Because of their target audience and the product they offer, it is worth taking a closer look at the mission of social networks in the academic context, and at their most common uses, how they influence intellectual performance and how to benefit from their use.
Are networks like academia.edu, Researchgate and SciLink changing the style of communication between the institutions and professionals who use these platforms? The value of this model of communication also lies in its role as a powerful emotional resource, as it generates a particular atmosphere in the university community by modeling groups of people with similar interests who ultimately develop a feeling of belonging and differentiation, leading it to serve as a channel for the creativity of the educational sector.
These networks have also affected the way we access the latest articles and scientific output, in addition to generating new links and collaborative partnerships. Such a transfer of resources would previously have been unthinkable, and their effective and efficient use allows the spread of news and messages that would otherwise never have reached their target.
The emergence of academic social networks
In an early phase, science was characterized by the use of blogs. However, social media are now the mode of choice for social interaction. Their impact has also been seen in the scientific and academic activity with the emergence of academic social networks such as ResearchGate, academia.edu, Mendeley, My Science Work and others, which have seen significant growth in recent years.
For many companies, Internet has become the ideal means for personalizing their message, interacting with their target audience and satisfying their customers’ expectations. Affinity with the target audience, and generating impact at a low cost, segmentation and real-time measurement are just a few of the advantages of this most highly-regarded medium in the eyes of the advertisers. This is from a marketing point of view, but in general terms, there are two basic ideas underlying the extrapolation of the Web 2.0 to the field of science:
- Science is communication
- Science is collaboration.
It is evident that both can be improved by using instruments such as social networks. These two ideas are very well expressed by the founders of ResearchGate:
“The vision of Science 2.0 is promising: the communication between scientists will accelerate the distribution of new knowledge. […] Science is collaboration, so scientific social networks will facilitate and improve the way scientists collaborate. Cooperation on scientific publications can be facilitated through Wiki-like concepts” (ResearchGate, 2009).
This new model not only affects new forms of scientific dissemination, but also new methods for assessing articles and scientific reports. This third aspect is highly controversial, as it includes proposals such as eliminating anonymity in the review process used by scientific publications, known as peer review. According to the field study conducted at the University of Málaga by Marisol Gómez, Sergio Roses and Pedro Farias for the journal Comunicar:
“The introduction of these activities, correctly implemented, in the classroom could herald a change in educational culture. It could do away with limitations of time and space; streamline collaborative work; encourage continuous learning; increase students’ motivation; promote cooperation, collaboration and group cohesion; favor self-learning, responsibility and independence; foster dialogue and communication between students, students and teachers, and students and experts; encourage critical thought; pool and enhance collective personal knowledge; and reduce costs, effort and time” .
The leading academic networks today promote a series of services/features that can be summarized basically as: academic profile, messages, groups, searches and preferences. Document management also has a significant presence. Data is automatically imported in the main academic networks by uploading files with EndNote and Reference Manager. Another common feature of these networks is the negligible representation of the humanities and social sciences, and the absence of European repositories in all knowledge areas, as the most famous were created in the U.S., making it very hard to find documents in a language other than English. Tests (non-systematic) using a semantic search produced unsatisfactory results; searches using key words always proved more effective.
In any case, the idea of the academic social network should not be confused with that of the institutional repository. They may seem similar, as they provide visibility for scientific output, but they perform different functions, as the profiles here are very specific and the articles are usually published in the journals of the respective academic centers, or comprise teaching material to which access may be restricted (for users only).
The challenge of interactive learning and networks
With the implementation of the European Higher Education Area, which prioritizes methodologies based on cooperative and autonomous learning among university students, a new way of learning is taking shape in which theory is subordinated to practice. The scientist Javier Echevarría  (2000) notes that the new information technologies enable the creation of a new social space for human interrelations, a space that he calls the third environment.
For many universities it is still a challenge to adapt the new technologies to the world of education, even though some contents are taught online, and some classroom materials are available over the Internet. Downloading .pdf files or videos does not represent any great advance. The aim is to work in real and not deferred time.
Minecraft: Education Edition is a versatile collaborative platform that educators can use in all subjects to encourage 21st-century skills / Image: education.minecraft
Generally speaking, it can be said that moderate use of the Internet can serve as a constructive aid for students. We are often worried about students’ lack of motivation, so why not capitalize on the advances provided by these new technologies? The use of social networks, as mentioned before, is one such development, but we can also use video games like Minecraft to help develop an interactive style of learning. This is why one of the main aims is to include social networks in the student’s curriculum as a way of developing and promoting cooperative work. According to Barkley et al. (2007) :
“Collaborative learning occurs when students and faculty work together to create knowledge [in order to] develop autonomous, articulate, thinking people”.
One of the criticisms that could be made of the current educational system is its limited capacity to adapt to social change and to companies’ needs in terms of updating humanistic and scientific knowledge. The revolution in digital humanities currently prevailing in the US is proceeding at a more sluggish pace in Europe, according to the report by DARIAH. However, in this regard, laboratories have a widespread presence on the social networks and have mastered the new languages for programming and cataloging information.
Knowledge management is measured through factors such as:
- Implementation of mechanisms that allow the transmission of information (internal and external) and ensure it reaches all the members of the organization rapidly and precisely.
- Express commitment to the institutionalization of knowledge through new media.
- Interactivity and management of groups to promote social skills among their members.
The traditional way of organizing academic communities is to group them in terms of specialized scientific disciplines sustained by means of a hierarchization in their internal structure. Networks allow a linear and assertive relationship. These relational contexts generate new forms of social influence and knowledge, which are very different from the traditional roles of power and decision based on attributes such as professional or academic categories.
This is no reason to turn our backs on all we have learned, or to reject the academic tradition as a framework for excellence, but it offers a way of providing new solutions that allow us to become competitive. It is not a question of destroying anything; merely that the prevailing idea of science and the humanities must be transformed through the mediation of technology so it can effectively reach society. The general public have routinely been deprived of access to leading publications –which are the preserve of experts– and now seek a closer connection with academia so they can gain a deeper understanding of the world in which they live. It is up to us to make sure our institutions are a living source with a vocation for service to humanity.
 GÓMEZ, M., ROSES, S. and FARIAS, P., “El uso académico en las redes sociales para universitarios”, Comunicar, DOI: 10.3916/C38-2011-03-04.
 ECHEVARRÍA, J., “Educación y tecnologías telemáticas”, Revista Iberoamericana de Educación, n. 24, (2000), p. 17-36.
 BARKLEY, E., CROSS, D. and HOWELL, C., Collaborative learning techniques, Morata, Madrid, 2007, p. 19.