Simon Drescher (left) is one of the most active users of Researchgate.edu. Kai Struve uses Academia.edu almost every day. (Photos: private, design: Theresa Pfahl)

Between scientific exchange and personal PR

Researchgate.net and Academia.edu are considered the Facebook and Xing of scientists. Yet, they are much more than that. The websites enable researchers to follow one another, upload papers, debate questions, and develop new topics. Researchers at Martin-Luther-University are also among the active participants of these networks.

It has the feel of a scientific thriller: in 2014 Japanese scientists reported in the renowned journal “Nature” that they had made a groundbreaking discovery. Using simple means, they were able to successfully cultivate so-called STAP cells, which could then be developed into nearly any type of cell. The existence of these cells had not been proven at the time. It was a scientific and medical breakthrough. Then Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee, a stem cell researcher from Hong Kong, attempted to repeat the experiment – without success. “The scientist was perplexed and wanted to understand why he was unable to reproduce these results,” recounts Maren Schuster, a media science expert at Martin-Luther-University. He turned to Researchgate, a social network of scientists, for advice. Lee published his findings on the platform and discussed the experiment with other scientists.

Then other discrepancies about the study came to light: erroneous figures and difficult-to-follow protocols picked holes in the study’s credibility. A few weeks later the publication was withdrawn. It seems several scientists had falsified the results of the study.

This case reflects the enormous potential that is created when scientists meet on social networks. “Platforms like Researchgate connect the world’s minds,” says Schuster. The errors were quickly discovered because multiple scientists had been able to directly discuss and check the newly published sets of data. Researchgate now has more than six million members around the world, including 1,200 members from MLU. Registered users are able to follow other scientists as well as other topics. Researchgate informs its users when a scientist publishes a new paper on a specific topic.

Technical questions, papers and PR: Researchgate

Dr. Simon Drescher from the Institute of Pharmacy has been an active member of Researchgate since 2012 and has 47 publications, 200 citations and more than 4,000 profile clicks to his name. He has also collected 118.19 impact points. Impact points are calculated based on the impact factor of the journal in which a paper is published. On top of this, he has a Researchgate score of 40.18. According to the statistics, he is one of the network’s top users. “I don’t make much of these indicators. They are just numbers that say little about the quality of a scientist,” says Drescher. Such numbers are more likely to be based on the impact factor of the journals and the size of the scientific community studying similar topics. He has not yet experienced large scientific debates on the website. Instead, concrete technical questions about trials and methods are put forward which other members can respond to. Maren Schuster considers this to be a key advantage of these networks. “It is precisely these smaller technical questions that slow down daily research operations. It is very helpful when colleagues can quickly point you in the right direction.” Even though Drescher wouldn’t rule out using this potential himself, Researchgate has a different purpose for him. “My profile is predominately meant to be seen by my own community.”

Academia.edu – the scientific newsfeed

Dr. Kai Struve from the Institute of History has had a similar experience. The historian has been registered on Academia.edu, one of Researchgate’s biggest competitors, for around four years. This website, however, only boasts around 200 members from MLU. Struve uses it almost every day “to check out what’s new.” The historian has set up his profile in such a way that he has an overview of all of the information and notifications about new publications in his field. He believes this overview is the website’s biggest advantage. “I have actually discovered several articles and people that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.”

Because of these capabilities, Maren Schuster believes these scientific networks are more than just Facebook for researchers. “They provide an additional way to exchange scientific information, offer direction, and represent an alternate publishing channel in the future.” Researchers of niche subjects often find it difficult to get published in renowned scientific journals. “When they publish their papers on the Web, their findings can be accessed by nearly everyone.” With all the euphoria surrounding the new opportunities and distribution channels made possible by these networks, the media science expert reminds us to keep a certain critical distance. We need to constantly ask ourselves what are the consequences of these platforms for science – who do they actually benefit and can they help advance global research? It is also worth asking what the platform’s business model is and what benefits the operators hope to gain. Schuster doesn’t believe that scientific debate will only be held on social networks. “Other formats like conferences and symposia are better suited for this.” Tom Leonhardt

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