by Brandon Peoples
As someone who writes a science blog, I’m a de facto supporter of using social media to promote scientific research. Most folks know about Facebook and Twitter, and many scientists use LinkedIn to connect with one another.
But a growing number of us use another social media platform—ResearchGate—that fills a unique niche in the scientific ecosystem. ResearchGate is purely meant to facilitate scientific research. It allows users to upload their papers (including full texts, which are accessible via Google Scholar), and follow each other’s research just like you would follow their tweets.
Concerned about cluttering my life with yet another profile and password, I was skeptical of ResearchGate for a while. But I finally joined up a little less than a year ago, and since then I’ve had kind of a love/hate relationship with ResearchGate…which has led to this divided post:
Why I love ResearchGate
It helps me stay current. Super current. As a PhD student transitioning into a postdoc (or really any level of research), it’s important to stay up-to-date on the newest concepts, syntheses and methods. ResearchGate practically gives me a real-time lit review that supplements my Google Scholar alerts. ResearchGate often delivers papers to my virtual doorstep that would have taken a considerable amount of digging to find.
It’s a great way to get your research out there…quickly. Once you upload a paper to ResearchGate, it becomes immediately available to all your followers, who are notified of your new paper. This is much more efficient than hoping someone just happens to be Googling the keywords that describe your paper, AND has the fortitude to scroll thorough three pages of more-heavily-cited papers than yours.
One perk of ResearchGate is that it tracks how many times your papers have been viewed and downloaded. In a sense, it can be gratifying to see how many people have (hopefully) read that paper you worked so hard on.
Why I hate ResearchGate
It can create the worst kind of academic envy. ResearchGate “rates” each one of its users, giving everyone a numerical score (an RG score and “impact points”). Touted as “a new way to measure your scientific reputation”, scores are based on how many papers you’ve published, and how interactive you are in ResearchGate forums (i.e. do you contribute to scientific dialogue?).
So, it can be incredibly deflating to connect with someone who’s in about the same career stage as you (read: potential competitors) who is obviously much more accomplished (that is, they have a higher score than you). Just as studies have shown that Facebook can make people depressed, too much time on ResearchGate is sure to leave early career scientists feeling inadequate.
Likewise, it can be artificially inflating to be on the “higher side” of the equation. When this happens, you’d like to think modest thoughts, but you can’t help mentally patting yourself on the back like you’ve done something useful (when, in fact, you haven’t). Matters are complicated by the little scale on your profile that compares your RG score to everyone else’s, placing you into percentiles.
Of course, both of these scenarios are complete nonsense. I don’t see any of my colleagues as competitors—but rather as future collaborators (After all, I study mutualism, not competition…just check my ResearchGate profile!). However, any social media platform that inherently has me being sized up by a single number against my peers is something I’d like to keep at arm’s length.
Another flaming hoop? An online presence is practically mandatory for breaking into a successful academic career, and a burgeoning ResearchGate profile is a big part of that. But I can’t help but wonder how much of an impact—whether conscious or subconscious—those little numbers have on your chances of getting hired.
On the one hand, it’s easy to argue that your scores on ResearchGate are just a formal way of summarizing your publication record. Of course, that’s been justifiably going on for ages—a young researcher’s publication history is (and should be) an important judge of potential scientific contributions.
On the other hand, your RG score and impact points don’t include your professional service, grantsmanship, teaching abilities, etc. But then again, that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison that’s been made for a long time now, and final judgments often come down to a matter of university/departmental fit, rather than a candidate’s qualifications.
But at the end of the day, any tool is what you make of it. You can look at Facebook and be depressed because your friends from high school took a two-month vacation to Fiji, or you can be positive because you are comfortable with yourself. As for ResearchGate, I’ll keep the perks of real-time lit searches and research accessibility… but I refuse to let my RG score outweigh my self-confidence (After all, we’re all on the same team!). You never know, I may even stop using ResearchGate altogether (…after I land that permanent job).