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How to... use social software tools for research

By Margaret Adolphus


The technologies of Web 2.0, which allow for the creation of vast amounts of information from many sources, have been taken up by the academe in teaching and learning, although a small but significant number of scholars are also using them for research.

The process of research has over the past decade or so become increasingly complex:

  • There has been a massive growth in information, resulting in huge volumes of data which need to be stored, processed and managed. According to a report by the Interactive Data Corporation, data produced by research are expected to grow in size to 1.8 zettabytes (1.8 × 1021 bytes) by 2011 (Kendall, 2009).
  • In addition, projects involving large-scale, multiple collaborators have become more common than individual study. Such projects frequently span institutions and in some cases, countries and continents.

And so researchers, particularly – but not exclusively – scientists, are using sophisticated tools to enable them to work more easily and productively. That an appropriate electronic infrastructure, which can store data, facilitate collaboration and generally support research processes in ways appropriate to the discipline or disciplines, is as important to researchers as good libraries, is gradually being realized. This infrastructure is often referred to as a virtual research environment, or VRE.

What is Web 2.0 and social software?

Web 2.0 applications include blogs, wikis, Twitter, media-sharing sites such as YouTube, 3D environments such as Second Life, social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, and social networking sites such as Facebook. What they share in common is that they all permit the user to create content, and this has led to them being termed the "ReadWriteWeb".

Web 2.0 is bidirectional, with content in a variety of media (text, images, rich media, links to other sites) being contributed by the people who interact with the site as well as those who manage it (MacDonald, 2007, quoted by Minocha, 2009). Software is not just the product of one mind: uses are co-developers and collective intelligence is harnessed.

How prevalent is its use with academics?

While one survey showed that 25 per cent of academics were using social media in 2008, an increase from the 3 or 4 per cent using it in 2006 (Wusterman, 2009), other results would suggest this figure is high. According to a report by the UK's Research Information Network (2010), only 13 per cent of its respondents used social media frequently, 45 per cent used it sporadically and 39 per cent not at all.

That survey found little difference between age groups, and early findings of a survey of Generation Y researchers, conducted by the British Library and the UK Universities Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), suggest that usage is between 10-30 per cent (Boulderstone, 2010).

This is not, however, to say that use of social media for research can be ignored: for particular communities, such as those in the biological sciences, or bioinformatics, it is very important. In the UK, JISC is running a programme which ends in 2011, and which is funding 24 VREs. In Europe, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructure covers a number of key initiatives, including the Digital Research Infrastructure for Arts and Humanities. Although the UK is definitely a leader in this area, a British man (Ian Dolphin) has taken over the Sakai project in the US. Sakai is an open source collaborative learning environment which is looking to focus towards VRE development.

The virtual research environment

Unlike the virtual learning environment (VLE) to which it is often compared, the VRE is not a mature technology. There are no off-the-shelf packages that provide a one-stop-shop approach to research needs in the way that Blackboard purports to for the classroom. Rather, VREs are often made up of a number of applications linked together in an integrated environment.

The following definition is often given for a VRE (Myhill et al., 2009: p. 229, quoting from a JISC paper now archived at

"[ ... ] a set of online tools and other network resources and technologies interoperating with each other to support or enhance the processes of a wide range of research practitioners within and across disciplinary and institutional boundaries. A key characteristic of a VRE is that it facilitates collaboration amongst researchers and research teams providing them with more effective means of collaboratively collecting, manipulating and managing data, as well as collaborative knowledge creation."

A more succinct definition was given by Frederique van Till (Jump, 2010), programme manager for VREs at JISC, who described them as:

" ... bespoke digital applications that help researchers work collaboratively either within or across disciplinary boundaries."

VREs tend to be specially created around the needs of a particular research community. This is appropriate as different communities have different needs. Dunn (2009) points out that data and workflows are likely to be more "fuzzy" in the humanities than in the sciences; how this falls out in practice will be seen in the examples below. JISC abandoned attempts to create a generic environment in favour of disciplinary specific ones, hoping at the end of the project to be able to develop frameworks and standards, rather than a universal prescription.

The inappropriateness of a generic solution has led some researchers to adopt a "cookbook" approach to the creation of a VRE, as illustrated in the following table, where needs are listed against possible applications (Myhill et al., 2009: pp. 230-234):

Table I. Example of an approach to the creation of a VRE
Research need
Possible Web 2.0 application
Identifying a research project Federated search engines/commercial bibliographic indexes, RSS feeds, open access repositories
Identifying funding streams E-mail alerts and RSS feeds
Identifying project partners Facebook or other social sites
Collaborating on a research proposal Google documents and Skype
Managing the project including expenditure and grant compliance Google documents
Collaborating over research information Google documents, wikis
Writing research reports and other outputs Google documents and Skype
Disseminating results Open access repositories, webinars and virtual conferencing

Along with federated search and commercial and subscription databases, these "ingredients" need to be brought together under a browser that can support standard URL bookmarking and RSS feeds. (Firefox is particularly good in this respect, with several add-ons and extensions.) A toolbar management system, such as that offered by Google and Yahoo, can also help make features more obvious (Myhill et al., 2009).

An e-infrastructure thus assembled will comprise cloud-based as well as downloadable software, much of which is open source. It will include shared resources – publications, rich media, experimental data – as well as tools to manipulate, store and manage those resources, and to facilitate collaboration. The following diagram provides an illustration (Candela et al., 2009).

Image: Figure 1. An e-infrastructure framework.

Figure 1. An e-infrastructure framework

VRE applications

The way the technology is adapted to different requirements becomes clear when we look at certain examples.

Myexperiment is a Facebook-style tool that facilitates collaboration, and the display and sharing of workflows, within the life sciences and bioinformatics. Jointly funded by JISC and Microsoft, it was set up in November 2007 and now has over 3,000 members. Its great advantage is to enable sharing, not just of results, but methods, so that people can share "recipes" for experiments. The wiki-based OpenWetWare ( is similar and is also aimed at biologists.

ChemBioConnect ( is a collaborative tool with visualization features which allows scientists to draw, view, edit, archive and search chemical structures, designed around the needs of chemists who need to view and manipulate diagrams of structures.

Figure 2. Screenshot showing MyExperiment [© 2007-2010 The University of Manchester  and University of Southampton].

Figure 2. Screenshot showing MyExperiment [© 2007-2010 The University of Manchester and University of Southampton]

Workflows in the sciences are defined; those in archaeology are far more ad hoc. The latter's research cycle comprises finding an object, identifying it, cross-referencing it with other items, interpreting its place in a wider context, and publishing information about it (Dunn, 2009).

Virtual Environments for Research in Archaeology (VERA) supports the research cycle with tools to assist in the accurate recording of data, and to allow remote experts to become involved in a particular dig, and comment on finds.

For example, the Silchester VRE project used digital pens which digitized the fieldworker's handwriting as he or she wrote. At an earlier stage people had been uploading data direct to the integrated archaeological database using PDAs (personal digital assistants). This procedure however resulted in inaccuracies and was substituted by a different technical approach which fitted better with the human workflow: digital pens which digitized handwritten cards, written up ad hoc before being checked by the manager.

The accurately recorded data could then be viewed by experts, and compared with other data from the database, which helped with interpretation. Another effect was more rapidly published results – with readers being able to check back to the original data. (For a full report of this project, see Dunn, 2009.)

The Collaborative Research in Business Project (CRIB) is another JISC-funded project, led by Lancaster University at the Centre for eScience. CRIB uses Sakai-based software to support online communities of business academics, public sector employees and businesses.

Sakai is a social network type environment in which people can interact via secure worksites, using synchronous or asynchronous tools including web conferencing, forums and chat. It is being used by the LEAD programme, designed by Lancaster University Management School, which trains owner-managers to be better leaders; as such it provides a platform to manage, grow and maintain communication between the key stakeholders, as well as a forum for knowledge exchange with a sector that has been notoriously difficult to reach.

To have a forum in which academics and entrepreneurs can meet and exchange ideas is particularly important, and can lead to greater understanding of the way business works, to new discoveries and theories of management, and how these theories can be applied in practice.The forums can be used to obtain qualitative data and the software itself to link up with students with live business projects.

During 2009 Sue Peters, the LEAD project director, was interviewed on the BBC about whether small to medium-sized entrerprises were being affected by banks' reluctance to lend. She was able to gain a lot of information quickly through the LEAD forum. Had this community been in place prior to the recession it would have provided policymakers access to a knowledge platform from which they could learn the depth and severity of the recession more quickly. Currently, aggregate statistics of the UK economy lag between one month (e.g. employment) to three months (e.g. gross domestic product), whereas the polling of entrepreneurs via Sakai may take as little as a few hours.

Figure 3. The Sakai-based interface for the CRIB project, showing an institutional survey introduction. The left-hand menu provide's access to the software's other tools (e.g. meetings).

Figure 3. The Sakai-based interface for the CRIB project, showing an institutional survey introduction. The left-hand menu provides access to the software's other tools (e.g. meetings) is a repository which provides information on projects using digital tools and methods in the arts and humanities. It also lists centres of expertise and showcases good practice.

Bespoke tools for specific aspects of research

Most of the tools discussed in section 2 attempt to support the whole, or at least a good part, of the research process of a particular discipline or group of disciplines. Others deal with a particular aspect, such as bibliographic management.

Research bibliography management tools

These are tools which help you organize your documents: one of the applications, Mendelay ( describes itself as "iTunes" for research. Like Zotero ( with which it is often compared, it differs from social bookmarking in that rather than just providing a list of sources, it can actually store files. Both offer more functionality than Endnote (, which is primarily a citation tool, although its latest version does offer some collaborative functionality.

Mendeley, launched in 2008, has, according to Julie Meloni, who blogged about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Meloni, 2010), three sets of features:

  1. Organization – it indexes and organizes your documents, which you can then search, annotate and highlight.
  2. Sharing – it functions as a social network, and lets you create groups, and build a shared library.
  3. Discovery – you can "look over people's shoulders" to see what they are reading, and explore research trends.

Zotero has a similar set of features, with two main differences: it can accommodate a wider range of file types, including images and video; and it is also web-based, whereas Mendeley needs to be downloaded and installed. Zotero is also stronger in the humanities, having been developed by historians: it is better with "ordinary" web pages and non-academic sites, as befits a humanities tool. Finally, it is open source, which Mendeley is not.

Project management tools

ProfHacker, the technology column in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Watrall, 2010), gave a positive review to Open Atrium (, another open source application, based on Drupal. It has a blog, a calendar, a group dashboard which gives you a view of your group's activity; you can collaborate on documents and compare different versions; there's a "shoutbox" which lets you leave internal messages, and a "case tracker" which lets you compile to do lists and track tasks.

It does not appear to have much facility to store data, although it could conceivably hold interview transcripts or ethnographic observation notes. However it might be ideal for collaboration on writing an article.

Social bookmarking

Social bookmarking is a way of storing and sharing web resources. The sites, searchable by tag or by user, can be used to see what other academics are reading.

The most popular academic bookmarking sites are CiteULike ( and Connotea ( The benefit of sites such as these is that they are not moderated or peer reviewed, and so are free of academic politics.

Figure 4. Screenshots of CiteULike and Connotea academic bookmarking websites, showing a search for the tag "social software".

Figure 4. Screenshots of CiteULike and Connotea academic bookmarking websites, showing a search for the tag "social software".

Figure 4. Screenshots of CiteULike and Connotea academic bookmarking websites, showing a search for the tag "social software"

Twitter is more of a microblogging than a social bookmarking site, but some academics (Whittock, 2009) use it as a signposting service to resources and a way of exchanging ideas.


RSS is an effective way of keeping in touch with what is new in selected sites, databases, and particular journals in your field. You can programme your newsreader to alert you to new feeds so you don't need to keep going to the sites to see if they have been updated.

Online conferences

It has become normal to have a Twitter stream as a backdrop to a conference, however it is likely that most conferences will continue to take place in real time and place.

One conference, unsurprisingly on a web-based topic (the social history of computer programming) was recently held entirely online. The conference, Critical Code Studies Working Group, took place between 1 February and 12 March 2010, using the Ning social network (Young, 2010).

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.


There has been a movement in scholarship towards more openness, as seen particularly in the development of open access journals and digital repositories, where scholarly content is freely available. Barriers to open access lie in concerns over quality: scholars looking for promotion would prefer to publish in the peer reviewed and "A" listed journals.

However, the spirit of openness is seen in other tools, where researchers share their methods and their reading. These have only been taken up by a small proportion of researchers in localized areas, and are unlikely to bring about a sea change in research.

While it is hoped that researchers will be encouraged to investigate new ways of using Web 2.0 technologies, the selectiveness with which they do so is also a strength. Change comes from communities themselves as they find particular ways in which tools can help them work more effectively. It is not imposed from above, and, because development of costly, powerful generic tools is unlikely, we will not see a situation where the purchase of a system locks an institution into a particular way of working, as happened with VLEs. Applications which arise out of localized need is indeed a truly democratic development of technology.


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