On the shores of Lake Victoria, western Kenya, scientist Gabriel Dida was gathering data about the spread of malaria.
But Mr. Dida, a biologist based at the institute of tropical medicine at Nagasaki University in Japan, ran into a problem. To make sense of his data, he needed a whole lot more on mosquitoes and their breeding habits, and he didn’t have it.
His options were limited, so he decided to try a very unscientific solution: He turned to social media, and the ResearchGate website.
ResearchGate is a platform where scientists across disciplines can pose questions to be answered by peers around the world. For the social media savvy, it’s a combination of Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Users can connect with each other, publish research and ask others questions or for feedback on their work.
The questions Mr. Dida asked changed his research and his career. “Now I can’t stop using the site,” he said.
ResearchGate was started in Berlin in 2008 by Ijad Madisch, a German with a Harvard medical qualification and doctorate in virology, together with two friends, Sören Hofmayer and Horst Fickenscher.
“ResearchGate can offer us ways to engage in more open science practices.”
Mr. Madisch wanted to speed up the time it takes for researchers to get answers to questions. “I knew the problems we have and I thought if people could connect and share their knowledge faster, it could speed up the rate of problem-solving round the world. That’s why I designed it that way,” he said.
He also hoped that scientists would reach out to others in different disciplines to solve their problems.
Since it was started, ResearchGate has received three rounds of funding, with Bill Gates and Tenaya Capital contributing $35 million (€31 million) to the third round in 2012.
The site now connects 7 million users from all over the world. Scientists ping questions to groups with names like Methods, Western Blot and PCR – short for polymerase chain reaction – and receive answers within hours.
“It puts science in a social context – that’s our aim, to engage with others and share,” Mr. Madisch said.
ResearchGate’s users must be from an institution or a company in order to set up profile pages. These detail the academic papers they have published, where they are based and what they are working on. Scientists can also post their papers and share others they have read.
The site has blossomed in the new era of what has been dubbed open access publishing. Taxpayers fund a large amount of academic research, but the results of the work can often only be accessed via publications that readers must pay for. Open access is a movement pushing for research to be widely available for free.
ResearchGate provides an outlet as it can show what scientists are working on as they carry out their research.
In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, Mr. Madisch wrote that in the past, it took a long time to get feedback on scientific research. Now, with the help of the Internet, “it no longer takes months or even years to find out if a study matters. That shows knowledge is being disseminated faster.”
ResearchGate may also help to reduce scientific error and fraud, as a recent high profile case showed. In January, 2014, a Japanese team published a high-profile paper claiming to have produced specialist human stem cells – which have the potential to treat many types of disease – from ordinary cells.
But skepticism quickly took hold around the apparently miraculous findings. ResearchGate’s open review function enables peers to challenge research they don’t feel is reproducible, and scientist Kenneth Ka Ho Lee used it to challenge the discovery, becoming one of the first to do so. The stem cell work was later retracted by the Japanese researchers.
These gains to science hinge on how the users of ResearchGate behave.
Nicole Muscanell and Sonja Utz, two social scientists from Penn State University, looked into how scientists across subjects use ResearchGate compared to other social media platforms. Their research is at an early stage but Ms. Muscanell described some of her findings.
She noted that there’s increasing concern with data fraud and questionable practices both in the natural sciences and social sciences. “ResearchGate can offer us ways to engage in more open science practices,” she said. “But it is really a question of getting people to use it and share data at all stages and share things that aren’t actually published yet.”
She said sharing publications is one of the most common things people do on ResearchGate. “But often these have already been published in a journal by the time you get to read it. A lot of people are not sure what you did unless you post during the process too,” she said.
Damien Bertheloot is a German graduate studying for his PhD in immunology, and is a keen user of ResearchGate. “I follow people and connect with them professionally, like company CEOs, or people I meet. In science it’s important to keep a network of people.”
He was unsure whether ResearchGate is the place for people to share work before it is published, saying science, especially in Germany, is relentlessly competitive and hierarchical. “Nobody wants to be scooped,” he said.
Mr. Madisch points out that uploads are date stamped, so users needn’t worry about protecting their work.
Video: Ijad Madisch on starting ResearchGate.
Mr. Bertheloot is a fan of the ResearchGate function that allows users to bypass expensive journals and read academic papers that have been posted online for free, a gray area when it comes to copyright law. “You can request papers and people will share them with you,” he said. “It’s a great way to share papers for free.”
ResearchGate’s disruptive model has challenged traditional scientific publishers, who have so far acted as gatekeepers to knowledge, charging for access to the work. “The site works to meet the world’s needs rather than twisting technology to suit older business models,” said Mr. Madisch.
But there have been criticisms of the site, including complaints that it linked study authors automatically and generated profiles for them. The world-leading scientific journal Nature surveyed tens of thousands of users in 2014, and found many had joined by responding to automatically generated emails, believing they had been invited by colleagues.
Mr. Madisch says that ResearchGate had now taken this into account and had changed the site accordingly.
Other skeptics say the site is used mainly by the social media savvy, and that up to 80 percent of users are recent doctoral graduates and therefore fairly junior.
But the number of older users is growing, according to Mr. Madisch. He described his Harvard professor, an older doctor, who when he first heard of the idea of the site said it would never work. He is now an avid user.
It seems the site is succeeding in some of its aims, to encourage connections between people across scientific fields. Ms. Muscanell’s study of ResearchGate found that for most users, their network includes people from other fields and other institutions.
Next, Mr. Madisch wants to increase the number of people from commercial institutions using the site – and to change the culture there, too. Currently, 70 percent of the site’s users are from universities, where the idea of sharing research is more established. He hopes more people in business will cotton on to the benefits for research and development. “You have so much you’re working on, you can still profit so much,” he said.
It is also a question of tradition. “Of course we notice that some cultures share more than others,” Mr. Madisch said. Ideally, scientists would also publish negative data, and share information about experiments and approaches that didn’t work out, saving others time and effort.
In the future, ResearchGate plans new features to enable users to evaluate and recommend the products they use, for example in labs. The site also has a function to help recruiters find people looking for jobs.
To really succeed, ResearchGate needs more scientists to use it more frequently. Of its 7 million registered users, only a fraction have completed a full user profile. “I think in general it’s a good thing – it would be more useful if those researchers used it more frequently,” Ms. Muscatell said. “I do find it helpful to find articles I wouldn’t otherwise be aware of and I like it that I can contact people – there’s just not heavy adoption of it yet.”
ResearchGate is open to all natural scientists and social scientists but so far the majority of its users are mainly from the fields of medicine, engineering, computer science, biology, chemistry and physics.
As the site tries to grow its user base beyond digital natives and between different scientific areas, it provides a lens into how far scientific culture is changing and whether researchers have found new ways of behaving.
As for Mr. Dida, his latest research paper on malaria in Kenya was published in the journal Parasitology last month – and is now proudly displayed on his ResearchGate profile.
Allison Williams is Deputy Editor in Chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org