A company based in the US and Germany has set up what it describes as a 'Facebook for scientists', in a move that brings the phenomenon of social networking firmly into the workplace.
Set up by a team of international and interdisciplinary researchers and introduced to the scientific community on 23 May, ResearchGATE.net carries the bold claim that it wants to "change the world of science by providing a global and powerful scientific web-based environment, in which scientists can interact, exchange knowledge and collaborate with researchers of different fields."
ResearchGATE's founder, Ijad Madisch, says one of the main visions behind the project is to encourage collaboration on methodologies and techniques across disciplines, something that is well recognised as a hindrance in research.
"Sometimes it can take years for a technique used in one discipline to be transferred to another, and often it occurs by chance," said Madisch. "We want to provide a tool to make that transfer happen much more easily."
ResearchGATE's aim is to allow scientists to present themselves and their research projects, list their publications, initiate collaborations and exchange knowledge and expertise, and manage contacts. It will also allow them to post details of events, plan conference attendance and make contact with fellow delegates, according to the company.
For now, it's clear that the project is still very much in its infancy; a search on various disciplines of relevance to pharmaceuticals found only a handful or no registered scientists at all, though that's unsurprising as it only debuted in mid-May with around 1,000 users.
"We're now seeing sign-ups at a rate of 300-400 a day and are comfortably above the 2,000 mark," said Madisch. Though he would not be drawn on the expected ramp-up in users in the coming months, he did say that numbers are growing faster than forecast.
For now, the offering seems typical of other social networking sites, with nothing in the functionality that differs markedly from Facebook, LinkedIn and the legion of imitators. That's something that Madisch freely acknowledges, for now. But ResearchGATE claims to have a raft of applications in the pipeline that will change that.
For example, on Monday the platform will roll out something called REstoRY - an online document storage and collaboration tool that will allow multiple people to work on papers, provide an organised version history and clearly indicate when a version is being amended. Other functionalities will include virtual conferencing and applications to provide semantic analysis of research papers.
Revenue generation is likely to be a challenge. "The route we choose must not be annoying to scientists, who are notoriously advertising-averse," he said.
One possibility will be that companies who sponsor the service will gain links within uploaded research protocols to their product information.
"We see that as non-intrusive - scientists already have to provide specific information on the products used in their methods when publishing," commented Madisch. "It must be remembered that the scientific community is dependent on new products."
Other options might involve the creation of a subscription-based marketplace and job advertising, he said.
Madisch said the project is particularly aimed at researchers in the hard sciences, but those in soft sciences - humanities for example - are also welcome to sign up.