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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cybersubculture Report: Peer Revision Edition

Cyber-subculture Report
Collective intelligence ecologies are rapidly emerging on the Internet that are transforming the way that knowledge is produced and dispersed. Researchgate.net is an exemplar of this phenomenon. The social networking site is intended to link up researchers of various sorts to engage in collective projects and share information and data. Its intention is to provide an open space for the free expression of ideas, especially relatively new or experimental leaps in interdisciplinary work. The site however falls victim to its own freedom. The loose collection of ties makes it difficult to find other researchers or groups that are dedicated toward the exact same issues.
RG is an SNS that uses a very similar interface as Facebook, but with a slight twist. Rather than “friending” people, one simply “follows” people, as in Twitter. The site however facilitates the creation of connections based on various “keywords” one puts in their profile. Each of one’s “keywords” represent one’s academic interests or the research fields one works in. Users can search for people who share these “keywords” as well as join groups. The groups range from broad areas of inquiry, such as “Plant Breeding,” to relatively obscure territories, such as “Econophysics.” People can post comments, plan events, and edit their profiles using an html interface that has an uncanny resemblance to Facebook’s. Furthermore, one can link their RG account to their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Friend Feed accounts. RG is a synchronous meeting-space in which its users are able to track the activity of various contacts they are “following.” Users can post publications that they are currently working on in order to get feedback, the site’s potential for collaboration ranges from “From a student co-authoring his first research paper to a busy post-doc or a strategy-thinking professional group leader.” The site is meant to act as a somewhat informal form of peer review. RG takes their inspiration from “Wiki-like concepts” and other transformative tools emerging in the wake of Web 2.0’s release.
            The RG interface models many similar SNS sites, but its visual appeal differs. It is imbued with an air of modernism with its minimalist design and incorporates elements that reach out to its target demographic, i.e. one’s interests are presented within boxes that mimic elements on the Periodic Table. Users can toggle between multiple activity feeds; from groups, discussions, or individual publications by people you follow. There are additional features that include a Job Search and a news blog about RG site updates. One can request publications, store them in their personal “library” and share them with other users. You can search through various publications and read abstracts, as well as participate in discussions about individual works.
Beyond having individual connections with other researches based off of specific or relatively minute relations, users can also engage in ongoing discussions and set up events between researchers interested in a field. Groups serve the function of facilitating such needs. The website allows anyone to create a group who chooses to, in line with the spirit of the site that “ResearchGate offers tools tailored to researchers' need.”

Identity & Sociality

RG is composed mainly of graduate students or academics; it originally catered toward the Natural Sciences but has expanded to include groups of an interdisciplinary nature and/or critical theorists. Members represent themselves in a somewhat professional manner, managing an online self that assumedly reflects a ‘real’ version of themselves. The site is open to both establishing new connections and exploring different realms of social activity as well as maintaining currently held ties and modes of relation with others. Members range from very well established academics that are professors at various universities to tinkerers and inventors interested in science/education for its own sake. Take Thomas Wier for example, he studied linguistics and classics at UT and now works on linguistics at the University of Chicago.
            One of the more fertile aspects of the site is the opportunity it creates for coordinating conferences. Groups are often created to gather people together who are interested in a relatively broad discipline or issue so as to provide a common space for marketing opportunities for collaboration. Rather than being the actual medium for engaging in collective research review, the site is a jumping off point for collaborating by other means.
Researchgate.net is a predictably disappointing example of gendered hierarchies within knowledge production. While the prejudice is not as explicitly displayed as it may be in an actual academic environment, it is implicitly just as strong. I do not have actual numbers on the demographics, but just from my research alone there is an evident divide between disciplines in terms of gender.
Elderly white males and young Indian males heavily dominate the Natural Sciences. Perhaps, this divide is not actual in terms of absolute numbers, it is however apparent, especially in terms of the members with a large amount of followers. The largest groups of women are typically younger and more interested in contemporary critical theory. 
I have not seen any actual acts that I would see as explicitly sexist on the website, yet there is some intangible force which seems to prevent collaboration across genders. Thus, there hasn't been any need for management to intervene. Maybe management has intervened previously and driven out all of the obvious sexists, I'm not sure. Nonetheless, my experience indicates that social networking sites rather than opening up new connections or modes of engaging in research has simply extended traditional biases.
There is an institutionalized form of management, yet I’ve never seen them intervene nor any reason for them to do so. Since credibility on the site is gained by being a well-respected researcher or academic people generally constrain themselves. Furthermore, the site is about collaboration and connection between ideas more so than about people. Quibbles or fights reduce down to a question of knowledge. While some people do take attacks on their work personally this kind of interaction is rarely public. The site is about getting in contact with other researchers rather than publicly displaying the process of the collaboration itself.
People are generally rather cordial because its to their benefit to be perceived as open and engaging rather than cold and shut off. Hierarchies are determined by credentials in a real sense of qualifications that back up one’s research. Researchgate only allows people to upload publications if they can be verified through database searches. People who are published are perceived as more distinguished members of the community. These people typically have more followers than people who are not published. It could be the case however, that these are just the types of people that function better in openly social settings and thrive for reasons beyond the mere public’s perception of an achievement. The number of followers is also an indicator of credence, yet the site is such a loosely knit community that people are very liberal with the number and kind of people they will follow.

As opposed to having a single or unified literacy, if there is such a thing, Researchgate is characterized by a plurality of literacies. Since the site is mainly considered with disciplines that exist on the periphery or are rather novel interdisciplinary approaches, the literacies are by their nature rather obscure. This however does not pose as much of an obstacle to the site as it might seem at first. Since, the site is one of few avenues for people engaged in these studies to be peer-reviewed or get feedback on their work, they are very open to helping people understand the vocabulary they are working with. Moreover, they are eager to get people on board because they want to generate discussion about their ideas in hope that they will either find someone who is likewise interested or that they will pique the interests of new people.
Researchgate thus is composed of a non-harmonious network of discourses. Rather than being an impediment, this website thus encourages reading a specific research encounter across multiple fields or methods for understanding the world. At the same time, I have also felt discouraged from entering certain groups dealing with highly speculative forms of science recently emerging since I realize that there would be a huge learning curve before I would actually benefit from reading it. The site however serves a different function than say Wikipedia, it's not meant to educate you on the most basic level of common information, but to spread information that exists on the margins.
When people are reposting actually published materials longer posts are perfectly permissible. For comments and writing on people’s walls short posts are typical. They are typically congratulatory, there is rarely conflict that publicly occurs between members. The site has a “see more” button like Facebook which almost acts as an indicator that its faux pas to write much beyond that.

This is a set of comments that were juxtaposed to one another in the group "Unified Description of Matter.” The huge gap in literacy level between the two bears a few implications to unpack. First, there is a wide diversity in levels of understanding, experience, or perspective. But since the community is such a loose gathering people do not attack or berate others for being inferior or making mistakes. Peter Jakubowski is a physicist with a phD from Poland interested in quantum theory and a unified theory of nature. He has seven publications under his belt and research experience in the field. In the above transcript he expresses his anguish over the inability to actually coalesce together for collective research through the site. He writes, “I have my problem with this growing diversity…and I am afraid, it is not a problem for me alone.” He is self-reflexive about the site, calls for dialogue, uses proper grammar and syntax.
Directly following this call for more focused groups that are aimed at really solving scientific problems is a comment from Rickey Cowell. The only personal information on his profile is his location in the United Kingdom. The one required piece of information, the designation of research interests says “life is what its all about.” He clearly is not on the site for the same reasons as Jakubowski. Cowell writes “ok new to all of this so if this is in the wrong place sorry and can’t spell that great but here. I think are we here at all.” He writes sentences, if you can call them that, that are incomplete or in an incorrect syntactical form. They lack any semblance of structure or proper use of punctuation and capitalization. He though also expresses an uncertainty about where his proper place is within the community.
Researchgate has all of the right conceptual tools in terms of technology but lack the human capital necessary to vitalize the website’s potential. While the sites function for actually producing collaborative research is limited by the lack of participants interested in the same subjects, it is able to market job opportunities and events effectively. Furthermore, it exposes people to new research that is reposted and shared collectively. The site seems like it would do better if it had better algorithms for linking people together with similar interests. If it had better browsing interfaces for searching under categories rather than for random words, people might be able to connect more easily. Perhaps its greatest virtue, delimiting the flows of knowledge production, is also its greatest impediment at the beginning. The fluid structure makes it more difficult to find the right connections rather than a plethora of connections.

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