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Friends with Benefits

A social networking site for scientists is helping the Internet fulfill its original mission

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Pete Ryan

tech

When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web to enable scientists to share research, he apparently overlooked its potential for the sharing of selfies and epic fails. In this regard, the Internet itself has been something of an epic fail, allowing twerking mishaps to go viral while researchers, working in isolation, continue to rely on grindingly slow academic journals to disseminate their findings.

But a young virologist named Ijad Madisch is trying to rectify this situation, by applying the dynamics of social networking to the culture of academia with an audacious start-up, ResearchGate—or, as he puts it, “Facebook for scientists.” Though he’s been at it since 2008, Madisch’s venture got quite the windfall this year, when he bagged $35 million in financing, with an undisclosed chunk coming from Bill Gates, a man who almost never bankrolls tech firms.

“Bill immediately understood what we’re about and how social media can bring scientific research into the 21st century,” says Madisch from his slick new headquarters in Berlin. In perhaps a quirky nod to that other titan of the social networking game, he’s dressed in a lurid, near-fluorescent hoodie.

By exchanging ideas in the same way that the rest of us swap holiday snaps and inspirational quotes, Madisch feels the peer review process is being greatly improved. “There is no limit to the type of discoveries that ResearchGate can accelerate,” he says.

Madisch has a ready supply of success stories to back up that claim—like the grad student in the Philippines who believed he’d found a way of creating energy from corncobs and who, after a professor told him his research was flawed, posted it on ResearchGate as failed data. The post was later viewed by an organic chemist in Spain, who saw potential, and the pair developed a new technique for creating biofuel.  

Just as valuable, says Madisch, are the genuine flops. He recalls an Australian engineer who posted a paper on “quirk theory”—an explanation for why unpopular kids are often admired as adults—which was discussed and ultimately trashed on the site. The point, for Madisch, is that the rejection did not arise from the traditional “behind closed doors” peer review model, which he sees as a big step forward.

“The biggest change we’re making is getting scientists to share details of failed experiments,” Madisch says. “What has held science back is that only successful research is published. But, just as in business, it is the details of failures that help future successes. By getting people to share those details, we can move on much faster.”

The ResearchGate site looks similar to Facebook, but with nicer graphics and less stalking. Users have Followers rather than Friends, but there is a rather Like-like reputation system and the occasional question that skews more toward the existential than the scientific. “Is mathematics a human contrivance or is it innate to nature?” asked one commenter, who received this blistering reply: “Do we invent mathematical forms as we need them and then merely discover their emergent properties later? Or are those mathematical forms innate to nature, and are hence discovered rather than invented? Does it really matter to science which way around we view this?” In short, you rarely, if ever, encounter an LOL.

While it’s not on par with Facebook in terms of popularity, ResearchGate has a respectable 3 million members—“roughly half the scientists on the planet,” says Madisch. And while it has yet to transform brainpower into revenue, ResearchGate is broadening its range of services, starting with a kind of egghead help-wanted section, which has received a lot of interest since its August launch. Other potential revenue streams are conferences and an “Amazon” for lab equipment, complete with user reviews. Madisch insists, though, that the company will never sell data.

Making a fortune isn’t the ultimate aim of his enterprise, he says. What he wants to do is put scientists in control of their fate. “Open science means that data is freely available, so findings, and indeed funding, are less likely to be influenced by politics, business or public opinion,” he says. “This is not some crazy dream. It is happening. We are really dragging scientific research into the modern age.”

BOYD FARROW, a London- and Berlin-based business writer, has not made up his mind whether his Internet talents are better suited to twerking or finding a cure for the common cold.

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