The network of scholarship meets the scholarship of networks

We spend a lot of time twisting arms of researchers to sign up for and get involved with social research sites. I remember doing this a bit with academics, back when I worked at a college library. While we have a few true believers, we never get a lot of feedback from the researchers themselves. For researchers, how worthwhile is collaborating, sharing and asking questions amongst peers via networked services?

For those who research in a University or a facility, chances are their colleagues may be have similar, but not exact areas of interests. That's because academic and professional specialization insures that few people at the same institution will have the same interests or research needs.

A paper in the book International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments shows to get around this, “intellectually kindred souls” (the authors' words) will form associations, but they will very rarely be local. Instead, they create “invisible colleges,” , which:

[P]rovide forums for sharing, disseminating, and testing new ideas, as well as for exchanging information about teaching, research, funding opportunities, academic bureaucracies, and personal situations.

It's important to note that these invisible colleges pre-date the rise of the Internet and widespread use of email. Services like email and chat did not create the invisible colleges, but they helped them along. These informal networks are more permeable, less hierarchical and more diverse in interactions than previous locally focused groups, the researchers argue. 

So, how do these invisible colleges impact scholarly communication? Must you be an active member of these networks (newsgroups, working groups, etc.) to enjoy full access to new information? Or, can you be an occasional member who checks in every once in awhile?

Enter: Network Theory 
Put it another way: Are those scholars on the periphery of this network as well connected as scholars closer to the center, who by definition have a higher number of connections?

The role of central-placed scholars is to disseminate and filter information to the larger network. You know this person: They are active in a variety of communication media, gatekeeping information, passing along what they feel is important.

Scholars on the periphery, Barry Wellman, Emmanuel Koku and Jeremy Hunsinger argue, have just as important roles, especially in sparsely-knit networks (where group contact is less frequent). Those on the periphery may have more contact with different networks. Thus, they are able to point people -- even centrally located researchers -- to the correct person. It could be as simple as forwarding an email to another newsgroup, the researchers argue. Thus, the peripheral participants are responsible for expanding the reach of the entire network.

The Strength of Ties 
Take a look at it a different way: The strength of interpersonal ties, which looks not at the number of connections, but their intensity. Scholars with strong ties -- those with heavy interactions, which builds up “trust” across the network --  are often up-to-date on the activities of the specific group. But those with generally weaker ties -- those with much less group trust -- who are generally seen to reside on the periphery of a group, may know more information about the workings of other groups.

So, for researchers, to exchange ideas, help spread other information, it matters little if you are an active or a passive participant in these invisible colleges. Like social media in your personal life, becoming part of professional research networks depend on what you want out of it.

That paper is Networked Scholarship by Barry Wellman, Emmanuel Koku and Jeremy Hunsinger. Read it here. (pdf) 

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