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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Researchgate

 Cyber-subculture Report

Collective intelligence ecologies are rapidly emerging on the Internet that are overhauling current modes of knowledge production and dispersal. Researchgate.net is a contemporary exemplar of this phenomenon. The social networking site is a fertile assemblage of researchers from every corner of the academic spectrum. The site seeks to build on other collective intelligence networks by offering an open space for information sharing, discussion of research results and methodologies, and collaboration. RG prides itself on fostering the Frankensteins of interdisciplinary experiments. The site however falls victim to its own success. The designers of the social network seemed to be so focused on ensuring freedom of expression in an organic laboratory of ideas that there is little infrastructural support that facilitates the formation of ne connections. The loose collection of ties that holds the site’s networks together fails to adequately link up like-minded researchers with each other.
Structure & Design           
The SNS RG uses an interface for structuring and organizing identity profiles that is very similar to Facebook’s, except for the way that connections are identified. Rather than “friending” people, one simply “follows” people, as on Twitter. Connections arise organically as users either come across another person’s page or from searching for various “keywords” that denote different branches of research interests. Each user is able to designate as many research areas that they want to on their profile. These research  “keywords” are the main determinant for whether or not a given person will show up as a search result.
Beyond individual connections that users form from following people, users can also create or join existing groups. The groups range from broad areas of inquiry, such as “Plant Breeding,” to relatively obscure territories, such as “Econophysics.” Groups are intended to provide an opportunity for joint discussion and networking in a general area of study. They are typically used to either provide news and information on recent work done in the field or to generate discussion about potential research projects users are working on.
RG is a synchronous meeting-space in which its users are able to track the activity of various contacts they are “following.” People can post comments, plan events, and edit their profiles using an html interface that has an uncanny resemblance to Facebook’s as well. Furthermore, one can link their RG account to their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Friend Feed accounts. Users can also post publications that they are currently working on in order to get feedback. The site does however, mark the distinction between a verifiable publication that circulates publicly from a known source and works that individuals are simply privately working on. The site’s potential collaborators range from a student co-authoring his first research paper to a busy post-doc or a strategy-thinking professional group leader. The site is meant to act as a somewhat informal form of peer review. RG takes their inspiration from “Wiki-like concepts” and other transformative tools emerging in the wake of Web 2.0’s release.
            The RG interface models many similar SNS’s, but its visual appeal differs. RG is imbued with an air of modernism with its minimalist design and incorporates elements that reach out to its target demographic, i.e. one’s interests are presented within boxes that mimic elements on the Periodic Table.  Users can toggle between multiple activity feeds, from groups and comment discussions to individual publications written by people one is following. RG also offers additional features including a job search and a blog about RG news and site updates. One can request publications, store them in their personal “library” and share them with other users. Users can also search through various publications and read abstracts, as well as comment on individual works.
The spirit of the site is best summed up as the following, “ResearchGate offers tools tailored to researchers' need.”  Beyond having individual connections with other researches based off of specific or relatively minute relations, users can also engage in ongoing discussions and set up events between researchers interested in a field. Groups serve the function of facilitating such needs.
Identity & Sociality
RG is composed mainly of graduate students or academics; it originally catered to the Natural Sciences but has expanded to include groups of an interdisciplinary nature and/or critical theorists. Members represent themselves in a somewhat professional manner, managing an online self that assumedly reflects a ‘real’ version of themselves. The site is open to both establishing new connections and exploring different realms of social activity as well as maintaining currently held ties and relations with others. Members range from very well established academics that are professors at various universities to tinkerers and inventors interested in science/education for its own sake. Take Thomas Wier for example: he studied linguistics and classics at UT and now works on linguistics at the University of Chicago. Wier is the most ideal and typical of RG users. The site is most helpful for and enthusiastically used by graduate students or people struggling to find their niche within academic circles.
            One of the more fertile aspects of the site is the opportunity it creates for coordinating conferences. Groups are often created to gather people together who are interested in a relatively broad discipline or issue so as to provide a common space for marketing opportunities for collaboration. Rather than being the actual medium for engaging in collective research review, the site is more of a jumping off point for collaborating by other means.
Gender
Researchgate.net is a predictably disappointing example of gendered hierarchies within knowledge production. While the prejudice is not as explicitly displayed as it may be in an actual academic environment, it is implicitly just as strong. I do not have actual numbers on the demographics, but just from my research alone there is an evident divide between disciplines in terms of gender.
Based on my experience elderly white males and young Indian males heavily dominate the Natural Sciences. Perhaps, this divide is not actual in terms of absolute numbers, it is however apparent from a simple survey of a large sample of groups, especially in terms of the members with a large amount of followers. The largest groups of women are typically younger and more interested in contemporary critical theory. 
I have not seen any actual acts that I would deem as explicitly sexist on the website, yet there is some intangible force which seems to prevent collaboration across genders. RG has been able to challenge the top-down hierarchy that places the producers of knowledge in a subservient position to the product created by embracing a horizontal, networked framework for future production. Nonetheless, when it comes to the traditional gender hierarchy, many users simply extend preconceived biases to the cyber realm.
Cybernetics
There is an institutionalized form of management, yet. I have seen zero evidence of management intervention: Are they just good at hiding interventions when they occur? Or do they lack a legitimate structure for adjudicating issues of abuse? There is a system in which people can report abuse to an advisory committee, but the site does not provide any information about the rules that govern the procedures in such cases. Based on the information the site provides in its FAQ, people are more concerned with what the site is doing with their information than with what other people may say to them.  Since credibility on the site is gained fr0m being a well-respected researcher or academic, people generally constrain themselves. Furthermore, the site is about collaboration and connection between ideas more so than about people. Quibbles or fights reduce down to questions of knowledge and authority. While some people do take attacks on their work personally this kind of interaction is rarely public. The site is about getting in contact with other researchers rather than publicly displaying the process of the collaboration itself.
People are generally rather cordial because it’s to their benefit to be perceived as open and engaging rather than cold and shut off. Hierarchies are determined by credentials in a real sense of qualifications that back up one’s research. Researchgate only allows people to upload publications if they can be verified through database searches. People who are published are perceived as more distinguished members of the community. These people typically have more followers than people who are not published. It could be the case however, that these are just the types of people that function better in openly social settings and thrive for reasons beyond the mere public’s perception of an achievement. The number of followers is also an indicator of credence, yet the site is such a loosely knit community that people are very liberal with the number and kind of people they will follow.
Literacy
As opposed to having a single or unified literacy, if there is such a thing, Researchgate is characterized by a plurality of literacies. Since the site’s most trafficked areas are typically disciplines that exist on the periphery or are rather novel interdisciplinary approaches, the literacies of RG are by their nature rather obscure and idiosyncratic. This heterogeneity however, does not pose as much of an obstacle to the site as it might seem at first. Since, the site is one of few avenues for people engaged in these studies to be peer-reviewed or get feedback on their work, thus, they are very open to helping people understand the vocabulary they are working with. Moreover, these users are eager to get people on board because they want to generate discussion about their ideas in hope that they will either find someone who is likewise interested or that they will pique the interests of newcomers.
Researchgate thus is composed of a non-harmonious network of discourses. Rather than being an impediment, this website thus encourages reading a specific research encounter across multiple fields or methods for understanding the world. At the same time, I have also felt discouraged from entering certain groups dealing with highly speculative forms of science recently emerging since I realize that there would be a huge learning curve before I would actually benefit from reading engaging the literature. The site however serves a different function than say Wikipedia, it's not meant to educate you on the most basic level of common information, but to spread information that exists on the margins.
When people are reposting actually published materials longer posts are perfectly permissible. For comments and writing on people’s walls short posts are typical. Wall posts and comments are typically congratulatory. There is rarely conflict that publicly occurs between members. The site has a “see more” button like Facebook which almost acts as an indicator that it’s faux pas to write much beyond that.


This is a set of comments that were juxtaposed to one another in the group "Unified Description of Matter.” The huge gap in literacy level between the two members bears a few implications to unpack. First, there is a wide diversity in levels of understanding, experience, or perspective. But since the community is such a loose gathering people do not attack or berate others for being inferior or making mistakes. Peter Jakubowski is a physicist with a phD from Poland who is interested in quantum theory and a unified theory of nature. He has seven peer-reviewed publications and research experience in the field under his belt. In the above transcript he expresses his anguish over the RG community’s inability to actually coalesce together for collective research through the site. He writes, “I have my problem with this growing diversity…and I am afraid, it is not a problem for me alone.” He is self-reflexive about the site, calls for dialogue and uses proper grammar and syntax.
Directly following this call for more focused groups that are aimed at actually solving scientific problems is a comment from Rickey Cowell. The only personal information on Cowell’s profile is his location in the United Kingdom. The one required piece of information, the designation of research interests says “life is what its all about.” Cowell clearly is not on the site for the same reasons as Jakubowski. Cowell writes “ok new to all of this so if this is in the wrong place sorry and can’t spell that great but here. I think are we here at all.” He writes sentences, if you can call them that, that are incomplete or in an incorrect syntactical form. The statements lack any semblance of structure or proper use of punctuation and capitalization. Yet while Cowell is coming from the opposite side of the spectrum as Jakubowski he expresses a similar uncertainty about where his proper place is within the community.
Conclusion           
Researchgate has all of the right conceptual tools in terms of technology but lacks the human capital necessary to vitalize the website’s potential. While the site’s function for actually producing collaborative research is limited by the lack of participants interested in the same subjects, RG is able to market job opportunities and events effectively. Furthermore, RG exposes people to new research that is shared, reposted and collectively circulated. The site seems like it would do better if it had better algorithms for linking people together with similar interests. If RG had better browsing interfaces for searching under categories rather than for random “keywords,” people might be able to connect more easily. Perhaps its greatest virtue, delimiting the flows of knowledge production, is also its greatest impediment, at least in the early stages of development. The fluid structure makes it more difficult to find the right connections rather than simply a litany of connections. I do predict however that RG will be able to tweak its virtual architecture so as to actualize the latent potential for new social assemblages to emerge. RG is simply in its infancy. The fact that some of the most popular topics and groups on RG are concerned with cyberculture and virtual networking means that the site will always have a group of reflective, engaged users that are knowledgeable on how to improve the site itself. 



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