David Nygren
David Nygren
Vice President, Research Insights, Wiley

What social network do researchers use more than Twitter, Google+, Facebook or LinkedIn, and almost as much as Google Scholar? The answer, which may come as a surprise to everyone but researchers themselves, is ResearchGate. The company, founded in 2008, has over 6 million registered users and a high level of user engagement. Whereas ResearchGate requires users to have an institutional email address to join, Academia.edu, another scientific collaboration platform also founded in 2008, has an open registration policy and over 20 million registered users as a result. Both companies have significant venture capitalist backing. Most notably, Bill Gates and Tenaya Capital invested $35 million in ResearchGate in 2013.shutterstock_96368282_253789768_253789769_256224451 (1).jpg

So what’s behind all of these big numbers? I first became aware of the success of scientific collaboration networks upon reading Richard Van Noorden’s excellent article in Nature in August 2014. The numbers surprised me, but I wanted to know more about what was driving users to these platforms. Some view such collaboration networks as little more than the Wild West of article sharing and copyright infringement, but are there other researcher needs that are being met? When the opportunity arose to organize and moderate a session at the STM Association Conference, held in April in Washington, D.C., I proposed a session on scientific collaboration networks simply because I wanted to know more about the topic myself. The timing proved to be serendipitous, as the conference coincided with the end of the STM Association’s Consultation on Article Sharing, which aims to form a consensus around appropriate article sharing among research groups via scientific collaboration networks.

STM industry analyst and consultant Mark Ware, kicked off the session with an overview of scientific collaboration networks and then dove into the question of how they’re really used. Mr. Ware’s research has shown that researchers use the platforms primarily to obtain articles and to boost their own profiles. Although various platforms have capabilities intended to support collaboration and commentary—capabilities intended to accelerate the advancement of science itself—so far there has been relatively little engagement with these tools. He suggested that the best way for the platforms to support collaboration might be to create tools intended to support existing, real world workgroups, rather than trying to promote collaboration among virtual workgroups that are brought together by the platform.

Next up was Dr. Richard Price, Founder and CEO of Academia.edu. He shared a series of anecdotes from Academia.edu users whose own research had progressed as a result of their active use of the platform, demonstrating that, in his view, science is indeed being advanced as a result. Dr. Price also discussed a beta feature called “Sessions” whichattempts to replicate the kind of spontaneous Q&A and candid commentary that might happen at a conference poster session. By making the commentary private and the comments themselves ephemeral, the aim is to avoid the common scenario where researchers are hesitant to comment in a public platform where their words might later come under scrutiny. Think of it as “SnapChat for scientific commentary and collaboration.”

Finally, the conference attendees heard from Wiley Advisor Dr. Reese McKay, who has a PhD in Neuroscience Imaging from the University of Texas and who until recently was a Postdoctoral Associate at the Yale University School of Medicine and a Fellow at Hartford Hospital's Institute for Living. An active user of ResearchGate, he first gave an overview of his and his colleagues’ opinions of the pros and cons of some of the top collaboration networks. Researchers seem to like ResearchGate’s metrics around their activities, though Dr. McKay himself feels that, although fun, the metrics don’t have any impact on a researcher’s career. Researchers also like Academia.edu’s vast repository of articles and have so far responded well to the new “Sessions” feature. But, in his experience, researchers react quite negatively to both platforms’ occasional tendency either to manipulate or delete some users’ posts and commentaries. Dr. McKay then used screen shots to create a fascinating self-ethnographic “day in the life of a researcher on ResearchGate.”

After the presentations, the conference session closed with nearly 40 minutes of questions, commentary and panel discussion, revealing that most of the assembled were as interested in the topic as I was. Most of my original questions were answered by the session, but of course the presentations and discussion inspired many more. Scientific collaboration platforms are still in a nascent period of rapid change, so societies and publishers all need to keep an eye on their development. At the same time, we need to stay in touch with researchers’ needs to determine how we can all best work together to accelerate the advancement of science.

Reese is a member of Wiley Advisors, a program for early career researchers and professionals to serve as a voice for their communities. For more information, please visit Wiley Advisors online or on twitter @WileyAdvisors.

Image Credit/Source:scyther5/Shutterstock

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