On Gating Research


ResearchGate – a social networking site for researchers to interact, connect, and to share papers and knowledge. Since its foundation in 2008, it has by now a (self-reported) 8 million users, and its press coverage has been mostly positive. Interestingly, the rather enthusiastic press articles are contrasting with more critical voices from inside the research community (for instance here or here). Main points of criticism are

  • Spamming users with misleading emails (automated invitations to researchers that happen to be co-authors of articles by Dr. XYZ, who is on ResearchGate:”Reminder: XYZ invited you to join ResearchGate”)
  • Algorithm problems (Christina, whose last name is “Bergmann”, has repeatedly been suggested to add publications on Bergmann’s rule to her profile)
  • An unclear business model (it is a for-profit start-up that has had several financing rounds, and its investors should expect revenue. At the moment, ResearchGate charges in the area of job postings)

Nevertheless, I find many of my colleagues using at least some features of the platform on at least a moderately regular basis, so obviously there’s something to it. I interviewed my colleague Svenja Koehne, soon-to-be-finished PhD student in Social Cognitive Neuroscience, who would agree with all of the above points of criticisms, but nevertheless has personally made positive experiences with ResearchGate.

Sho: In which phase of your PhD project did you start using ResearchGate?

Svenja: Towards the end of my PhD once I started publishing papers.

Sho: Do you remember how you became aware of this social networking platform?

Svenja: I got an invitation email by a colleague that had uploaded an article I was co-author of – it was probably one of these automated emails ResearchGate has been criticized for. In this email, I was asked to confirm my authorship. Since it was my first article, I was pleased to see my article on a public platform with an opportunity to raise awareness. That’s why I decided to join ResearchGate. Although I do not like the idea of having been mislead into thinking my colleague personally invited me, in the end I think it definitely helped that it was her that was “sending” the invitation, since it made me trust the website more.

Sho: What was your first impression of the site?

Svenja: I liked the layout, it is very modern and clean. Once I started using it, I encountered many familiar names, and sometimes for the first time I saw the faces behind these names. I would describe the process of filling in my personal page and connecting to others as an enjoyable experience, because it gave me the opportunity to present myself as a researcher, but in a very familiar (Facebook-like) way.

Sho: And did you continue to see benefits later on?

Svenja: During the stressful phase of submitting and revising articles, the feedback on ResearchGate was a rewarding experience. I think every researcher has made the experience that the feedback of journal reviewers and editors is more focused on criticizing the shortcomings of your article than on pointing out its merits – which of course makes sense, but can be a frustrating and not very motivating experience. On ResearchGate, on the other hand, once I published an article it started generating positive feedback: In the form of other researchers that requested the fulltext, which lead to many short, but personal exchanges and showed me that researchers from all over the world were interested in reading about my work. Moreover, there are the email updates, which report benchmarks like “your article reached 100 reads”, or benchmarks reached by my supervisor like “XY had the most reads in this institution in this month”. Although I didn’t find them very transparent in the way they were generated, these updates still gave me a sense of accomplishment. And of course the main function, connecting with other researchers in my field , also was a positive experience for me.

Sho: Do you think these benefits are experienced by all users?

Svenja: Probably not – for instance, I can imagine that some researchers do not feel as much reward as I do from this kind of positive social feedback. They might feel sufficiently rewarded just by doing the work they do, or they might enjoy other kinds of interaction with their colleagues, for instance direct encounters, which leave more space for in-depth discussion.

Sho: So what kind of users do you think can benefit from this platform the most?

Svenja: I think all researchers that want to reach out to a bigger community that they might not reach otherwise, for various reasons. For instance, ResearchGate is explicitly trying to reach out to researchers in developing countries which might not have the contacts or opportunities to go to conferences. In my case, and I can imagine that this also holds for others in the later phases of their PhD project, it really helped me to feel like an active member of my research community, by being able to present myself in a network of peers and getting feedback. Even with your local network of supervisor and lab group, you can feel a bit isolated from the “bigger picture” community, and you lose a sense of why you are doing what you are doing and whether you’re alone or whether others share your interests.

Sho: ResearchGate has been criticized for their aggressive and sometimes misleading approach to acquire more users and enforce interaction. What are your thoughts on this?

Svenja: I think that I might not have started using it without this kind of techniques. Usually, I would say I am rather sensitive to this kind of aggressive marketing, but this time for me the benefits outweighed my reluctance, so in the end I decided to keep using it.

Sho: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

Addition February 15th, 2016:

Regarding ‘spamming users’: Who wouldn’t want a profile pic (and identity) suggestion by a fellow researcher?




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