If you are interested in professional networking, chances are that you’ve come across articles such as this one or this one, suggesting that all researchers really should create a ResearchGate profile, because ResearchGate is – we are told – Facebook for scientists. To be honest, I am not convinced, and in this post I want to explain why.
Is this ‘networking at its finest’?
Despite claims that ResearchGate represents “social networking … at its finest”, in my experience, the kind of activity that takes place in the site includes some of the most irritating aspects of social media.
This includes random “friend” requests from people I have never heard of, endorsements of skills that I didn’t know I had (I specialise in Second Language Acquisition, not Swine Leukocyte Antigen, thank you!), and unsolicited private messages asking me to endorse researchers whom I never met for skills I don’t know if they have. Furthermore, I am apparently not alone [link no longer active] in thinking that ResearchGate is using spam notifications far too liberally to remind users of its existence, and I was rather unpleasantly surprised to learn that it occasionally takes the liberty to mail colleagues on my behalf, without my consent or knowledge.
Experienced social media users might recognise all of the above as everydayfeatures of social networking, but surely a website that aspires to “help the academic world to grow more connective tissue” ought to do better in order to justify its existence.
Is this the best way to share expertise?
The ability to ask research-related questions is touted as one of the ways in which ResearchGate is revolutionising scholarly communication. For instance, in an article modestly titled How ResearchGate Plans to Turn Science Upside Down, we are told that “by asking questions of each other, scientists are able to identify the academics who can help them, and perhaps avoid constantly reinventing the wheel”. This is certainly good news, especially for a younger generation of scholars who have never used an internet forum or Usenet, but I must confess to feeling underwhelmed by the questions that have appeared in my feed so far. Here are the first three “recent questions in [my] field”:
- What are the likely questionnaires on gender and second language acquisition?
Please, l need likely questionnaires on the topic: Gender and Second Language Acquisition. thanks!
- Which research approach/methodology in education do I need to use to explore any problems related to teaching/learning a new language course?
- How do I apply discourse analysis in my work?
I am not sure how to approach discourse analysis in my work? Can someone advice?
At any rate, between mailing lists, Google Scholar and Google Alerts, MOOCs, burgeoning research-oriented activity in the mainstream social media, increasing numbers and increased legitimacy of academic blogs, and a boom in Open Access publications, I think that academics today do not need more information. What they do need, if research efficiency is the goal we aspire to, is a means to filter the noise, and focus on what is truly important, and I am sorry to say that this is one area in which ResearchGate fails spectacularly.
Aren’t there better ways to share research?
finding academics who will do students’ homework for free encouraging academics to engage in Q&A, the stated mission of ResearchGate is to “make it easy for [researchers] to share […] scientific output”. By this they mean that they want researchers to upload their papers to their site. As long as copyright has not already been handed over to a corporate publisher, this is perfectly legal, but I have some reservations about the ethics involved.
While I am politically committed to the idea of open access to research output, I am not entirely happy with handing content over to a corporate entity, and in this respect ResearchGate is not very different from Elsevier or Facebook. As David Crotty in The Scholarly Kitchen notes:
Digital companies make enormous profits from free online content. The more free stuff you can get online, the more iPhones Apple will sell. The more free stuff you can look at online, the more ads Google can sell to run alongside it.
For the moment, ResearchGate is running on start-up funding, of which it has received generous amounts, but it will eventually need to monetise its content, i.e., start producing revenue for their investors, using content that will have been provided, for free, by the academic community. Mainstream social media already do this, and I generally have no problem with Facebook or Twitter squeezing money out of advertisers who see value in my sometimes rambling status updates. I am less prepared to see people make profit from content that takes a considerable investment of my time, effort and funding to produce. This could, of course, just be me being unreasonable, but I would like to invite you to consider how you would feel if you found out that academic work which you made freely available was sold, for a considerable amount of money and without your consent, by one publisher or another.
At present, it seems that ResearchGate’s nebulous business model involves an online academic marketplace, rather than reselling content. This seems harmless enough, if you accept the principle that it’s OK for universities to pay for ads placed next to content that was donated by their faculty. Besides, we have no reason (so far) to think that they will follow the example set by Yahoo, who have apparently began to sell the photos uploaded by Flickr users. But even so, institutional and disciplinary repositories seem like much better alternatives for uploading research output, unless ResearchGate can come up with a way of feeding back some of its revenue to the scholarly community.
It should be clear from the above that I have developed a very strong dislike for ResearchGate, but I am very keen to hear your perspectives, including positive experiences of using the website. So, if you’ve signed up in ResearchGate, what has your experience been?
About this post: This post was originally written in late 2014, and the information in it was accurate at the time. The post is retained in its original form in the interest of historical authenticity, but it should be noted that ResearchGate has, in the meanwhile, implemented a number of changes, some of which have led to improvements in this user’s experience.
Featured Image: Social Media, by Sofiaperesoa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons