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Imagine how much sooner Dr. Jonas Salk could have discovered the polio vaccine if in 1955 if he was on Facebook. Often, researchers work in a vacuum. They can be stuck on a problem blocking progress on their research that someone on the other side of the world has already solved. Yes, there’s a wealth of information online and in scientific journals, but what if there were one central place online where a researcher could ask a question and someone else could answer it?

Enter ResearchGATE, which its founder Dr. Ijad Madisch (pictured) fairly describes as “Facebook for scientists.” In close to two years of operation, ResearchGate has built a social network of more than 250,000 researchers from 196 countries. Over 1,000 subgroups have been formed for specific disciplines, and 60,000 research documents have been uploaded for sharing with others on the site. These guys aren’t pretending they’re farmers.

“People ask a question, presenting an issue they have in the lab, and anyone can answer the question. This is happening on a daily basis,” said Madisch, who was in Silicon Valley this week drumming up support for ResearchGATE from researchers at universities and private research labs, while also networking with potential investors, although he added the company is currently “well funded.”

His “aha moment” occurred when he was pursuing his PhD in virology at Harvard Medical School. He was communicating via Facebook with a medical school classmate of his in Germany, just to stay in touch socially. “So, we got the idea of ‘Hey, a Facebook for scientists,’ where you can present yourself as a researcher with all the information related to your research and you can find collaborators.”

Here’s a sample post:

I have expressed a 53KDa His-tagged protein in baculovirus system. The size of the protein is not matching with the expected size i.e 52-56KDa. I am getting the band at 65KDa in SDS-PAGE. I am clueless why it is showing more than expected size. Can someone give me some leads to solve this mystery?

Within an hour of posting his query, this poster had five replies.

The value of ResearchGATE is that it can help move a stalled research project forward in ways that haven’t been available before, said Madisch. “Researchers don’t publish negative results, they only publish positive results. But the negative results can lead to the positive results.”

Dr. Rajiv Gupta, a lecturer at the Harvard Medical School and MIT, uses ResearchGATE to post PDFs of his lectures for students to retrieve from the site. “And then they kind of hang around on ResearchGATE because every time they have a question they have a forum to discuss things.” Dr. Gupta also manages a neuroradiology lab at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where fellows in the lab also use ResearchGATE to get answers to questions that stymie them.

One thing ResearchGATE has in common with Facebook is that both allow users to adjust Privacy Settings on their accounts. In many cases, researchers have to be guarded about what they share on ResearchGATE either for competitive reasons or because they are subject to nondisclosure agreements.

“Everyone can decide how much information to put into a discussion and how much to help other people,” said Madisch. Users can post a specific query about just one aspect of their project without disclosing what the underlying research is about.

One big way in which ResearchGATE differs from Facebook is that it prohibits members from disclosing information shared on the site with third parties, he added. It accepts no advertising, so you won’t see any “Which Scientists are Searching for You?” ads cluttering the page.

ResearchGATE monetizes the site with a jobs board where, as on Craigslist, employers pay to place help wanted ads. It also sells the ResearchGATE platform to universities and other research institutions that want to set it up for use within their own organizations.

Gupta finds that when he uploads his lectures to the site and people start asking questions, there is so much activity online that he doesn’t have to answer the questions himself because someone else already has.

The beauty of ResearchGATE, he said, is that the members are all there for a common purpose of advancing scientific research. “There are the Facebook-type social networking sites, but they have been sort of populated by teenagers. There is nothing there that is specific to doing research,” Gupta said.

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