ResearchGate wants academics to be successful by admitting when they've failed

By Richard Nieva , written on January 8, 2013

From The News Desk

If you’re doing everything right, your LinkedIn profile is pristine. At least that’s the conventional thinking: Respectable photo with 1,000-watt smile, complete timeline of employment history, detailed yet succinct descriptions of duties. It’s the perfect, mistake-free, ever-so-employable version of you.

A ResearchGate profile in part now has the opposite goal. It wants members to show how unsuccessful they’ve been in the past.

First, an explanation of ResearchGate: It’s an online network of over 2.3 million academics – doctors, PhDs, scientists – that allows them to connect with one another, usually with the intention of collaborating on and advancing research. The stalwart service has been around since 2008, when Dr. Ijad Madisch, a physician from Germany who has practiced different types of medicine from infectious disease control to radiology, founded the site.

But, as indicated, it would be too simplistic to think of it just as a Facebook or LinkedIn for academics. This became even truer just last month, when the site rolled out significant changes to make member profiles even less like LinkedIn. While those profiles call out your most successful work – there’s even a section specifically for awards – ResearchGate wants to draw attention to a researcher’s most unsuccessful work. That is, the results that don’t make it into the award-winning paper. The tests and experiments that went nowhere. The approaches to equations that left the poor, brilliant bastard scratching his head at 3 am, wondering why he didn’t go to law school.

The new profiles contain portals for non-peer reviewed work and supplementary material, which is where the negative results would go. There are also places on the profile to get more direct feedback and ask questions. While a focus on bringing the unsuccessful aspects of the research process to the forefront has been long been a goal for ResearchGate, this is the first time the information has been so readily available on members’ profiles.

That’s because those are the gems. And those negative results are arguably more valuable than the successful research findings, says Madisch. “Every result is a result. Positive, negative – it’s a result.” With negative results, other researchers can scrutinize the data and apply their different perspectives. It’s also a simple matter of filling in the entire picture: “If we have all the access to negative data, we have more complete data sets. If we have more complete data sets, we have more breakthroughs,” says Madisch, adding that every paper he’s written usually only contains five to 10 percent of the work he’s done, and the rest remains unpublished.

Other additions to the site are discovery tools, which recommend and push data that ResearchGate thinks will be helpful to certain members. Members are also automatically subscribed to a coauthor’s feed, so they can see work from and connect with their coauthors’ coauthors.

And while Madisch insists his network is different from LinkedIn and Facebook, he also says he’s learned quite a bit from those sites. Most intriguing is Madisch’s interest in Facebook Platform, which he hopes to translate to ResearchGate in 2013. He’d like third-party developers to be able to build web apps on top of the data – things like DNA or protein analysis applications, for example.

That’s where a lot of the fun can really begin, especially for the non-academic set. As well as helping to solve the hardcore problems plaguing the community, that data can be a wealth of knowledge for creating interactive tools for teaching students, or even educating a more general audience. It’s another inventive way to spread knowledge, which could get Madisch closer to his own personal definition of successful results for the company – winning a Nobel Prize.

[Image courtesy: Boston Public Library]