2012-06-19

Co.Exist

A New Social Network For Science Could Change How We Make Discoveries

ResearchGate may sound like a political scandal, but it’s not. It’s a way for thinkers and researchers around the world to connect, and its ability to put many minds on the same problem may drastically increase the speed of scientific discoveries.

The corpses of social networks for scientists litter the internet: Labmeeting, Elsevier’s 2collab, and Nature’s Connotea--all moribund sites whose most active user is silence.  

But perhaps there is life here after all. Mendeley, a social reference manager for scientists, reports it has signed up more than 1.7 million members during the last few years and is organizing research papers in one convenient place. ResearchGate, a collaborative social network for scientists, is also bursting onto the scene with an ambitious mission. After attracting a devoted following of Ph.D. students, it is entering the mainstream research community with (reportedly) 1.7 million members of its own (although, in both cases, not all are active).

For years, scientists have avoided the social web. A combination of cultural resistance and the lack of clear benefits to publishing, winning tenure or making discoveries fueled that apathy. As groups such as ResearchGate finally draw together enough engaged scientists, this is slowly changing and transforming the way science is done, at least anecdotally. Ijad Madisch, the founder of ResearchGate and a former genetics researcher at Harvard, is pioneering this new "social" science. His ultimate ambition, he says, is to win the Nobel Prize. His contribution? A global network of scientists who are sharing, collaborating, and building a new generation of scientific research.

"My professor told me years ago, 'No one is going to use social networks," says Madisch. "I told [him] this is exactly what I want to change." This phase of the scientific method will rely less on geography and journals, and more on the connections made by scientists on social networks. His five-year-old service just announced a new B round of venture funding from Founders Fund, among others, and is aggressively expanding its model.

While it has nowhere near the traction of Facebook (now heading toward 1 billion), its global reach is yielding some unlikely scientific endeavors that would never have happened in the hallways of a typical university. One was by Orazio Romeo, an Italian medical researcher tracking down pathological yeasts. He got some unexpected help from Emmanuel Nnadi, a Nigerian scientist he found on ResearchGate, after funding dried up to collect samples. Nnadi helped him isolate new strains from Nigeria and the pair published their findings in Medical Mycology in 2012 on this distribution pathogenic yeasts. Others are swapping methodologies and locating equipment or lab space, while the largest percentage seem to be engaged in Q&A sessions and, as you would expect, checking out each others’ profiles.

ResearchGate still needs to escape a long track record of failure in the space. Its strategy, says Madisch, is putting the community first. Revenue will come from job postings and scientific equipment marketplaces, not charging scientists or selling their data. Just as important are features enabling scientists to better conduct science. ResearchGate is rolling out a new reputation system and private data sharing for small groups in the coming months, but its most disruptive idea is to start publishing original scientific research that bypasses the journal system and formal peer review (where scientists vet others’ work before publication).

"The journal system was never developed for the Internet," says Madisch. "We want to give [our members] a platform to publish their research results. … I think peer review can be done by community." That threatens to upend not only the paywall model that has sustained the multi-billion dollar scholarly publishing industry (under attack by a crowd-driven White House petition) but even challenges open access science publishers such as BioMed Central and PLOS who charge authors (The journal PeerJ is also edging into this space as well).

ResearchGate is nowhere near claiming victory, but the network’s numbers are reportedly headed in the right direction: 22% of its members are logging in at least once/month, and weekly engagement among new users has grown from about 1.5 percent in 2010 to 34 percent today. Ultimately, Madisch says, ResearchGate plans to just continue its one secret to success so far. "The most important reason, and it sounds simple, is that we always listened to the community."

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