A Facebook-Style Shift in How Science Is Shared

Mark Scott
George Frey | Getty Images

Calvin Coffey, a professor of surgery at the University of Limerick in Ireland, has a world of gadgetry, scientific equipment and medical tests at his disposal.

Recently, he added another tool: social media.

During a monthslong project to prove that the mesentery — folded tissue that connects the intestines to the wall of the abdomen — was in fact a human organ, Professor Coffey regularly turned to his followers on ResearchGate, a free Facebook-style social network aimed solely at scientists worldwide, for tips and suggestions on where his four-person team should focus their research.

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"It's real-time feedback from people who are experts in this field," said Professor Coffey, who published his findings last month in the The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, a prestigious British medical journal. "It's not like your typical social media."

That paper was, in part, shaped by his interactions on the social network, indicative of a shift in how scientific research is conducted. As Professor Coffey noted, researchers once faced difficulty in getting feedback from peers before publication, and their projects were often closed to outsiders.

This change was initially gradual. But it has increased at pace in recent years as the cost of cloud computing has plummeted and researchers have become comfortable in uploading their work onto social media.

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That is what Ijad Madisch, who founded the social network ResearchGate with three partners in 2008, had in mind when he ditched his budding scientific research career in Massachusetts to return home to Germany to build his start-up in Berlin's fast-growing cluster of technology companies.

According to Mr. Madisch, the social network has signed up 12 million scientists, or roughly 60 percent of all such potential users worldwide.

Researchers now upload roughly 2.5 million papers to ResearchGate every month. In comparison, scientists added the same amount of research over the first four years of the network's operation.

On Tuesday, the social network said that it had raised $52.6 million from a range of investors, including Goldman Sachs, Bill Gates and Benchmark Capital, a venture capital fund. The money, which more than doubles the amount it has raised previously, was secured in late 2015, but was only made public on Tuesday in accordance with German corporate accounting rules.

The fledgling company has taken advantage of the growing trend across the scientific world to open up to the wider public and take advantage of technology like machine learning to conduct projects across borders and faster.

It is not alone in making science more transparent and open. Cancer researchers, for instance, recently created a video game inspired by Space Invaders that allowed people to participate in the crunching of complex data on their smartphones by guiding a craft through space along paths based on genetic sequencing from breast cancer patients.

And as the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard increasingly offer online courses to anyone worldwide, even the concept of what it means to go to college — let alone conduct scientific research — is undergoing an upheaval.

Upal Mahbub, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, for instance, has routinely turned to his followers on ResearchGate as part of his efforts to find a more secure way of protecting people's mobile devices.

Recently, he said, another scientist contacted him through the network, asking to borrow his computer code for an unrelated project, something that would not have been possible if Mr. Mahbub had not posted regular updates about his research.

"I had no problem about sharing my code with him," he said. Putting everything online "makes it a lot easier for people to keep track of my research."

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