More academics are turning to the web to access scholarly work, but some are also gaining a career advantage by using free online "social bookmarking" tools, both to keep track of the research papers that their international colleagues are reading and to enhance their own research activity.
With such tools, academics "can reach directly into the bookshelves of other experts in their field (or any other field) anywhere in the world and see what they are reading right now", said Kevin Emamy, co-founder of the London-based company Oversity, which runs CiteULike (www.citeulike.org), a social bookmarking site for scholars.
The idea behind social bookmarking - which is part of the so-called Web 2.0 movement towards a more interactive use of the web - is to provide a way of storing, organising and sharing web resources. Users assign categories, or "tags", to web material in a way that is meaningful to them, which can then be discovered by others.
One of the most popular websites, Delicious (http://del.icio.us/), was started in 2003 and is used by a general audience to bookmark everything from the scholarly to the artistic. But a host of new services, tailored specifically for the sharing of journal articles, is also vying for users.
The most popular of the academic social bookmarking websites are CiteULike and its main rival Connotea (www.connotea.org), run by the Nature Publishing Group. Both were set up in 2004 and claim to have tens of thousands of active users. CiteULike boasts that about 2,000 peer-reviewed papers are posted on it every day.
Lesser known websites are 2collab (www.2collab.com), set up by Elsevier last year, H20 playlist (http://h2obeta.law.harvard.edu), Scholar (www.scholar.com) and LibraryThing (www.librarything.com/), which is for books rather than papers.
"It can work as a kind of living list," said Timo Hannay, the publishing director of the Nature.com website, on one of the ways Connotea is used by researchers. "To accompany articles, researchers provide supplementary lists (via the site) of associated reading, which they can then update." The social bookmarking function of the service - which allows users to register, create profiles and tag and recommend papers - is also enhanced by publishers that insert links on their own sites to allow academics to bookmark papers in a click, he explained.
The academic sites also have the added advantage that they can be used for online reference management. Although this use is still somewhat in development, many of the sites have features that enable bibliographic information (journal names, authors and page numbers and the like) to be automatically extracted to create electronic bibliographic records. An academic would previously have had to use software such as EndNote or RefWorks to create them.
"Connotea has those extra features that bring it closer to being a reference management tool," Mr Hannay said.
Mr Emamy stressed that CiteULike had the same functionality.
One Connotea user who is happy to share his papers and who sees social bookmarking as a "very useful" tool for his research is David Bowler, a researcher in condensed matter in the department of physics and astronomy at University College London. Dr Bowler uses it because it is an easy way of accessing his papers from anywhere, but sees potential to expand this use in the future.
"In principle, if I am writing something like a review article with other people, then we can all add papers to the same pool," he said.
Stephane Goldstein, planning and project manager at the Research Information Network (RIN) - a body funded by the Government to study information provision - agrees that social bookmarking has "enormous potential" for research, although he admitted that little is really known about how it and other Web 2.0 tools are being used in practice (the RIN hopes to learn more about this through a study this year).
"Why social bookmarking is interesting and important," he explained, "is because it is something academics create themselves. If an academic finds something interesting, he or she will flag it for the benefit of their peers - it is not moderated or edited. It is extremely democratic."
Emma Tonkin, a research officer studying social bookmarking at UKOLN (UK Office for Library and information Networking) at the University of Bath, agrees and sees the tool as a great leveller of the hierarchical file systems of the past. "It tells you a lot about what people really think about something when they use tags such as, 'I don't like this' or 'This is useful for this course.'"