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How to... use social software tools for research

Options:     Print Version - How to... use social software tools for research, part 4 Print view

Article Sections

  1. Introduction
  2. The virtual research environment
  3. Bespoke tools for specific aspects of research
  4. Advantages and disadvantages of social software in the academic community
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Advantages and disadvantages of social software in the academic community

Whereas the VRE's older sibling, the VLE, has virtually staged a takeover of the entire learning environment, the VRE is more democratic, tending to arise out of the needs of a particular community. VLEs can appear to be imposed from top down; VREs are a very bottom-up innovation, with researchers creating and adapting their own tools. While this may avoid the drawbacks of being locked into a system through large investment as happens with VLEs, it does mean that attitudes towards new research tools can be somewhat ambivalent.


The main advantage of social media – that they allow people to create and share across communities – can be the main drawback when it comes to research tools: the tool may not be effective due to a critical mass not having been reached.

Take Mendeley and Zotero, for example, the bibliography management tools mentioned earlier. The ability to share resources is reduced if only a few members of the community use it: so far, the most active communities are in biological sciences and informatics.

Trust is another major issue: in a competitive environment, many scientists fear that by putting their methods online, they risk others getting there first. Additionally, researchers may be cautious about sharing findings and methods if there is no standardized way of attributing authorship (Research Information Network, 2010).

Collaboration in IT-based and enabled projects itself generates moral issues, in terms of an appropriate reward or acknowledgement of those who have created intellectual property. This is particularly so, according to Bethany Nowviskie (2009), when a large team comprising not only academics, but also graduate students, programmers, instructional designers, etc. creates a new piece of software which is then regarded as having a sole inventor.

But perhaps the biggest issue is simply, what will one gain out of using a particular service? The Research Information Network (2010) maintains that a major barrier to take-up of Web 2.0 tools and services is lack of clarity as to the benefits. Most academics have highly complex jobs, and any new technology needs to fit very well with their way of working, and make it easier. The fact that Web 2.0 services develop and proliferate so quickly also makes it very difficult to keep up.


Despite these drawbacks, Web 2.0 applications have their advantages. Greater transparency in the methods of research avoids duplication of effort, and also means that the research can be replicated. If the convention of acknowledging one another's ideas is extended to workflows and methods, the impact factor of the researcher can be increased.

Above all, the increasing complexity of research, due to an exponential growth in knowledge and the multi-party research projects that produce it, needs an infrastructure to support it. The collaborative potential of social software makes it particularly suited to cases where multiple partners calls for intense collaboration.

To become widely adopted, a Web 2.0 service needs to be simple, intuitive, and capable of being integrated seamlessly into existing work processes, which it should enhance as well as simplify.