“Facebook for scientists”

Soon after Nature Network launched in 2007 it was being touted as the “Facebook for scientists”. Other sites that had been around longer, such as FriendFeed and LabSpaces, occasionally got that moniker too (and indeed Facebook bought out FriendFeed later on).  I view any use of the phrase “Facebook for scientists” with great suspicion.  At least Mendeley (the social and bibliographic management site) has the imagination to call themselves the Last.FM for science.

Brian Krueger, at LabSpaces, suggested why none of these sites have become dominant in the way that FaceBook has:

ResearchGate’s groups and Job listings appear to be relatively active, Nature Network has its blogs and forum, and LabSpaces has the news and Blogs. However it seems like, at least for LabSpaces, I’ve just catered to the scientists who were willing to interact on-line…

The attraction of scientists to a network is not going to be the network itself, that’s apparent, so it’s going to come down to developing a network around tools that help make a scientist’s life easier. The “problem” for developers is that the number of tools that overlap between fields and disciplines is too small for any network to really dominate the science social network landscape which could limit large scale investment in social network based free tools.

Daniel Mietchen agreed with this diagnosis:

It’s a small, dedicated group advocating for open science and social networks.  Despite this fact, the latter have been “breeding like rabbits,” as Cameron Neylon noted in this 2008 post.  At that time he counted about a dozen contenders for the title of “facebook for scientists” (including, Laboratree,Research GateEpernicus,LabMeetingGraduate Junction,Nature Network).  But none of them, not even Nature Network, have been able to dominate the field in the manner of a Facebook.

So, they still cater to a minority of scientists; to those who enjoy that kind of online interaction for its own sake.  They haven’t made themselves indispensable to the broad mass of scientists.  And it is unlikely that any one site could serve such a diverse market as “scientists” in all disciplines.

ResearchGate, founded in 2008, is currently getting a good deal of publicity. I have had several emails and a couple of phone calls from them in the last few months. The dreaded FB phrase has appeared in some press coverage. A New York Times article about open science devotes quite a bit of space to ResearchGate, and The Economist just published a short piece.

ResearchGate has been growing rapidly in terms of membership, numbers of staff and has some serious investors. It is based in Berlin and Boston, established by a medical researcher at Harvard Med School, Ijad Madisch. The NYT piece says:

Dr. Rajiv Gupta, a radiology instructor who supervised Dr. Madisch at Harvard and was one of ResearchGate’s first investors, called it “a great site for serious research and research collaboration.”  [It has] profile pages, comments, groups, job listings, and “like” and “follow” buttons can pose and answer questions… Users can create public or private discussion groups, and share papers and lecture materials. ResearchGate is also developing a “reputation score” to reward members for online contributions.

Nature Network has a similar range of functions and also has an app platform, or workbench, but it has seemed a bit neglected in recent years. When I first looked at ResearchGate a year or two back I thought it looked nice enough but it was hard to know whether it would really take off. My impression was that it was quite international, with many users from non-Western countries – not just the usual suspects. Other competitors include LabLife, Scientific Advisory Board and Academia.edu

Here is some advertising blurb from ResearchGate, to give you more of a flavour of what they aim to achieve.

ResearchGate www.researchgate.net is the world's largest 
professional network for scientists and researchers with over 
1,300,000 members worldwide and it is completely free.
As a member of ResearchGate, you can:
  • Ask questions and get answers from fellow specialists within your field
  • Find and download unique publications easily by
    searching through 45 million abstracts. Numerous papers available include negative results, which can only be found on ResearchGate
  • Download full texts uploaded by the authors for free
  • Follow Topics that match your research interests
  • Share current articles, publications and other content with your colleagues
  • Search through over 5,000 scientific conferences
  • By having a profile on ResearchGate members
    are able to present their work to the wider scientific community as well as sharing their research aims, and academic pursuits.
Find out more about ResearchGate (see this article) from one of 
the founders Ijad Madisch, himself a Scientist:
"The pre-existing scientific community was conducted in a 
vacuum," Madisch said. "I was encountering problems with my 
own research during medical school and at a fellowship at Harvard."

I used to get excited about all these wonderful new sites, all shiny and new. Now there are so many I can’t help but suspect that some (most?) of them will go the way of BioMedNet. In 1995 it was briefly the most exciting place on the biomedical web but a few years later seemed to lose its way.  Eventually, in 2004, it closed down.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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19 Responses to “Facebook for scientists”

  1. rpg says:

    Hmm. I consigned ‘ResearchGate’ to the junk bin, permanently, after their questionable marketing tactics (aka ‘spamming’, as well as rumours of artificially enhancing user stats).

    The reason Mendeley has done so well, and ResearchGate hasn’t (and indeed, why Facebook has) is because of the existence of a ‘social object’. ResearchGate has nothing to bring researchers together, except the fact they they are researchers—and the existing networks, traditional and digital, fulfill that role admirably.

    Mendeley is based around the paper. Nature Network was successful for a while because it was based around the blog post, and some other resources (the good paper forum, for example). Other networks have music, photographs, friendships as the object around which to aggregate social interactions. The Science Advisory board had reviews and information—actually they sell market research but the contributors actually get something of real value in return for their input.

    The phrase “The pre-existing scientific community was conducted in a vacuum” is complete bollocks, to be frank, Frank.

  2. Frank says:

    Richard – I suspected you might have something to say on this! I like your analysis re. ‘social objects’ and the gaping hole at the centre of ResearchGate. Someone commented to me that in fact the ‘Facebook for scientists’ is Facebook.

    My response to strong marketing tends to flip between two states. On the one hand I think if they are pushing that hard they must be desperate. On the other hand I think if they are promoting so seriously then they must have something to offer. I think in this case the first response might be more accurate.

  3. Frank says:

    I have edited the last section to try and make it clearer that it is text from their marketing bumf.

  4. Heather says:

    I must chuckle that I saw you posted this from a link on Facebook. Yes, Facebook is for scientists who are friends with scientists AND other people. Which applies to most scientists.

    I would have liked to chuck it but it’ s the bit about being very accessible to other people that makes me hang on. Try finding my Aunt Janet on Google Plus, even, not to mention Mendeley.

    When you write “ResearchGate has nothing to bring researchers together” I would disagree in one tiny way. I am trying to use it – but there is

  5. Heather says:

    (shit)
    a bug right now over there preventing me from completing this task – to house a second copy of my self-archived publication list.

    Frank in particular will be sensitive to the appeal of having a well-trafficked site that aggressively encourages its members to self-archive all their publications. This is why I am even bothering. I think that otherwise, it rather resembles the Science Advisory Board, and perhaps some discussion threads on LinkedIn in which I don’t want to participate, either. I have to say that I could care less about most other scientists, until there is a serendipitous reason that I suddenly don’t. Such reasons have brought me here, for example.

    Anyhow, I am proud to have self-archived in a rather more doubtful way, copies of my articles at Mendeley – they are most often the publishers’ versions (these being the PDFs I tend to send out on personal request). ResearchGate is being quite careful about encouraging true archiving of the most up-to-date copies that still belong entirely to the researchers (or rather, their often public employers), and because it cuts across disciplines, I wish it all the success.

    One thing that you two Brits have not brought up is that ResearchGate also received a big membership boost from being the default mechanism for bringing members of the U.S. honors society, Sigma Xi, to one website. I got nominated to Sigma Xi, as most others do, when I matriculated from my undergraduate college in a science major (and had pulled down decent grades). If I stay a member, it’s essentially because I really love American Scientist. Science Online 2008-2011 were hosted over at Sigma Xi as well, according to Bora’s wrap-up about 2012.

    Hope I managed to trigger the too-many-links alert 😉

    Did you notice “Founder Ijad Madisch, a virologist at Harvard Medical School, describes it as “Facebook for scientists.”[my emphasis, and this is from a press release 1.5 years ago.] He said that, in a little over two years, ResearchGate has built a network of more than 400,000 researchers from 200 countries. More than 1,000 subgroups have been created for specific disciplines. And in excess of 60,000 research documents have been uploaded for sharing with others on the site.”

  6. Honestly I have reached saturation with all of these things, to the point where I can’t even be bothered trying new ones out. Do I really need to belong to yet another online community? I’m trying to *reduce* the number that I’m in (not terribly successfully, TBH).

    The marketing bumf is a real turn-off for me also… q.v. The Scientist, which has now started dinging me with all kinds of online polls and things, since the change in ownership.

  7. Frank says:

    Kay Thaney, on Twitter, has commented that ResearchGate’s stats can be misleading and that a more useful statistic than number registered would be the number of people engaging with the system.

    • Similarly I would guess that a lot of people registered on Nature Network, either to leave a comment or to read something, but then never used the site after that.

      And if I was being a bit snarky, I’d say that NN’s management never actually seemed to realise that it was primarily the blog posts there that were the main ‘drivers’ of the life of the network.

  8. Frank says:

    An article this week in ZDNet alleges that most social media accounts are fake or empty, and there is no transparency on how users are counted. It suggests that numbers are inflated by a factor two or three.

  9. Dan says:

    There are several LinkedIn groups where serious scientific questions can be asked and answered.

    Separately, there is academia.edu which is spam-free and can function as an easy web alert. There isn’t much action on it, but it has been around for a bit.

  10. rpg says:

    Youse guys all remember bionet.*, yes?

  11. Ian Mulvany says:

    Hi Frank,

    Most of you commenting on this post know me well. I’m really just leaving a comment for the sake of all the people who will happen by, but who probably won’t comment.

    I’m head of product for Mendeley. We are trying to build tools on top of the research object. We have invested heavily in our data mining infrastructure, and we are in the middle of rolling our personalised article recommendations.

    The key for us is to build tools that don’t need a social network behind them, but that can emerge from the behaviour of many individuals. We are fortunate to be sitting on enough data that these recommendations are of high quality based on acceptance rates of our users.

    In the end, if that adds value to researchers, they will like that product (we hope they will), and our system will get smarter, leading to a virtuous circle.

    We build social features into our product too, in my opinion it’s the other stuff that really has the chance to be transformative.

  12. Frank says:

    Thanks, Ian. In my mind I have Mendeley down as firstly a bib management site, and only secondarily a social site. I agree that building useful tools is a good way to attract a critical mass of users.

    A piece in Huffington Post, commenting on the Economist article, takes a more critical stance and suggests ResearchGate is not offering anything beyond what some other sites have tried and failed with.

  13. me says:

    Too bad that ResearchGate is spamming the scientific community.

    This won’t work out well for them, when they piss of everybody before they actually have any contents to offer.