As a social network for scientists, ResearchGate connects researchers from all over the globe to share their data, collaborate across disciplines and browse through roughly 60 million academic publications. We spoke with Ijad Madisch, who co-founded ResearchGate in 2008, about open access, the future of academic publishing and how to change the world of networked science from Europe.
What are the functionalities ResearchGate offers that you will not find in other social networks, if you compare it, for instance, with LinkedIn, Facebook etc.?
First of all, the data you can connect to your profile. You can find your publications and claim them within the network. We are not interested in your relationship status. Our network is interested in the data which scientists create, their publications and the projects they are working on. The focus of the whole system is of course your scientific reputation. LinkedIn and Facebook are much stronger social networks than we are. We are a combination of a social and a data network.
Do you think that – due to the Internet and its global reach – the different national norms and metrics in the academic field will increasingly be standardized, for instance the significance of distinguishing peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications?
Definitely, I think there will be a standardization. Especially, the current system of peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed publications will hopefully disappear: I think data should immediately be published, and then based on your reputation within the network it can get distributed to the people who should review it. So I hope there will be a standardization, also across disciplines. If you look how sciences evolved over the last 200 years, there has been a growing separation of disciplines. With ResearchGate, we try to get them back together into the same network.
Can you share some examples of how people from different areas collaborate via ResearchGate?
In many cases it starts with the Q&A area. You can use it to ask questions and find people with specific skill sets. We have had many successful collaborations which ended up in scientific breakthroughs of people who found each other on ResearchGate. For instance, one scientist from Nigeria was doing research with a specific type of yeast. He did not have the equipment to analyze the samples from various patients, so he started looking for someone and found an Italian professor on ResearchGate and they started collaborating. When he had a case of a baby which died after 40 days in the hospital, he couldn't figure out why. He sent the blood samples to this Italian researcher who found out that there was a new infectious agent in the samples which usually only infects plants. So they revealed that this specific type of yeast had mutated and can now infect human beings. This was a breakthrough and would not have been disclosed if these two people had not communicated on ResearchGate.
Why is ResearchGate exclusively open to scientists?
First of all, the content which is generated in our network is publicly available, just contributing is limited to members. When I started ResearchGate, I spread it among my research friends. So only scientists joined and the quality was pretty high. When press started talking about ResearchGate, we had a flood of people joining and it dilutes information a lot if people who are not scientists contribute to the network, for example patients who look for treatments. There are other platforms doing this much better than we do. So this is why we decided roughly two years and a half ago to introduce this registration wall. It creates a very high quality community of people which we think advances science in general and thus helps the whole society. And again, you don't have to sign up to look at the content which I think is very important because information should be publicly and freely available.
There's currently a lively debate around Open Access in the sciences: Some people argue that the results of publicly funded research should also be available publicly, and that the model we have today – academic publishers charging universities high subscription fees for access to the published results of their own research – needs to change. What's your view on that?
Of course, I agree. However, I think Open Access is just the beginning. A lot of people forget that you often still have to pay several thousand dollars in order to get published in a journal with Open Access. In the past, the journals had a very important role in spreading scientific information. However, they have also shaped the behavior of scientists within the last 100 years in a way which I think is not right. The times are changing and the role of journals is changing. I think, Open Access is the right direction, but just the beginning of where we have to go in order to get faster and better science in this world.
Scientists are often forced to surrender their copyrights as a condition of being published by prestigious journals. Recently, Elsevier, one of the leading academic publishers, started sending out mass takedown notices to universities and the social network Academia.edu. Have you also experienced copyright issues with publishers?
Of course, we are getting these takedown notices from various publishers. What we do is: we take those publications down, because their upload is illegal. We don't want to create a Napster for science. If scientists make the decision to sign a contract and give up their copyright in order to publish in these journals, we have to live with it. What we have to change is the future. Scientists should not publish in these journals anymore. And in the meantime, we have to strengthen the connections between the scientists because private sharing of a paper is still allowed.
However, those widely acknowledged journals can offer people a reputation that is hard to acquire by other means. This system is still in place.
Exactly. The point is this circle how science currently works: You need money to do research. In order to get money you need publications in high-ranking journals. And the high-ranking journals are the ones from Elsevier, Palgrave Macmillan etc. that charge the researchers or scientific institutions again. We have to change this system and it will take some time. But I also don't think it will take that long.
What is ResearchGate's business model to monetize in the long run? Will the service stay free?
Yes, the service will always stay free for scientists. First of all, as stated in our terms, we are not allowed to sell our users' data to any third party which is also not a good idea, if you want to make money in a sensible way. The first idea is to offer featured and targeted job postings. We already started that: Companies or research institutions can post their job openings for free, but if they want to get more visibility, they have to pay. Secondly, we give scientific conferences the opportunity to market their events. And finally, we want to create a marketplace for scientific products and services. Very similar to Amazon, but for viruses, bacterias, cell cultures etc. So we show researchers where they can buy their laboratory supplies and give them the opportunity to give feedback to vendors and review the products.
As you are based in Berlin and will speak about European Competitiveness at DLD14: If you compare the European start-up scene to the one in the US, what does it take to nurture a competitive European start-up scene?
Compared to the West Coast, we are still far behind. The biggest tech start-ups are coming from the West Coast. However, we have some very promising startups in Europe now, especially in Berlin. Apart from all the entrepreneurs who come here to build this ecosystem, you will need an investment landscape that allows you to build something with an impact. It is very different how people here think about investments compared to the US West Coast. Matt Cohler, who invested in ResearchGate with Benchmark, never asked me how I want to make money. In Germany people always ask this question. This is something that has to change. If you have big ambitions, you have to let the entrepreneur work for several years to build up a real product and not create something fast, squeeze money out of it and sell it. And right now, this time can only be given by investors with the experience of building these big enterprises in the US.
Ilja Madisch will speak at DLD14 conference, taking place in Munich, January 19-21, 2014. Tune in on the beat of our community on the DLD Pulse and find regular updates on the DLD14 programme and speakers here.