In some older posts, I mentioned some strategies for keeping up with the scientific literature, one of which was to use RSS. In recent years, social networks for scientists have emerged. These allow for both targeted and serendipitous discoveries of literature that is relevant to you. I want to emphasize that these networks are not enough. It’s still important to know how to search for specific information, for example. However, they do nicely complement the other techniques I have mentioned and, as an added bonus, they can raise your profile in the scientific community too.
I’m not going to talk about less-specialized social networks, but of course, they have their uses too. In particular, if you’re eventually going to be looking for a job, a LinkedIn profile is not a bad thing to have. I have just one piece of advice for you there: if you do get a LinkedIn profile, make sure you maintain it. At the very least, make sure that your current employment is up to date. Potential employers will look you up on the web. Having an out-of-date LinkedIn profile makes it look like you’re not taking a professional approach to your career. If you don’t think that you can adequately maintain a LinkedIn profile, you would be better off not having one at all.
I should say before I go any further that this post reflects my views, based on what I’ve found effective for me. The choice of social networks is, in the end, a personal one.
I like ResearchGate. It’s free. (They pay for themselves using ad revenue.) It’s easy to use. And it doesn’t clutter your mailbox with lots of unwanted emails. And despite the fact that they support themselves with ads, the ads are neither intrusive nor excessive in number. I’m not alone in thinking that ResearchGate is the scientists’ social network of choice. Most of the scientists whose work I try to follow are on this site.
ResearchGate’s basic paradigm is not that different from Facebook‘s: You follow researchers or specific research projects. Updates from these researchers or projects show up in your ResearchGate home page, so all you have to do is to check in once or twice a week to see what has been going on among the people you follow. Based on your activity, ResearchGate will add papers into your feed that it thinks you might find interesting. Most of those suggestions are quite reasonable and useful. Once in a while, you also get recommendations for projects or researchers you might want to follow. I personally find that a bit less useful, although once in a while someone will pop up that it would make sense for me to follow and that I wasn’t already following.
Like most social networks, ResearchGate will be most useful if you restrain your enthusiasm for following everybody in sight. Follow researchers whose ideas and research you find useful. Maybe follow a friend or two. Don’t automatically follow back everyone who follows you. If your home feed is full of useless junk, ResearchGate will become much less useful to you.
From the point of view of advertising your own presence, ResearchGate has some really nice features. You can add your publications manually, but it also scours the journals for papers you might have written. When you first sign up, you may find that you receive a lot of notifications that it may have found papers you authored. However, this dies down fairly quickly, and once it learns who you are (how you sign your papers, what universities you have worked at), it not only suggests fewer and fewer papers you didn’t author, it also tends to find your papers and suggest you add them before you have time to add them yourself.
ResearchGate also has question-and-answer forums, where you can ask questions (e.g. on techniques), or answer them. You can also follow questions when someone asks one that is of interest to you.
Mendeley is interesting because it’s not just a social networking site. It’s also a reference manager. I can’t say I’ve looked into it a lot. But I know that people who like it say very good things about it. It’s worth a look if you haven’t settled on a reference manager and want a Swiss-army knife that both keeps your bibliography and lets you find interesting references.
I’m not a fan of this one. It has a free version that has very limited features, and a pay version they are forever trying to get you to sign up for. If you sign up for Academia.edu, you will receive many, many emails from them. It’s probably possible to control this behaviour, but Microsoft Outlook’s Clutter feature does a good job of keeping these emails out of my sight, so I haven’t bothered. I think that some universities have subscriptions to Academia.edu. I would tend to stay away from this one unless you work at a place that has a subscription.