Dealing with Deluge of Data

How social networking can aid researchers

by Malcolm Campbell
this is a picture of a fish

Using Facebook, researchers working in Guyana were able to identify thousands of fish from the Cuyuni River within 24 hours. The fish pictured is the Colomesus asellus.

The amount of information at our fingertips is staggering. Consider just the internet. Every 48 hours, three exabytes of data are created – enough to fill the hard drives of six million laptops. Coping with this amount of information can be daunting indeed, especially to those in the research profession, who have, as a base requirement, the need to stay at the leading edge of their fields. Fortunately, social networking provides researchers with tools to help contend with the volume and flow of the vast ocean of information.

Twitter, a social networking and microblogging service established in 2006, has proven a phenomenally useful tool for a growing number of members of the researcher community. Twitter enables individuals to share early data, and links to new papers or blogs of interest, or to discuss and debate the latest thinking – provided comments are under 140 characters of text. By following the posts of fellow researchers and their literature reviews, one has an excellent means of “trawling” the ocean of information in a highly selective manner. Conversely, social networking can be used to enable researchers to inform others of their progress and to “create their own press” around research findings.

Social networking is also emerging as a powerful tool to conduct research. Consider David Bloom, a PhD candidate in evolutionary biology at UTSC. While in Guyana earlier this year, he was working on an ichthyological survey of the Cuyuni Rive and his small team had only a few days in which to identify 5,000 species of fish. So Bloom posted pictures of each specimen on Facebook. Within 24 hours, experts from around the world had helped to identify almost all of them.

Depending on the network in question, this approach to research is variably known as “crowdsourcing”, “distributed research” or “citizen science networking”. While virtually unheard of 10 years ago, these approaches are gaining momentum as highly effective means by which to conduct research. For example, Web of Science analysis of the academic literature shows that papers focused on crowdsourcing or citizen science research have risen dramatically from one published in 2000 to more than 90 published in 2010 (Figure 1a). More pointedly, while only one paper cited such approaches in 2000, more than 300 cited such approaches in 2010 (Figure 1b).

The great promise of Web 2.0 was that social networking and related tools would enable personalization of the Internet affording great possibilities for the researcher. This said, researchers should also be wary of the fact that social networking can be a double-edged sword – it can be an incredibly powerful tool, but it also exposes the researcher to unfiltered criticism, no formalized peer-review and potentially unscrupulous parties.

To date, however, these risks seem minor, relative to the potential benefits. That is, as opposed to swimming with sharks, social networking allows one to navigate and calm the sometimes rough ocean of information out there.

Malcolm Campbell is professor of cell and systems biology and vice-principal, research at UTSC.

Figure 1. Web of Science Data for papers which focus on crowdsourcing or citizen science research.