A few years ago, while he was doing research at Harvard, Ijad Madisch could not figure out why his experiment wasn't working. His adviser didn't know what was wrong, nobody in his lab worked on the same stuff, and none of his researcher friends could help.
"I was so frustrated," Madisch said. "I said there has to be something online where I go, where people can present themselves as a scientist, and where they put their information about their research and their publications and you can search for it."
That's when Madisch got the idea for a scientist network: ResearchGate — a sort of Facebook for scientists. Instead of sharing favorite photos and videos, researchers could use the Web platform to connect with each other and share information that doesn't get published. Madisch thinks ResearchGate will make scientists more productive.
"My goal: to win the Nobel Prize," Madisch said. "And I really believe in that. If we think that ResearchGate will accelerate research in all the different fields, it will change the speed of science significantly in the future. I definitely think that ResearchGate could win the Nobel Prize for that one day."
That big idea ambition wowed investors. ResearchGate got funded by a former Facebook executive and the same venture capital firm that backed Twitter. So far, 900,000 people have signed up as members.
One of them is Caroline Moore-Kochlacs, a neuroscientist at Boston University. Her profile page shows her picture, her field of study, her adviser and publications. She can follow other researchers or click onto group pages that discuss specific topics.
Moore-Kochlacs says she uses Facebook, too, but on that site people feel like they have to be clever or have mass appeal. She likes ResearchGate because she can ask obscure questions about algorithms. She also gets up to date on recent publications.
"The scientific literature is so huge at this point, that it's really impossible to get through everything in your topic area. People really rely on hearing it from other people," Moore-Kochlacs said.
Not every ResearchGate user is seeing the network effect.
"Sometimes I get these emails that are like, 'Dear Sirs: I'm writing a dissertation on public health. Any suggestions? Please advise,' " said Kim Bertrand, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. "I don't need that."
Founder Madisch says he knows his site will only prove valuable if researchers use it to help each other, not just steal each other's ideas. But he says if he can build ResearchGate into an indispensable social network for scientists, he'll be making more of a contribution than he could as a lone researcher.