You should join ResearchGate! Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Either way, many working scientists receive scads of ResearchGate e-mails saying just that. And because the scientist-only social network claims 5 million users, with eminent research institutions boasting thousands of members each, many readers of this article may already be among the initiated.

Polling data from a recent survey of scientists suggests that ResearchGate is beating out its main competitor, Academia.edu, for the top spot among researcher social networks. Started in 2008, ResearchGate has received more than $35 million in investment capital over its lifetime. Some rivals have closed, and those that have survived—Mendeley is a notable example—appear to have narrower ambitions. If a Facebook equivalent for science has arrived—and that’s a big if—ResearchGate is it.

Investors have apparently decided that ResearchGate is worth their money—but is it worth your time? As new forms of online sharing proliferate, many scientists are tired of being told they need to be online. Almost all of them—all of you—are already online to some degree. Essentially everyone reads papers on their computers or mobile devices. Probably as many use e-mail and servers to share data and references with colleagues. A so-called “Facebook for scientist,” though—were one to exist—would be expected to fundamentally alter how scientists connect, share information, and publish their findings, in much the same way that Facebook transformed digital communication a decade ago.  Some say there’s definitely a need. “Science is already a social network,” says Joseph Sexton, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP). Scientists are inundated with information, and recreating that network digitally, "will help us filter all of it efficiently."

That may be why ResearchGate “is really taking off,” Sexton says. He’s no shill; he’s quoted on the homepage of Mendeley singing the rival site’s praises. Darlene Zeller, who runs the academic career office at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school in Pennsylvania, says, "More and more people are inquiring about ResearchGate.”

A key aspect of ResearchGate is that it’s restricted to working scientists, a rule it enforces by requiring users to register via institutional e-mail addresses. In contrast, Academia.edu boasts 12 million users, including millions of academics in the humanities, but anyone can sign up. ResearchGate’s setup process involves identifying your scientific skills and loading your papers using the site’s automatic or manual functions. “I was updating my CV and LinkedIn page and looking for a way to increase the visibility of my research and citations of my publications,” says Amanda O’Donnell, a molecular biologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. "It was really easy to join and create my online profile. ResearchGate found all my publications and identified my co-authors and peers so I could follow them."

Publications and citations

Users’ citations and publications are the site’s bread-and-butter. You can request a PDF of a paper with a single click on the abstract found on an author's page. Any author on a paper, not just the listed corresponding author, may have the paper listed on their page. (Users say authors are gracious about sharing their PDFs.) Even neuroradiologist Rajiv Gupta, whose institutional library at Harvard is world class, says he appreciates obtaining copies of papers "without having to pay for them." (Gupta is a ResearchGate investor.) When a scientist posts a publication, users who are linked to the paper or cited in it receive notifications, a function biotechnologist Douglas Jolly, from Tocagen, a biopharmaceutical company in San Diego, California, uses “to track who is citing me and my collaborators.”

O’Donnell appreciates the notifications she receives when a colleague publishes new work, makes a comment, or asks a question on the site’s active Q&A forum. The site also tells you which users are looking at your papers, a capability Zeller says is "pretty phenomenal" for scientists to use as a networking tool.

Certain papers on the site go viral. The reason why can be a mystery, even to an author. A somewhat obscure study on statistical methods published in 2009  by medical statistician Ying Lu at Stanford University, California in a specialty journal on clinical trials, was downloaded 2000 times in early August, making it the hottest paper among Stanford University’s 5439 registered users. Lu was unaware of the small splash the publication had made until Science Careers contacted him by phone. That paper, he says, "has been quiet for several years." The flurry of attention didn't result in any new collaborations and it remains unexplained.


Courtesy of Brenden Holland
Brenden Holland

ResearchGate’s spokesperson says that one third of their users use the site at least once a month. That leaves two thirds who don’t. Clicking around, one encounters lots of profiles of scientists who rarely visit the site. But that still leaves 1.5 million active users on ResearchGate, defined as users that visit at least once a month. What’s more important is an accelerating surge of activity, the company says. “In the first 50 months in the company's history you uploaded two million publications in total to your profiles. Today you upload two million publications every month,” ResearchGate wrote in a recent message to its users.

Q&A

O’Donnell taps the well of expertise available on ResearchGate via questions and answers, which she says have been "very useful." Well-trod forums have connected her with both "graduate students who have been hammering away at a technique for a couple of years and know it inside-out” to scientists who are “leaders of their field, sharing their immense knowledge.”

“Just by being on the site you have your ear to the ground,” says Gupta, a ResearchGate investor.

Even using the site occasionally can reap rewards, says Brenden Holland, a conservation ecologist at the University of Hawaii. For years, Holland ignored the regular e-mails pestering him to sign up for ResearchGate; when colleagues post a paper, they have the option to invite co-authors to join the network. He finally joined, then posted a question asking the community whether they had "any ideas" about how to trap the invasive chameleons he and fellow conservationists are battling to save threatened native Hawaiian snails. Dozens of well-reasoned suggestions poured in from experts around the world, ranging from glue traps to sterilized male chameleons. A herpetologist in New Zealand even offered to come to Hawaii with her own funding to help out. Holland has applied for funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a feasibility trial to try one of the ideas: using capuchin monkeys to hunt the lizards. “We don't have any native reptiles in Hawaii, so herpetologists are rare in the islands,” he says, grateful that the crowd’s wisdom has served him well.

Open review

It was just that kind of interdisciplinary connection that ResearchGate CEO Ijad Madisch was hoping to create when he started the website in 2008 his goal was to "revolutionize science," he tells Science Careers. Witness the recent use of the site by molecular biologist Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who used Research Gate to much fanfare last March. Lee conducted a real-time attempt to reproduce a controversial experiment published in Nature in which researchers claimed to have turned adult mouse blood cells into pluripotent stem cells. During the live-blogged experiment, Lee posted figures, described experimental protocols, and answered questions from the audience, drawing hundreds of online spectators over several weeks. Building on previous work conducted at the University of California (UC), San Diego, Lee declared the original paper "non-reproducible." Amid of a storm of controversy and criticism, the paper was recently retracted and, tragically, co-author Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide.


Courtesy of ResearchGate
Ijad Madisch

Lee was gratified for the attention and assistance he received from his audience of peers during the exercise. Afterwards, though, he declared it an exhausting marathon he wouldn't repeat.

ResearchGate took advantage of the attention to unveil its Open Review function, allowing scientists to publicly review published scientific articles and preprints. It’s not a unique function, as plenty of other options for online peer review have thrived.

Lee subsequently turned his live-blogging log into an official review, declaring the stem cell paper nonreproducible. Since then 12,000 other users have reviewed papers, ResearchGate says. Paleontologist Mark McMenamin of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, says he posts drafts of articles or book chapters before he publishes them; he’s gotten helpful feedback and formed several new collaborations through the site.

Alternatives

To be sure, ResearchGate has a number of competitors. In comparing ResearchGate with Academia.edu, the former has more “researchers using the network actively,” says Rolando Garcia Milian, a research support staffer at Yale University’s medical library in New Haven, Connecticut. Despite having more than twice the purported number of users, he found many times more users in ResearchGate’s science-related interest groups, and more active ones. In a neuroscience group, for example, ResearchGate boasted roughly 100,000 users, with 1109 posted questions, and the last posted question was a day old; Academia.edu had less than half as many in their neuroscience group, only 27 questions, and 8 months had passed since the last posted question.

Other social networking sites are popular with scientists, and each has strengths and weaknesses. PubPeer takes ResearchGate’s bid to shake up online peer review a step further, allowing anonymous reviews. Mendeley’s citation-sharing functions have rabid fans. PubMed recently opened its gargantuan literature library to online commenting.

And then there are the sites that aren’t science-specific. Sherry Pagoto, a behavioral scientist at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, who runs workshops on social media, loves how Twitter allows her to share ideas quickly with a broad array of experts, advocates, and patients. LinkedIn, her other tool of choice, includes users who wouldn’t qualify as working scientists under ResearchGate’s restrictions. She admits, though, that the followers and hash tags that comprise her online networks can sometimes keep users “in a silo” or an echo chamber.

For this reason ResearchGate seeks to link users via interests and skills, not disciplinary labels. And given its success, it’s clear many scientists want to expand those links. ‘Facebook for scientists’ may be in its infancy, and ResearchGate could still be dethroned. But the network’s most loyal users are confident that if you’re not on ResearchGate now, you will be in the future. After all, the main reason they joined is pretty persuasive: Their colleagues joined first.

Making the most out of social science media: Tips from the front lines

  • The more you update your skills and interests, ResearchGate founder Ijad Madisch says, the better the site’s algorithms will know to show you questions or papers that might interest you, eliminating background noise.
  • Joseph Sexton of UMCP says scientists should join a network once they’ve made sure key colleagues use it already. “It would be foolish to use a tool that people in my professional network weren’t using,” he says.
  • Mendeley helps Sexton “organize my own citations in my research.” Its group workspace/cloud storage “is great for sharing documents—you can set up a library for a team.”
  • If ResearchGate links users by cross-disciplinary skills, LinkedIn offers myriad groups for professionals affiliated with highly specialized subspecialties, scientific societies, or specific institutions.
  • Twitter has led to new ideas for papers, professional introductions, and new collaborative projects, says UC Berkeley ecologist Karthik Ram. You don’t need a lot of followers, he says. All that matters that is that your network is connected around shared interests or goals.
  • ResearchGate calculates a “RG score” for its users, combining their impact in citations, activity on the site, and acclaim from other users. Some like its usefulness for identifying the value of new members to connect with. Others are skeptical. “The RG score tells about as much about the quality of a researcher as the number of Facebook friends tells about somebody's popularity,” one user said in a recent discussion on the site about the issue.
  • Neuroendocrinologist Edward Roy of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign uses PubMed, Web of Science, and Google Scholar to find papers. But on specific technical questions “for example, when things go wrong in lab,” he says, the Q&A on ResearchGate “can be quite useful. If I were to search on those databases for the specific technique I’m having trouble with, I’d just get thousands of papers.”

Eli Kintisch is a contributing correspondent for Science.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1400214