The question, which was the title of a session at ESOF 2010, has no easy answer: had social media tools existed back then, would Einstein have blogged, tweeted or chatted about his theories on Facebook?
Social media tools have revolutionised how some scientists communicate about their work; how peer-reviewed journals now blog, tweet and hit Facebook and how science journalists tap them as sources of information. An overfull room on 4 July addressed the pros and cons of the new tools.
First came some sobering news from Barbara Diehl, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, who says social media have not influenced the publication process for original research. BUT a number of journals are experimenting with these tools to engage with their readers and stimulate debate.
Some journals not only encourage but also oblige scientists to make their data publicly available; host a large number of blogs and social networks in which scientists exchange notes not only about their work but also about professional woes and challenges.
There are some advocates for using the web for peer review and publishing. They argue that this may help put holes in the ‘wall of consenus’ during peer review; address quality control mechanisms that sometimes slip up even in the best of journals and may open up scientific debate for people hitherto not on the radar of established science – ie. scientists from developing countries.
Those who oppose using the web for such purposes argue that it does not mean more efficient quality control and that patents will not be granted for results considered already ‘published’ on the web.
There are still others rooting for an ‘open notebook’ approach where the entire progress of a research project should be available online. The pros are more efficient research processes and less time lost in repetitive research. The cons are fears of data theft and a data tsunami.
Some believe that blogging scientists can replace us pesky science journalists. But I am relieved to hear Holger Wormer, professor of science journalism at Dortmund University in Germany, asserting we are irreplaceable.
T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net