Background: Universities have begun deploying public Internet systems that allow for easy search of their experts, expertise, and intellectual networks. Deployed first in biomedical schools but now being implemented more broadly, the initial motivator of these research networking systems was to enable easier identification of collaborators and enable the development of teams for research.
Objective: The intent of the study was to provide the first description of the usage of an institutional research "social networking" system or research networking system (RNS).
Methods: Number of visits, visitor location and type, referral source, depth of visit, search terms, and click paths were derived from 2.5 years of Web analytics data. Feedback from a pop-up survey presented to users over 15 months was summarized.
Results: RNSs automatically generate and display profiles and networks of researchers. Within 2.5 years, the RNS at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) achieved one-seventh of the monthly visit rate of the main longstanding university website, with an increasing trend. Visitors came from diverse locations beyond the institution. Close to 75% (74.78%, 208,304/278,570) came via a public search engine and 84.0% (210 out of a sample of 250) of these queried an individual's name that took them directly to the relevant profile page. In addition, 20.90% (214 of 1024) visits went beyond the page related to a person of interest to explore related researchers and topics through the novel and networked information provided by the tool. At the end of the period analyzed, more than 2000 visits per month traversed 5 or more links into related people and topics. One-third of visits came from returning visitors who were significantly more likely to continue to explore networked people and topics (P<.001). Responses to an online survey suggest a broad range of benefits of using the RNS in supporting the research and clinical mission.
Conclusions: Returning visitors in an ever-increasing pool of visitors to an RNS are among those that display behavior consistent with using the tool to identify new collaborators or research topics. Through direct user feedback we know that some visits do result in research-enhancing outcomes, although we cannot address the scale of impact. With the rapid pace of acquiring visitors searching for individual names, the RNS is evolving into a new kind of gateway for the university.
Keywords: information seeking behavior; interprofessional relations; multidisciplinary communication; search engine; social networking.