For all the advancements that scientists have given us, they’ve done surprisingly little to improve their own methods of communication. The advancement of research science hangs on receiving grants to continue their work, and grants are heavily swayed by recognition received from colleagues in the same field. Seems simple enough.
Well, the only way to acquire that recognition is to get published in an academic journal, but getting accepted by the major publishers – and into the journals that provide the most clout – means covering the costs of printing, which can be high, especially when taking into account elaborate graphs and figures. What’s worse, you’re probably paying a journal that the institution you work with already subscribes to for a hefty fee. From there – depending on your peers’ availability, or when the journal feels like publishing your work, not to mention if your article even makes it in – it can take another six to 36 months before it lands in the right hands. By that time you’re working on something else, and the research you conducted is old news.
Remember, a research scientist invented the Internet to expedite the flow of information. The same series of tubes that’s all about speedy delivery of information, and which occasionally get blamed for driving a stake in the heart of subscriptions and print media.
“The [academic] publication system is broken,” says Ijad Madisch, the founder of ResearchGate, a social and collaborative site for research scientists, “The interests of the journals are not the ones we have.”
Madisch noticed a sore lack of methods in how scientific discoveries were distributed in 2007. At the time he had hit a stumbling block in his own research, but he noticed there was no space for scientists to collaborate and discuss issues online – or even see where other scientists ran into similar problems. There just wasn’t a proper information distribution system. The work that his peers were pouring their lives into was being locked up behind journal subscriptions. Some major journals upload scientific research, but these are usually PDFs, which are relatively unsearchable.
This means the discoveries being sent to publishers right now may not see the light of day for as long as three years. In comparison to the speed that technology develops, a three-year-old piece of tech is ancient. This blinds scientists working in the same field as to today’s potential discoveries, as well as pitfalls hidden in the minutiae of colleagues’ work – let alone related discoveries in a seemingly unrelated discipline.
Likewise, most journals only publish the results that appeal to their topic. Madisch realized this after aiming to publish an article on both his results, as well as a new method he had used to extract blood for tests. The journal simply wasn’t interested in his clinical developments, just the results.
“In the last 20 years, research scientists have not benefited at all from the Web,” Madisch says, adding, “the publication system has existed for hundreds of years, but there’s been no innovation.”
In 2008, Ijad arrived at a conclusion while working on his PhD. He asked his advisor if he could take up part-time research to free himself to build an online collaborative space for scientists. His professor, feeling this wasn’t a great option, advised Ijad in the kindest words German can offer, “get that birdshit out of your head,” schooling Ijad that “scientists are not social.” At least that was his advisor’s take on scientists’ desire to interact online, preferring to collaborate in the real world.
Four years later, and 1.8 million members in, Ijad is seeing some serious traction with ResearchGate – as well as results. One Italian research scientist who had no funding turned to ResearchGate and ended up collaborating with researchers in Nigeria. Through his research, he discovered an infectious strain of a disease only found in that country.
Research scientists from around the world are meeting inside ResearchGate and sharing not only successes, but also failures – a necessary part of the scientific research. Whereas journals discard research failures as useless editorial fat, inside ResearchGate scientists across differing disciplines can tag and use all data to expand on work within their own fields of study. The users can also open questions and answer topics on the site to gain reputation among users – one of the key components that Ijad is now focusing on.
“The journals are claiming the reputation of the scientists,” says Ijad. Meanwhile they offer no platform for discussing how to replicate a failed experiment’s results. Simply speaking, academic journals offer no transparency for any research conducted apart from that method that brought the experiment to its final result.
Ijad believes that posts within ResearchGate garnering more influential respondents shows that they themselves are more influential within the system – regardless of their paper trail. As well, it opens the opportunity for young researchers to step up and push their career forward by having close contact with scientists that may carry serious weight in the same field. It’s like Klout, but with world-changing potential, instead of discounts at IHOP.
This is the same influence that in computer programming allows a 16-year-old to snag a high-level job at Apple. Where a young computer programmer can build with constant feedback and continuous improvement, others in science rely on the flawed methods of journals. ResearchGate has seemingly opened a door for lowly lab assistants to excel, where once – and most-likely still – they would have to plunder through years of article submissions to publications just to gain any recognition among their peers.
This isn’t an unheard of issue – scientists have been quietly ragging on the journals for a long time. Just this spring, Cambridge mathematician Tim Gowers called out academic publishers for continuously increasing costs for academic journals and locking up scientific research behind paywalls. Gowers called for an Academic Spring, stating that he would no longer publish his work, or do peer reviews for the journals. The mathematician’s initial blog post sparked the site The Cost of Knowledge, a protest site that signed up over 12,000 scientists and researchers that refuse to engage with academic journals. The biggest publishing companies MacMillan and Elsevier have been pulling in significant revenue off this model, and scientists are slaves to the their publications – either pay up to publish or suffer in the scientific shadows.
ResearchGate, for all its criticism, could change the way science is conducted. It’s an open and free platform that’s peer monitored – although registration is specifically for researchers associated with an institution, the results are viewable by everyone. As well, the site allows for free collaboration, questions and answers, as well as grouping of interdisciplinary resources. Research scientists increase their reputation by the response and attention they garner within their circles, without suffering through a publishing cycling. It’s the same reputation scientists have received from their peers by paying to be published, reviewed, and read in print journals. So if this free, collaborative platform exists, what’s reasons remain for scientists to publish in print journals?
At the very least, ResearchGate will create an uptick in the speed at which scientific research is conducted. Beyond that, the site stands to challenge the basis for reputation that a PhD student needs to graduate and succeed, by providing a place to mingle with some of science’s most influential minds.