghini, scientific coordinator of SciELO Brasil, the electronic library that contains hundreds of open-access publications with peer review. “In addition, it is important to publish articles in journals that conduct peer review and that have as much impact as possible, especially to follow a successful career path. The evaluation of post-graduate courses by Capes, for example, has expanded such requirements,” he states.

However, these digital tools achieve success whenever they compete with consolidated commercial arrangements. An increasing number of researchers have profiles on Google Scholar, a Google platform that collects data on all scientific publications available on the internet. Since the end of last year, researchers have been able to create profiles and include publications and citations, which are found by Google Scholar. By means of Google Scholar Citations, researchers can see statistics on citations to their research papers, including information on the so-called H-Index, an indicator that measures the productivity and the impact of the published work of a researcher. New citations are added automatically as soon as they are identified on the network. “The Google Scholar has a very strict method of linking citations to articles; as it encompasses everything that is on the network, Google Scholar is bigger than all such data bases like Thomson Reuters and Scopus,” says Rogério Meneghini. “It is still too early to decide whether Google Scholar will substitute existing data bases someday, but it is growing.” Meneghini pointed out that his profile on Google Scholar is similar to his profile on Thomson Reuters, as regards his work as a researcher in the field of chemistry and biochemistry. In relation to his current field of studies – information technology – Google Scholar is more encompassing. “Thomson Reuters does not contain many publications on scientometrics,” he says.

Ewout ter Haar, of USP, suggests that a consolidated Lattes Platform of the CNPq should incorporate all methods of the science-focused social networks. “It would be great if the researchers were able to interact by means of the Lattes Platform,” he points out. The Lattes is changing, even though not exactly in this sense. One of the changes will enable Brazilian scientists to provide information on innovations in their projects and research studies; another change will enable them to describe initiatives to divulge their work and will provide scientific education. “Bloggers like me will be able to include references to their work in the scientific curriculum, which has not been possible up to this time,” says Rafael Bento, of the RNA mensageiro blog. Rafael Bento has just received his post-doctorate degree in neuroscience from USP; he has decided not to follow a teaching career and will dedicate himself to science writing.

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