The social network that wants to win a Nobel Prize

Scientist in a lab. Public Domain CC0

Nature has some useful research into how academics and researchers use social networks, including several designed just for them:

In 2011, Emmanuel Nnaemeka Nnadi needed help to sequence some drug-resistant fungal pathogens. A PhD student studying microbiology in Nigeria, he did not have the expertise and equipment he needed. So he turned to ResearchGate, a free social-networking site for academics…

More than 4.5 million researchers have signed up for ResearchGate, and another 10,000 arrive every day, says [its founder, Ijad] Madisch … And Madisch has grand goals for the site: he hopes that it will become a key venue for scientists wanting to engage in collaborative discussion, peer review papers, share negative results that might never otherwise be published, and even upload raw data sets. “With ResearchGate we’re changing science in a way that’s not entirely foreseeable,” he says, telling investors and the media that his aim for the site is to win a Nobel prize.

Such social networks are not without their controversy:

Despite the excitement and investment, it is far from clear how much of the activity on these sites involves productive engagement, and how much is just passing curiosity — or a desire to access papers shared by other users that they might otherwise have to pay for. “I’ve met basically no academics in my field with a favourable view of ResearchGate,” says Daniel MacArthur, a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston…

Some irritated scientists say that the site taps into human instincts only too well — by regularly sending out automated e-mails that profess to come from colleagues active on the site, thus luring others to join on false pretences.

These sorts of complaints, especially about the profusion of enticing emails, are by now a familiar part of the growth stage of social networks that go on to be massively successful – as well as also a sign of social networks that are about to decay due to lack of respect for their users.

So in themselves such complaints are not a good predictor of the future. What is clear for the moment, however, is that the dedicated social networks for academics and researchers are heavily used and growing fast, so if you’re one yourself, or interested in how this group of people communicate in the modern world, the full Nature piece is well worth a read.



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