Digitally-enhanced research has yet to become more collaborative

Sharing practices build the essence of science. In the process they generate two important “Rs” for scientists: recognition and reputation. This trend has been exacerbated by an increase scientific activity. In turn, it has resulted in enhanced levels of knowledge production and scholarly communication. Such increasing volumes of knowledge are now available in digital environments. This means they have the potential for enhancing the sharing practices associated with the scientific endeavour. Ultimately, this trend will also have an impact on the way research is translated into innovation, albeit at the cost of enhanced collaboration and at the detriment of competition.

Scientific social network sites

Incidentally, a number of so-called social network sites, designed to facilitate collaboration among scientists, have now emerged. They have facilitated the exponential development of sharing practices in academia, digitally enhancing exchange between knowledge production capacities across the globe. Indeed, platforms such as Mendeley, ResearchGate, ResearcherID and aggregate bibliographic information and the work of millions of researchers in terms of journal articles. Thus, sharing scientific information has become easier. In addition, these platforms stand as facilitators to identify and build research groups on a global scale.

As a result, these sites also speed up the scientific process; at least as a result of digitalisation and social media enabled connectedness among scholars. These scientists, for instance, get instantly notified once their peers upload a new research paper, equivalent data and food for thought. This trend has not been unnoticed among traditional science publishers. For example, Elsevier, in 2013, bought Mendeley and a group of investors with Bill Gates among them, invested 35 million US $ in ResearchGate, which is a Berlin-based start-up.

Shift in scientific practice

Academic social networking sites do not only attract venture capital. They also represent an object of research for science communication scholars, like Christoph Lutz and Christian Hoffmann, from the University of St. Gallen, in Switzerland. In their recent pilot study, these academics explored the network activities of 55 colleagues from the business department of their university on ResearchGate.

Their objective was to explore the social network’s potential for extended scientific impact assessment. Their idea was to turn it into far reaching measuring tool going beyond widespread impact factors or h-index and incorporating criteria such as publication resonance, centrality and activity in a network. “These platforms do not change scientists’ daily work very much but they add another layer to the context of their work,” Lutz argues. Its advantages are multiple. Lutz adds: “scientific output becomes more personalised, socially embedded and more or less immediately measurable.”

Other experts agree. The tools “aren’t revolutionising science, rather they make what you already do faster, like discovering relevant literature and sharing results quicker and much more efficient, like finding collaborators,” points out Euan Adie, the London, UK-based founder of Altmetric, a startup which is using altmetric data.


The scientific interest in scholarly communication and the data gathered by social networking sites may, one day, play a role for grant agencies and institutional players. These could help integrate so-called altmetrics, short for alternative metrics, into academic evaluation criteria. In principle, the data aggregated by academic social network sites is at the core of knowledge production, as Manuel Castells pointed out in his Rise of the Network Society. This could have the consequence of stimulating “researchers [who] will try to produce results that stir more attention in the public sphere,” adds Lutz.

Even traditional publishers are catching up. On 30th of January 2014, Springer included certain altmetrics to its journals. Jason Priem, co-author of the altmetrics manifesto, assumes that it is “likely to supplement traditional peer-review, perhaps augmenting rapid review in journals.” Meanwhile, Adie notes: “altmetrics are useful evidence of broader impacts; of things like public engagement, or use in policy or practice.”

Fast tracking innovation

The acceleration of research, affording by increased sharing practices, has also an impact on innovation. Besides, the strengths of “algorithms speeding up the processing information in the bench sciences,” results in bench-to-bedside translations happening more quickly. That’s according to Dietram Scheufele, communication scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. In turn, this leads to fairly faster and steeper innovation curves, Scheufele argues. He also believes that “scientists must explore outcomes of online interactions about science in much greater detail,” because the “brave new” online environment affects the communication of science information to the public.

In addition, Scheufele stresses that “social sciences and the humanities have been almost too slow for that technological development.” Thus, we “haven’t developed the ethical, legal and social understandings surrounding technologies, like surveillance drones for instance,” he notes. This means that digitalisation drives current changes in research in many ways. In particular, “key aspects of the ‘second Scientific Revolution’ are interconnected,” as Sascha Friesike and Sönke Bartling argue in their recent book. The general term second Scientific Revolution, already a new buzzword, as postulated in 2012 by The Royal Society report Science as an open enterprise , encompasses a bundle of interconnected digitally driven processes such as open data, altmetrics, social networking, open access publications and unique researcher ID.

Science driven by collaboration not economics

In parallel, the fundamental change in sharing practices opens up an alternative world view. Next to Homo economicus, it sheds light on the other side of human beings: Homo collaborans, argues Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, co-president of the Club of Rome, an informal association of individuals from politics, business and science who share a common concern for the future of humanity and the planet.

This concept is also echoed in the realm of global business under various guises such as the sharing economy. Or, even lately, the circular economy. The latter recently even made it as a session title at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The discussion focused on how the sharing economy is changing traditional modes of consumption and production. This circular economy has been advocated by the economist Jacques Attali in France, who is referring to a positive economy. The British sailor Ellen MacArthur is also supporting this cause, through her homonymous foundation. MacArthur has been campaigning through her Circular Economy 100 initiative, which claiming such approach is a “$700[€500] billion opportunity for the fast-moving consumer goods sector.”

But what do terms like sharing economy and circular economy really mean? “They are two overlapping but not identical concepts,” explains Harald Heinrichs, professor of sustainability politics at Leuphana University, in Lüneburg, Germany. The circular economy aims at “closing lifecycles of products in order to avoid waste and improve resource use,” he explains. Its mantra: reduce, reuse, recycle. These three words not only build the refrain in the 3R song by Jack Johnson. They also set the stage for the grounding of overarching umbrella terms such as sustainability. By contrast, the sharing economy focuses on “collaborative production and consumption, ranging from redistribution markets to collaborative peer-to-peer consumption, which in the end may lead to improved use of resources and social capital gains.” And some scientists are already involved in devising suitable solutions to meet both the sharing and the circular economy’s agenda.

Finally, Weizsäcker points out that a debate is needed “to reflect to what extent science may be trapped into the world view of Homo economicus” and global competition at the cost of cooperation. Meanwhile, he concludes that sustainability requires scientists to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary questions, thereby addressing the burning questions of society and the environment.

Featured image credit: BLACK ME via Fotolia

Go back to the Special Issue: Why sharing matters

Dino Trescher

Founder at Constart
Dino Trescher, science journalist and co-founder of Constart, a correspondent network of independent journalists. As a dedicated science communication scholar he founded inscico, a research center for science and innovation communication, focusing on communication processes and cooperation between companies and academic institutions. He studied science communication at TU Berlin, Germany.
Dino Trescher

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