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Is the academic social networking site ResearchGate still relevant?

A recent deal with the publisher MDPI is leading some users to delete their accounts

by Dalmeet Singh Chawla, special to C&EN
January 19, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 2


Rubén Laplaza uses the academic social networking site ResearchGate to keep up with the scientific literature in his field. “For me, ResearchGate has, for years, been a useful tool,” says Laplaza, a computational chemist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL). It helps him manage the deluge of published papers—including preprints, which are posted online before being peer-reviewed.

Founded in 2008, ResearchGate has millions of global users, most of them researchers. The site’s early funders included Bill Gates, Goldman Sachs, and the Wellcome Trust. It launched as a social platform where academics could discuss papers, but it ended up not being widely used for that purpose.

Instead, researchers use ResearchGate to follow one another, receive automatic alerts when colleagues publish papers, and share their papers legally with other academics with a single click.

Recently, however, ResearchGate has faced challenges. Those include backlash from the academic community for a deal it made with the Swiss publisher Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI). And ResearchGate has settled lawsuits in Germany and the US with the publishing giant Elsevier and the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN. Some scientists are questioning whether the site is still relevant to them.

Alerts from ResearchGate can be useful, according to Laplaza, as long as colleagues in the same field are using the platform and actively posting their papers on it. Other methods of tracking relevant literature include setting up alerts on Google Scholar profiles, following relevant publications and academics on social media, and attending conferences.

At the same time, “we are also all spammed to death already with all sorts of invitations,” Laplaza says. “So it’s a matter of trying to balance sources of information that are valuable, especially if they can be curated through people, but at the same time trying to prevent the use of bandwidth for useless communications.”

Some researchers who have similar concerns say the agreement with MDPI has driven them to delete their ResearchGate accounts. As part of the deal, roughly 210,000 papers from 10 journals published by MDPI will have an enhanced presence on the platform.

“These journals benefit from increased brand visibility and prominence across the ResearchGate network,” Giulia Stefenelli, chair of MDPI’s scientific board, says in an email, noting that the participating 10 titles will have dedicated journal homepages on ResearchGate. “Furthermore, authors gain automatic addition of their articles to their ResearchGate publication records, offering insights into their work’s impact through readership and citation data,” she says.

Stefenelli says MDPI is paying ResearchGate an undisclosed sum each year for the journal homepages. ResearchGate did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

MDPI has grown rapidly in the past few years to become one of the largest scholarly publishers in the world. But its journals have come under scrutiny by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Norwegian Scientific Publication Register; both institutions allege lack of rigor in published papers. In 2018, editors at one MDPI journal resigned en masse, claiming that they felt pressured to publish mediocre papers.

Most MDPI papers are parts of special issues, which are collections of papers on a certain topic that are typically handled by guest editors. Many papers published in such issues are invited. But bibliographic analyses show that special issues have lower rejection rates and shorter processing times for articles. That’s what prompted the Swiss National Science Foundation to stop funding papers published in special issues starting in February 2024.

After the deal with MDPI was announced, academics expressed worries on social media that the agreement will only add to the flood of mediocre papers and pointless alerts. “As a frequent user of ResearchGate, I’m disappointed by your choice to prioritize MDPI journals over many society journals,” Çağatay Tavşanoğlu, an ecologist at Hacettepe University, wrote last year on X, formerly Twitter. “I, like many others, may soon delete my account unless this unwise decision is reconsidered.”

“This is so so so disappointing and sad!” Fengxiu Zhang, who studies climate action, disaster resilience, and technology in government at George Mason University, exclaimed on X. “This is a terrible, terrible idea,” Martin E. Andresen, an economist at the University of Oslo, commented on the platform. “Deleted my account.”

Fredrik Jutfelt, an animal physiologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, is also considering deleting this account. He recalls joining ResearchGate in its early days to easily share his research and discover other academics’ work—in part by keeping an eye on who’s citing his work. “It still has value,” he says. “I don’t see a good alternative.”

Laplaza, noting that there haven’t been many changes yet, is keeping his profile for now. “I just don’t want to be spammed,” he says. “If the price to pay to get a marginally useful notification about a paper that you may or may not care about is having to see or deal with a number of spam notifications, then maybe it’s just not worth it.” He says he will continue to use the site until the downsides outweigh the benefits.

Lucie Büchi, a crop ecologist at the University of Greenwich, is also unhappy with the MDPI deal but is keeping her account. “It is still a very useful tool when you don’t have access to some journals because of paywalls,” she says. Büchi thinks ResearchGate will continue to exist and serve an important purpose.

Mark Austin Hanson, a molecular biologist and geneticist at the University of Exeter, says he thinks the concerns about the MDPI deal are overblown. The furor comes from a vocal minority on social media, he adds, noting that ResearchGate has also recently partnered with other publishers, including Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, the American Institute of Physics, and Wiley.

Those deals ensure that final versions of open-access studies published in certain journals are available immediately on ResearchGate, thus boosting their visibility and readership. “I don’t think there’s any issue with it whatsoever,” Hanson says.

Jutfelt is not convinced. “We’ve looked at ResearchGate as an objective distributor of science and a platform where everyone is equal,” he says. “The main concern is publishers paying for visibility and paying for citations.”

He says his institution has discouraged its staff from publishing in some MDPI journals after they were added to Norway’s so-called level X. Researchers receive no government acknowledgment for publishing in journals on the list, which the Norwegian Scientific Index created in 2021 to highlight potentially predatory publications. What’s more, most MDPI journals don’t meet the criteria to be included in approved journal lists in Finland and Denmark.

In addition to negative responses to the MDPI agreement, ResearchGate has run into problems with other academic publishers. To settle copyright infringement lawsuits with Elsevier and ACS, ResearchGate adopted a technology that automatically checks if papers being uploaded to the site comply with publisher copyright.

“While you can see why [ResearchGate] is cozying up with publishers, this could work against them. They become less cool, social, innovative and a bit old-fashioned in an open world,” says David Nicholas, director of Ciber Research, a British firm that studies how people behave in digital environments. “Our research shows that [ResearchGate’s] success is waning among young researchers as they find other places to go,” like LinkedIn and WhatsApp, he adds.

It’s not ResearchGate’s role to independently judge the value of the work itself, nor should it be.
Mark Austin Hanson, molecular biologist and geneticist, University of Exeter

Hanson plans to continue using ResearchGate, however. He argues that organizations like the Committee on Publication Ethics and databases like the Web of Science, Scopus, and the Directory of Open Access Journals should decide what constitutes legitimate science and whether or not that includes MDPI papers.

“ResearchGate is a social media site that hosts content others engage with,” Hanson says. “It’s not ResearchGate’s role to independently judge the value of the work itself, nor should it be.”

MDPI’s Stefenelli agrees. She points out that her firm advocates for evaluating journals through tools such as Think. Check. Submit. and databases including the Web of Science, Scopus, and the Directory of Open Access Journals. “As at December 2023, 26 Nobel laureates have contributed to more than 75 articles across 25 MDPI journals,” she says. “We encourage researchers to review our journals, editorial board, and published content to help further inform their opinions.”

Dalmeet Singh Chawla is a freelance science journalist based in London.


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