Earlier this year, as the worst-ever outbreak of Ebola unfolded in West Africa, Ijad Madisch was tracking the virus from his Berlin office as it spread across the globe. But the 33-year-old wasn’t looking at the data on infection rates or experimental drugs, though his doctorate in virology would make him perfectly qualified to do so. He was watching the scientists who use his social network, ResearchGate, come alive with discussions and ideas on how to fight Ebola even faster than the virus itself was spreading.
It was the kind of crisis Madisch built his start-up to help address. Founded in 2008, ResearchGate has grown to become one of the biggest platforms for scientists to share their research online, and, as Madisch puts it, “break out of the four walls” of their labs and universities. With backing from investors like Bill Gates and Peter Thiel, ResearchGate has secured funding worth more than $35 million and now boasts some 5 million scientists from around the world as users. Its goal is to get them to collaborate faster across disparate fields of research — even fast enough to help contain an outbreak.
“This is the only way to solve such problems,” says Madisch. “You get knowledge from different disciplines, not only from the virologists working on Ebola." Chemists and computer scientists could also offer input. And the research needed to deal with the crisis may have already been carried out years ago — but until ResearchGate came along, there was no easy way to access it. “We just wouldn’t know about it, because the way we discover knowledge is so broken,” he says.
The reigning model of scientific discovery has been slow to adapt to the Internet Age. Scientists usually toil in their labs for years, keeping their work secret to avoid copycats, before sending their final results to an established journal like Nature or Science. There, the peer-review process can take months before the work sees print — if it ever does. All the experiments that failed along the road to those results are usually thrown out, leaving other scientists to repeat the same mistakes without knowing it.
ResearchGate, along with other websites in the so-called “open science” movement, encourage researchers to publish their failed experiments online so that others know to avoid them. “We need to let scientists think of negative results as positive results. We should not differentiate anymore,” says Madisch. That insight is what inspired Madisch to quit his career in medicine in 2007 and devote all his time to building the social network.
A mentor at the medical school in Hanover where he went to practice after Harvard thought the idea would flop. “He told me that scientists are not social,” he recalls. “That this will never change.”
But the changes have since gone viral. The journal Science, a bastion of the scientific establishment first published in 1880, decided this year to make all of its Ebola-related content available to all readers for free, following the open-access model that Madisch has been preaching for years.
“It’s certainly unusual,” says Martin Enserink, the Science editor overseeing the initiative. It doesn’t mean the journal will move away from its core model of peer-reviewed and pay-walled publications from scientists. But it is getting hip to the trends in the scientific community. “Communication, interaction is so important in all of this,” Enserink says. “That’s the interesting thing about ResearchGate. People have ideas, they want to ask scientists, 'Could it be this? Has anyone tried that?'”
Which is exactly what happened on ResearchGate when the Ebola outbreak struck. Mohamad-Ali Trad, a Lebanese-born doctor based in Singapore, posted an idea on ResearchGate for a system that would let Ebola sufferers find help by sending a text message to an automated server. The server would then send back the address of the nearest treatment facility, along with the number of available beds. “This could prevent patients from driving around to different hospitals and risking the spread of the disease,” Trad says. In a matter of days, his post helped connect him to an African doctor who had worked on a similar system for AIDS patients, as well as a handful of potential funders.
While the world has been growing ever more interconnected scientists have been encouraged to dig deeper into their narrow fields of research, which can leave them isolated. “With ResearchGate we are trying to get them back together again,” says Madisch. And with all that brainpower pooled together, he figures they will find breakthroughs far faster than they ever could alone.