Are Scientists Anti-Social?

That was the question posed at last night’s meeting of Science Online NYC (SoNYC). The organizers set up a panel to discuss, “What is it about social networking tools and the science community that isn’t meshing well?”

At first I didn’t quite follow. Someone pointed out that there’s been a deluge of “Facebooks for scientists” created in the past ten years, none to much success. So what? I wondered, there’s been a deluge of Facebook’s in general in the last ten years, and only one of them’s amounted to much in the long run.

Then I got it. As journalists, we look for stories with strong central conflicts. This issue has a big one. Here we go:

Online social networking — Twitter, blogging, online reference management tools — all involve sharing information about what you’ve been researching. If there’s anything that makes scientists unfriendly, it’s the fear of their paper being scooped. In the words of Lou Woodley of, publications are the currency of science.

Why would scientists voluntarily share what they’ve been working on, if it could be used to help someone else publish their findings before they do? Attendee Christine Ponder pointed out that the ensuing discussion ended up more controversial than last month’s event, “Courting Controversy.”

Voracious Twitter users attested to the value of building an online community of their peers.  Genetics researcher Nancy Parmalee told of how Twitter helped her connect with other scientists to troubleshoot results. Another researcher argued that sharing your work online and engaging with the greater community makes you a stronger scientist, by forcing you to come up with better explanations for your research.

The less online-social researchers asked, “We’ve been doing science for so long without social networking, why start now?” Is there really a problem with science that social networking can fix? And is it an effective use of research time? Most importantly, scientist wanted to know who will, or could, have access to their findings when they put them online.

In my re-consideration of last night, the greatest controversy seems to arise around the topic of Open Notebook Science. In such a paradigm researchers record online every step of their research process, prior to publication. They report even inconclusive experiments, and keep a public log of their sources. Results get communicated immediately.

To Open Notebook Science’s proponents, the concept sounds utopian –  it gives the public greater access to the science their tax dollars fund, it encourages full disclosure of research practices, and ideally it ensures you receive credit for your findings by time-stamping your disclosures.  But skeptics still fear that by exposing their scientific methods they risk misappropriation by other scientists seeking shortcuts to publication.

That concern disappears if you follow Arikia Millikan‘s line of thinking. “Paper publishing is over,” the community manager announced, to gasps in the crowd. “Move on. Stop worrying about being scooped.”

As someone who’s lived and breathed the publication-driven research ethos, that’s an exciting possibility based on its spectacularity alone. But to me science today still falls in an awkward middle ground. Clearly more and more scientists are joining the social media bandwagon and moving towards open science. But I think it will take at least a decade before we see the peer-reviewed scientific paper fall from favor as the primary method of establishing reputation in research.

Addendum: Here’s the record of my attendance that turned up on SoNYC’s Facebook page.  Maybe I should have titled this post, “Are Science Journalists Anti-Social… or just focused on the snacks?” Busted.