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Will Loop, a New Social Network for Scientists, Help or Hinder Research?

Will Loop be a valuable tool for science or an exploitative advertising platform? Scientists aren’t sure.

​ Loop, a new social network for scientists, aims to transform how they promote their work by dragging research into the era of clicks and likes. But some scientists aren't so sure that Loop will be a valuable tool for researchers—instead, they're worried that it will exploit them for profit.

Loo​p allows researchers to create profiles, network with colleagues, and post their published articles to a Facebook-style news feed, with the end goal of increasing the reach of their work, also known as "impact" in publishing jargon. Loop also gives researchers an in-depth look at who is viewing their articles—broken down by gender, specialty, and degree, for example—and across social media, blogs, and websites using the A​ltmetric analytics platform.

Non-scientists can join, too, potentially making it a way more interesting alternative to Facebook, if you're interested in reading research papers.

"We wanted to build our dream platform, where everything is online and peer review is constructive and transparent," said Kamila Markram, co-founder of Fro​ntiers Media, the open-access online publisher building Loop. "We also want to give researchers the power for publishing and provide them with a whole platform that caters to their needs and helps them to boost their impact and promote their articles."

Loop is backed by Frontiers Media and its parent company Nat​ure Publishing Group, one of the largest research publishers in the world. By integrating Loop profiles with articles posted on Frontiers and various Nature journals, the site will provide increased visibility for researchers across multiple platforms as well as give itself a built-in advantage over competing networks like Res​earchGate—which boasts million​s of users—and Mend​eley, both of which aren't tied to any journals.

According to Joh​n Bohannon, a molecular biologist and prominent science journalist, Loop could be beneficial to scientists struggling to grasp the realities of the internet age of publishing—where the amount of news outlets and blogs that pick up on your work can translate into institutional prestige or even funding dollars.

"Every scientist is expected to be a diva, going out there and promoting the hell out of themselves and their work in the hopes that something goes viral," said Bohannon. "That's an extremely frustrating process, and it's so inefficient, and that's what scientists hate. If this platform can make that easier—great."

'Altmetrics' measure research impact using indicators like social buzz and blog cycle

Another aspect of Loop's appeal to researchers is its focus on what researchers refer to as "altme​trics"—the concept, not the company—which measure research impact using indicators like social buzz and the blog cycle. The "alt" in the name refers to their oppositional stance to a traditional and oft-ma​ligned measure of research's importance: impact factor.

Impact factor is a value measure tied to journals. The more citations that papers published in a journal accumulate, the more impact a journal is said to have, making it more prestigious. Thus, being published in journals with a high impact factor has become important to scientists who want to be respected in their field.

The problem is that impact factor measures a journal's importance, not individual papers, and is easily game​d by citation-gathering schemes in which researchers might collude to cite each other's work extensively, or a journal might publish more review articles that cite many papers published in that very same journal. A citation scheme was outed in Brazil las​t year, when several journals colluded to heavily cite one another to boost their impact factors, for instance.

Loop's built-in Altmetrics widget allows scientists to see how well their articles are playing on social media and news outlets.

According to Michael Eisen, director of the Eisen​ Lab for genomics at the University of California at Berkeley, a move to social media metrics—any metric other than impact factor, really—could be a welcome change for scientists.

"If you can attach measures that people find valuable to individual papers, there's no more need to impute anything from the journal in which that paper appears," said Eisen. "If they are successful in building up an article-level assessment, then impact factor becomes pointless."

But like all new social networks, including those for non-scientists like Ello, the dark cloud of future monetization hangs over Loop. Facebook is the most-vaunted and perhaps the most egregious example of a social network-turned-advertising platform, selling our data and advertising to us. Will Loop do the same? The answer, Frontier Media's Markram told me, is yes—eventually.

"Once you reach a certain user number, you can monetize with targeted advertising and so forth," said Markram, "We also envision offering services to people and to allow other service providers to do the same. Once you reach a critical mass of researchers, scientists, and academics, you could envision a whole service environment around them, whether it's companies or otherwise."

The idea of being sold off as a captive market to companies not invested in the scientific enterprise beyond making a buck didn't sit well with Bohannon.

"They're not being disingenuous—it's just bloody obvious," said Bohannon, "They're in this to make money. And you either make money by adding value to the scientific enterprise, or you leach off it.

Way more interesting than your Facebook news feed.

"The nightmare scenario is that your reputation ends up being beholden to a company that owns the social platform and you have to play by their rules and their game, and they do not have your interest in mind. They're about making a buck on your social anxiety, which is fuelled by your job anxiety."

By forcing itself into the workflow of two of the biggest research publishers in the world, Loop could very well be looking to corner the market on a social network for scientists only to then exploit the market it creates—like most of us already are with Facebook, researchers would be "locked-in," to a system that ultimately seeks to optimize its user base for profit Bohannon said.

Eisen was similarly skeptical of which direction the need for a social network like Loop comes from—the grassroots of working scientists, or profit-seeking companies? His stance, he told me, is that it's likely the latter. "I think there's an effort to engineer or capture the value of social networks within science, but I'm skeptical of this," Eisen said. "I don't think it's coming from the ground up in any meaningful way."

So, will Loop be a valuable tool for scientists to share their work and potentially even subvert that measure of their work that scientists so often loath—impact factor? Or will it turn out to be nothing more than a scheme to generate revenue? "The question," said Bohannon, "is what path it will go down."