Meetings & Conferences Science Online

Cat herding: The challenges and rewards… (Science Online London 2009)

…of managing online scientific communities

Arikia Millikan, Corie Lok, Ijad Madisch

This session will provide you with an inside look into how online science communities are built and maintained. We will discuss how to manage expectations, social/cultural issues, the role of moderation, differences between science communities and ‘other communities’, and how to encourage diversity/debate whilst maintaining some sort of order. You’ll come away with tips on how to successfully build community and maintain it throughout flame wars and other tribulations.

Arikia Millikan (scienceblogs):

Scienceblogs started as a network, and ended up as a community. It was a very successful project. To do things well, you need a diverse selection of bloggers, which makes the cat herding more difficult. To have a successful blogging community, you first need a solid technological foundation. Secondly, you need acknowledgement, accessibility and analytics (it can be a very good motivational tool to see who is looking at your site and how often). Higher up in the hierarchy, you need to allow identity and individuality for your bloggers. When all these aspects are present you have a good community, but if any of these components fail you start to have problems.

If needs aren’t met, a lot of the energy that normally gets sent to achieving science is made more destructive. This is when you get the dreaded flame wars, which has happened in the past at scienceblogs. This is where the community management skills come in. Something important to know about such situations is that they are not always bad – you can learn important lessons from them. There are also a lot of rewarding aspects working at scienceblogs: it’s never boring, and there’s lots of nice science, and it is emotionally rewarding (all the benefits of a strong community).

Corie Lok (Nature Network):

She described what she’s seen work in a community of bloggers. Bloggers in such a community need to remain online and engage with the commenters. Friends can help you do this. You have to find the right balance in the volume of your postings. The main thing that the bloggers struggle with is incentive: it’s hard to get payback from the mainstream community. Seeding the blogging community with people other scientists want to interact with has been very important in making the community successful. Having forums such as the Ask the Nature Editor forum, and on fluorescence imaging in the life sciences has been really useful.

There’s a new website for Parkinson’s set up by the Michael J Fox foundation that has been really successful, and is a really great model of how things could proceed.

Ijad Madisch (co-founder of ResearchGATE):

He’s originally a medical doctor and is also working in Computer Science. ResearchGATE helps researchers with targeted, rapid-response Q&A and provides efficient literature search and professional bookmarking. For institutional users, ResearchGATE offers a comprehensive communication platform and collaboration tools for promoting inter-disciplinary research.

The greatest challenges are to serve a variety of disciplines and to perform community management on a large scale. However, they’re proud of the global online community they’ve created, and the feedback they’ve received. There is a new API coming soon to enable scientists to add their own applications to the ResearchGATE platform.


Question: What percentage of your registered users are active? IM: 30-35% log in at least once per month in ResearchGATE. Similar numbers for Nature Network.

Question (Matt Brown): How do you guard against spam attacks, and what do you do about potentially libelous (or similar) comments, or other legal problems? CL: There is spam software in place. In terms of legal aspects, UK libel law puts publishers in a difficult position: publishers are better off not moderating content in a legal sense. So you have to find a balance. IM: They don’t have that many spam problems, but they have created a reporting system. ResearchGATE has one lawyer, working full time. AM: They’ve had some pretty bad spam problems in the past, but the community helps out a lot with this. Bloggers also moderate their own comments. Legally, there hasn’t been that many problems yet.

Question: Is there an optimum group size for a blogging or online research community? CL: She hasn’t seen any correlation between group size and activity. AM: There may be capacity issues – as the group gets larger, it’s harder to sustain the interpersonal aspects of it.

Question: What is the effect of networks like this on scientists’ productivity – it would be great if that information were published more? Are the networks ever acknowledged in the paper? CL: There have been fruitful collaborations that came out of Nature Network. IM: Collaborations at ResearchGATE have resulted in at least one paper. However, less tangible things such as discussions are harder to quantify.

Question (Cameron Neylon): It would be really nice to see some serious social anthropology happening with these communities, and even for the communities themselves to consider funding.

Question: There are a number of social networks available. How do you coordinate where and when to pull the information from? CL: Over time, we just see which ones survive. But it’s good to have choice. IM: They want to connect ResearchGATE to science-related comments on FF and Twitter. AM: It’s quite exciting right now to see what features and useability and tools will take off and be successful.

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Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

By Allyson Lister

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