Scientists Need Their Own Social Network

And ResearchGate claims to be it

Loading the podcast player...

Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google Plus, Orkut, Ning…How many social networks do we need? And do we need ones for specific professions? Police? Engineers? Scientists? In the case of scientists, at least, in 2008, a virologist at Harvard, Ijad Madisch, and two colleagues decided they did. They founded ResearchGate, which, though it sounds like CNN’s name for a plagiarism scandal, is a social network with, they claim, more than 3 million members. They aim to change how researchers find each other, collaborate, and publish. They aim, in fact, for ResearchGate to win a Nobel Prize. My aim is to find out from Madisch how ResearchGate is coming along so far. He joins us by phone from Germany. Ijad, welcome to the podcast.

Ijad Madisch: Thanks for having me.

Steven Cherry: What does a profile consist of on ResearchGate, and why should a scientist want to have one?

Ijad Madisch: The profile on ResearchGate consists of the most important things related to the scientist’s work: their publications, their contributions, the questions they’re answering, which institutions they’ve visited, which skills they have, and all these different things, which makes it easier for others to find other scientists with interests they need for their research. They have a chance to show all these different skills, publications, their research institution CV—everything that they have done in their research lives, they can present on ResearchGate, and this is very important in order to get in touch with other scientists.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, so, there are a bunch of problems that you intend ResearchGate to solve. One is finding collaborators.

Ijad Madisch: Correct. This was the first thing that I was experiencing. I was studying medicine, and at the same time computer science, and I was doing research in between in radiology. So I was using my computer science knowledge and my medical knowledge. And I was noticing always, if I was facing a specific problem and trying to find someone who can help me in solving the problem, it was almost impossible to find a specific person with a very specific skill set. And at the end of 2007, I was looking for help in solving the problem I was having in my research area, and I could not find him: I used Google. I used PubMed. I found publications. But in many cases, the corresponding author was not the person I was looking for. I didn’t get a response often. And then I said, “There has to be a network for scientists which solves this problem.”

Steven Cherry: You know, Stephen Wolfram once said that—actually, he frequently says—that he built Mathematica because he wanted that tool. He now has the tool that he wanted. Do you now have the tool that you wanted?

Ijad Madisch: Yes. I think when we started, yeah, we had the specific idea. Now I have the tool I wanted. But now I see that ResearchGate can achieve much more than just being a platform for finding other scientists who can help you in solving your problems. And this is where I think ResearchGate has to evolve to in the next years, becoming a platform where others can develop applications in order to increase productivity among scientists on a worldwide scale.

Steven Cherry: ResearchGate allows scientists to list their publications, and in some cases to have the publications themselves. How does that work?

Ijad Madisch: So we have in our database roughly 60 million publication metadata. As you know, every publication has different authors, and we developed a clustering algorithm around names. And if you join, we ask you to approve single applications out of clusters. So we show you one specific publication and ask you, “Is this your publication?” And then you do this three or four times. And doing this, our back-end algorithm understands what you’re doing, and it’s pushing more and more publications into your profile, which makes it easy for you to claim all of your publications. And in some cases, where open access, or a green route to open access, is allowed, we also encourage you to upload the full text of the PDF, which then makes it available for other scientists.

Steven Cherry: And ultimately you would like to make ResearchGate a way to publish new work and basically cut out the middlemen of scientific publishers?

Ijad Madisch: No, it’s different. I think the scientific publishers have been in this market for many years, and they did many good things for scientists. But I think, in my opinion, they never really used the power of the Internet. They stuck to how they publish results, right? A hundred years ago, you had journals, you printed them, you transported them from A to B—this was the way of transferring knowledge from one location to another location. Now we have the World Wide Web, and the publications and the journals, in my opinion, just projected this outside world into the online world without adding more dynamics around these publications.

And our primary goal is, first of all, to enable interactions around these publications, make them more interactive, and encourage users or scientists to upload negative data and raw data around the publications they published. I think this is one of the huge problems we have in science, is this research redundancy, you know, doing things again and again, and other people already have proven that a specific experiment is not working. But these results are not getting published. You always publish the 5 percent, or the 10 percent, positive results, which you can compress into one publication. And this is the behavior we’re trying to change.

Steven Cherry: Forbes quoted you last year as saying several scientific breakthroughs have been achieved because of ResearchGate. One involved a biodiesel catalyst?

Ijad Madisch: Correct. We have many more examples coming out, more and more, and, you know, first, it’s hard to find out who succeeded in finding a collaborator, and then to see a breakthrough happen. This example you mentioned is a young student, Rick, from the Philippines, who developed a new way to extract a [inaudible], which he uses to turn waste oils into energy, basically. His professor in the Philippines said, “The formula and the procedure you’re trying to do is just crazy. This won’t work.” This young scientist, he just went to ResearchGate and published this procedure in a discussion among other scientists who do research in the same area. And a professor from Spain saw that, and he immediately understood and saw the potential, and the potential breakthrough happening using this procedure. He started collaborating with this young scientist in the Philippines, and they published many papers about this, and now this young scientist is doing his Ph.D. thesis with this professor in Spain.

We have many, many more examples: one in infectious diseases, one in mathematics, in physics—many, many examples, you know. One more example, which I think is very interesting, is the example of the Nigerian researcher who provided samples of patients to an Italian researcher who usually travels to Africa to collect these samples on his own, but because of the financial crisis, he could not travel to Africa that often anymore, and he asked if anyone has these samples, and Emanuel from Lagos, Nigeria, replied and said, “Yes, I have these samples.” The collaboration started. This took, you know, this collaboration is still ongoing. They started publishing papers together. But now comes the very interesting thing. What happened is that a young child died in the hospital in Nigeria, and they took the blood, and they did not have the equipment to analyze the blood. But the scientist was a little bit worried about how this child died, so he sent the samples to the scientist in Italy, and he found out that there’s a yeast type which usually only infects plants, killed this young child and was in high concentration in the child. And it seems that this yeast mutated and started infecting human beings as well. And now they’re writing a paper together to publish these results. And I think, you know, just showing you these two examples coming from completely different areas shows the potential of what happens if you connect scientists all around the world, in real time, to each other.

Steven Cherry: I guess people ask you why scientists can’t use LinkedIn or even Facebook, but I think these examples make clear they could not really happen on LinkedIn.

Ijad Madisch: Correct, because, you know, LinkedIn and Facebook, first of all, the profile is completely different: LinkedIn is very CV-like. Facebook is very, you know, your private life. If you look for specific skills in LinkedIn, you find skills called molecular biology or genetics, very general skills, but, you know, what is the meaning of these? Not very helpful. And also, the publications, and I think that’s the biggest part that ResearchGate is right now solving, is the fact that we socialize publication and data sets. In the current world, the publications are all around the place. You know, you go through all the different publishers, there are different databases to upload data sets—DNA data sets, protein data sets, and all these different things. In ResearchGate, it’s all around the person: the person who created these things, who published these results. So if you find a publication, you can immediately get in touch with the author, and you can see what else he published, what are his skills, what is he doing right now researchwise. So, many things which are giving more meaning around these naked data sets, sometimes, in the publications, which then enables very fast and new collaborations.

Steven Cherry: ResearchGate is not just for the hard sciences, but they seem to dominate the networks so far.

Ijad Madisch: It is also for soft sciences. If you look at the distribution of the science disciplines, they represent, basically, what happens in the outside world. The largest are biology, medicine, computer science, engineering, chemistry, physics, social science. These are the top science disciplines, you know. But medicine and biology, roughly, is between 30 and 40 percent of all scientists on ResearchGate.

Steven Cherry: In the early days of the network, questions were raised about its actual use. How many of those 3 million users are active now?

Ijad Madisch: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question, because this changes dramatically in the last five years. Especially in the beginning, if there’s no network, you know, it’s a chicken-egg problem, right? You’re trying to get people in, but if there’s no one in, why should they sign up, yeah? And we have now, from the 3 million monthly, 35 percent are logging in at least once. So a third of them logging in at least once per month. But if you look at the recent signups in the last half year, how many times are they logging in? They’re logging in, almost half of them, weekly. So it’s a much higher engagement of all people signing up in the last half year, seven months.

So it shows that if you look at the number of how these things changed, these things are increasing exponentially in the last year in terms of engagement, also in terms of claiming publications. This number is now over 20 million publications, which were claimed by real people. And we also analyzed the publications which were published in 2012 in PubMed and wanted to see how many papers published in PubMed in 2012 were claimed. And we saw that 50 percent of all publications published in 2012 have at least one author on ResearchGate that claimed this publication. So it shows that the penetration is increasing dramatically.

Steven Cherry: Things are picking up for ResearchGate in terms of investment as well. Bill Gates invested in the latest funding round. How much have you raised so far?

Ijad Madisch: We never disclosed what we raised in series A and series B, but then the series C, which we recently closed, which was led by Bill Gates personally and Tenaya Capital, we raised [US] $35 million in that round. This was, yeah, very, very…it was proof of what we’re doing, that we’re doing something right. And also having Bill Gates, as a person who’s anyway very interested in advancing science and solving huge issues with polio and tuberculosis and malaria, it fits perfectly to our mission. And this is why, you know, he invested with us. It’s great to have him on board.

Steven Cherry: So what’s the business model? How will ResearchGate make money?

Ijad Madisch: Yeah, when I started ResearchGate, I had this vision of what I wanted to change, how our scientists work. And what was interesting when I started talking about business models, with people asking me about it, I always ask them, “Did you understand the vision?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “If you understand the vision, this is the harder part to achieve.” I always believed that making money with ResearchGate is the simplest part in this whole journey we are on, because changing the mind-set of scientists, how they share data and when they publish data, and what they publish, is the much bigger problem and the much bigger thing to change.

We have various ideas. One is, and we started already with this, is creating a fantastic recruiting tool for universities and research companies. We have now a job board where companies can post job offers. Right now you can post them for free, but if you want to feature the jobs, you pay. We have already now 15 000 jobs. I think it’s the largest scientific job board in the world, as far as I know. And monetizing this is basically a no-brainer. The second idea is similar to jobs, is around conferences. So we’re building soon an application where conferences can distribute their content and advertise their conferences to the people who are interested in these areas, where the conference is about. And the third revenue idea, monetization idea, is building a marketplace for scientific products and scientific services.

Steven Cherry: You’re an M.D. as well as a Ph.D., and you started ResearchGate at the same time as your medical residency.

Ijad Madisch: Correct.

Steven Cherry: Now you’re running a 3-million-person social network, and yet you continue to publish in your field. You might not recall, so let me remind you, that sleep can be a very enjoyable way to spend some time.

Ijad Madisch: Yeah. You know, when I started ResearchGate, I was at that time…it’s an interesting story: I was in Germany. I wanted to do my medical residency, and I wanted to do ResearchGate at the same time. I noticed after three or four months that doing both, I’m not getting that much sleep, and I’m getting tired. And I went to my professor and asked him, and he’s over 60 years old, and asked him if I could get a half position in his university hospital, and the other half I would like to build up ResearchGate. And he said to me, in German, you know, “Get this birds**t out of your hat. You will never change scientists. This system will never work. Please focus on your academic career. This will never, you know, don’t throw everything away which you have built up in the last years.”

And I quit my job on the next day and decided to go back to Harvard, to my professor, who immediately supported me and said, “You get the 50 percent here, at the MGH as a doctor, and you can do the other 50 percent at ResearchGate.” And I was always seeing ResearchGate as a scientific project. For me, it’s still science, right? I’m trying to change the system, and I have a hypothesis, and I’m trying to see if this hypothesis which I’m having is correct or not, and I’m trying to find different factors in order to make things happen. And this is, for me, still science. I feel it like science. Even, of course, I know it’s a company where I have 100 people in the company working now, and we raised a lot of money, and people want to have the money back at some point. But I think building an independent company who is acting in this world of science as an independent platform, I think that’s something that I always wanted to do, and I think that even for this, ResearchGate can win the Nobel Prize one day.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Did you mean that research first published on ResearchGate will win someone a Nobel Prize, or did you mean ResearchGate itself will win a prize?

Ijad Madisch: Both is theoretically possible, but I was meaning that ResearchGate as a platform should win the Nobel Prize, because, I think, if we’re changing the whole way scientists communicate and getting more transparency into the scientific world, we will accelerate and change how scientific breakthrough is happening. And I think this is something where I think the Nobel Laureate committee should at one point give ResearchGate the Nobel Prize, if we’re making that happen. I know the category is not clear, in which category we should get it, but, yeah. Times are changing. Maybe they’ll find a new category for that.

Steven Cherry: Ijad, I feel like we’ve cost you another 20 minutes of sleep, so thanks for spending this time with us, and I wish you and ResearchGate great success.

Ijad Madisch: Thank you so much for this nice interview, and I was enjoying this a lot.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Ijad Madisch, medical doctor, virology researcher, and cofounder of ResearchGate, about his social network for scientists. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded Thursday, 18 July 2013.

Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein

Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Photo: iStockphoto

Read more Techwise Conversations; find us in iTunes; or follow us on Twitter.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.