Interesting post over at Nature’s Nascent blog regarding scientists and social software. While they do make a great point, that new tools need to focus more on the level of the groups in which scientists work, I still get the feeling that there’s an essential point being missed by so many of these “myspace for scientist” efforts. Just building a tool, just taking advantage of technology that’s available isn’t enough. For real large scale uptake, any such tool has to serve a need of the community, and it has to do so in a compelling manner. And on top of that, it has to be much, much better than whatever is currently filling that need.

There’s a very telling comment on the post from William Gunn, who details his efforts at getting his labmates to adapt to these new tools. His two examples were using a Wiki for keeping track of lab protocols, and using Connotea for the lab’s journal club. He blames the failure of both efforts on a lack of credibility for these methods, and suggests that if a well-respected publisher got behind them and promoted them, you’d see more acceptance in the community. I’d argue that they failed for a different reason–that what those two methods offer isn’t significantly better than what’s already in use, and in some cases requires more effort than the older tools.

For the lab notebook–which is easier, going to the lab’s shared drive, grabbing a Word document used to keep the protocols and annotating as needed, or going to the Wiki site, creating an account, signing in and editing there? Add in the worries of publicly exposing that Wiki to both annoying trolls (easily fixed, but annoying nonetheless), and more importantly, to competing labs. Factor in the need for someone to monitor and do upkeep on the Wiki. How is the Wiki any better than the Word document for an average lab member? Why should they spend the time and effort in learning something new if the payoff is not going to be significant?

And while Connotea is a very useful site, again, I’ll ask which is easier, circulating the paper to be discussed as a pdf by e-mail, or requiring everyone to create an account on Connotea, circulating a link by e-mail, following that link to Connotea, logging-in, and then following another link to get the actual paper? It seems to me you’ve gone from a one-step process to a 5 step process. This is progress?

In both cases, you’ve created a situation where the new, supposedly superior tools create more work than the primitive stone-age tools already in use. It reminds me a lot of the electronics industry over the last decade or so, an industry that continually creates new products for which there is no demand. It’s kind of a “build it because we can” philosophy, with a hope that because the product exists, a demand for it will be created. Does anyone really need a refrigerator with a computer and internet connection? Is it really that hard to throw away spoiled food on your own?

Given the lack of interest in and lack of uptake of the currently available social networking type tools, they’re looking more and more like computerized refrigerators. Most of what’s been offered is merely a repurposing of tools other groups found useful. I suspect that you won’t see mass participation from the life sciences community until completely new tools are developed that serve their specific needs. Science is a very different culture, and each individual field has its own personality. The tools that work for physicists or computer scientists won’t necessarily work for biologists. Trying to shoehorn a tool that worked in another aspect of society into the lab may not be the best approach. Go to any biology meeting and notice who sits where, notice who asks questions during talks. Notice which labs refuse to show any unpublished data for fear of getting scooped by a competitor. Think about the hierarchy that is in place, think about how status is conferred, and how one builds a career and reputation. Think about the costs of reagents used in a typical experiment, and how tight funding is in this day and age. Without a deep understanding of the social nature of a group, building social tools for them is fruitless. And while these new social tools offer incredible potential for democratizing what is currently a top-down hierarchical field, that’s a monumentally more difficult task than just trying to build tools that make scientists lives easier and more efficient.

The other relevant piece of consumer electronics to keep in mind is the iPod. There were plenty of mp3 players available before the iPod and a huge swath of the music-listening world was already intimately familiar with digital music from the heyday of Napster. Clearly there was a need already existent for portable music, and digital players offer much more than previous formats (carrying around one’s whole music collection, playlists and shuffling, small size, etc.). Despite all of this, you still didn’t see mainstream acceptance until there was a tool that was really easy to use, the iPod. So that’s the second hurdle here, no matter how useful the tool is, you’re going to have to overcome a lot of inertia to make people change their ways. If it’s not compelling and straightforward, it’s not going to work. And even if it is compelling, expect it to take a long time. Walk through a poster session and think about how long it’s taken for even partial uptake of the use of large scale printers for making posters. One could also at this point go back to William Gunn’s argument above about the role of endorsement and awareness in acceptance, and factor in Apple’s advertising campaigns and celebrity placement as key factors in the iPod’s success. It’s certainly true, but wouldn’t have made a bit of difference without first creating the compelling product that filled a need.

So until there’s a “there” there, I don’t expect to see the mainstream of science adopting these new technologies. Which is not a knock against the early adopters, and efforts like the Nature Network should be applauded. When the right tools are there, scientists will come flocking in, but until that time, I suspect we’ll see a lot of frustration and a lot of efforts thrown up against the wall without sticking.