What I’d like to see scientists share on ResearchGate

By Ijad Madisch

We are being sued. Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS) filed a lawsuit in Germany against ResearchGate, the professional network my friends and I founded, alleging copyright infringement. On the network, members share their research, including scientific journal articles, with peers and the public.

At its core, ResearchGate is a network that enables scientists to interact with each other and post research of all kinds. The tricky part is that a good amount of that contents consists of articles that are subject to complex, private licensing terms between the authors and publishers. These agreements define whether scientists can upload an article to an online network profile under certain conditions. Some allow it, others don’t.

Should a scientist upload an article to ResearchGate that they aren’t allowed to share, there’s an easy fix: We have a reporting system that follows international law. Copyright owners inform us—usually via email, and we promptly take down the problematic content. This has always been our process. Surprisingly, very few publishers have ever asked us to remove content. For us, there has never been a question about copyright or the right thing to do. There was never any reason to file a lawsuit.

Beyond this, we are cooperating with major publishers to make the process even easier. We just signed a cooperation agreement with Springer Nature, Cambridge University Press and Thieme which will make available some new search technology, and have us work directly with publishers to help educate our members on their right to upload content to our platform.

But the underlying problem isn’t what scientists share, it’s what they don’t share. The thing is, we’ve never had a problem with published articles being copyrighted. I just don’t think published articles should be the be-all and end-all of how science is communicated. That’s why I’d like to encourage scientists to share their early stage research – from raw data, to negative results, to preprints that aren’t subject to copyright – on ResearchGate.

Most research never makes it into a journal

Scientists have been announcing their findings in journal articles for the past 350 years for good reason. They offer readers an overview of the most important findings, in a summarized and peer reviewed format. Thanks to articles in scientific journals we learned about Watson and Crick’s structure of DNA, the discovery of the ozone hole, and rather recently about the mesentery as what may be considered our 79th organ.

J. Calvin Coffey, University of Limerick, first described the mesentery as our 79th organ. Picture: Alan Place.

What we usually don’t get to see is the work that goes into scientific journal articles. Scientists produce a lot of early stage research like negative results and raw data. This is, in my experience, most of all research conducted and it’s lost. Every data point and line of code is valuable because it could save one researcher from repeating another’s work. Putting mistakes out there in particular can prevent other scientists from making them all over again. Knowing what doesn’t work will eventually help researchers—or computers, in the future—deduce what might. In a sense, sharing early stage research is like building steps to climb the shoulders of giants.

When the first journals were published, three and a half centuries ago, we may not have had the opportunity to build these steps and share this research, but today we do. Tim Berners Lee created the World Wide Web for scientists to share everything so that if one scientist left CERN another could pick up their work. Berners Lee also invented the hypertext to connect one scientific finding to another and make it comprehensible in context.

When my friends and I founded ResearchGate ten years ago, we did it with this idea of a connected world of science in mind. As former scientists, we knew that sometimes, no textbook or paper could help us, only the person who had conducted the research could. Our goal was to connect the world of science and make it open to all, and to help that lost research see the light of day. Back then, some people called us pioneers, and others called us crazy. But to this day, our goal remains the same, and we’ve seen some success.

Sharing early stage research benefits everyone, including the scientists who produce it

Today, over 15 million scientists share their work on ResearchGate, among them half of all life scientists worldwide. Already, they share four times more recent unpublished research than journal articles on the network per day on average.

Everything they share has their name and a timestamp on it. Members can also issue a Digital Object Identifier, a permanent identifier for their work on the web, as well as a Creative Commons License for their research. This ensures that even for early stage research, everyone knows what belongs to whom and who published it first, alleviating the fear of being scooped.

There’s another fear that can hold scientists back from publishing early work. In science where everything is about being bullet-proof, presenting something that’s unfinished can put researchers in a vulnerable position. We see that sharing preprints is a good way to alleviate this fear. Preprints are draft versions of scientific journal articles that are shared prior to peer-review. Scientists usually feel comfortable sending these versions to journals for review, so the step to share them with peers isn’t so far off. In some fields, preprints have been popular for years. Posting preprint to the repository ArXiv for instance is customary in physics, and scientists in the biomedical sciences also do it on bioRxiv.

On ResearchGate, scientists get a lot of feedback from peers on preprints – almost eleven times more than on published journal articles. These comments are mostly encouraging, even if they point out shortcomings. After all, they’re public and also reflect on the commenter. Jussi Leinonen recently experienced this when he posted his preprint about a cardiac stem cell mouse study on the network. Within a few days of posting, three peers commented, and he got more private messages and emails that helped him advance his research.

Early stage research gets even more feedback (five times more!) when it’s part of a project on the network. Using this feature, scientists collect all research items that relate to one research project. With two million projects on ResearchGate, scientists worldwide have opened up the ivory tower by providing peers and the public a glimpse into what’s currently happening in their labs. A ResearchGate project is also where John Calvin Coffey first mentioned the mesentery as our 79th organ, a month before he published a paper in the Lancet about it.

I think the people who called us crazy were right. Connecting the world of science and making it open is a huge mission. I also think that the people who called us pioneers were wrong. The true pioneers are Coffey, Leinonen all other scientists who embrace new technologies to share early stage research. Together with them and anyone who follows their lead, we will successfully achieve our mission. Sharing early stage research will help scientists climb the shoulders of giants and will open up lost science to the world. It will also help scientists decide for themselves what they want to make public without violating licensing agreements, and make copyright worries a thing of the past.

Ijad Madisch

Ijad Madisch is a co-founder and CEO of ResearchGate, a professional network for 15 million scientists. They use the network to connect, share and discover science in real time. Follow him on Twitter @IjadMadisch