'Facebook for Scientists' Could Change Science Research For Good -- And For The Better

Ijad Madisch (ResearchGate) speaks on a panel discussion during the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference at the HVB Forum on
Ijad Madisch (ResearchGate) speaks on a panel discussion during the Digital Life Design (DLD) Conference at the HVB Forum on January 19, 2014 in Munich, Germany. DLD is a global network on innovation, digitization, science and culture which connects business, creative and social leaders, opinion-formers and influencers for crossover conversation and inspiration. Free press photo (c) Hubert Burda Media / picture alliance

Ijad Madisch knows how quickly things can spread -- viruses, for example. The 34-year-old has studied pathogens, including at Harvard. Now he’s preoccupied with finding out the shortest amount of time it takes for knowledge to get from Toronto to Timbuktu, from Beijing to Berlin. That’s because Madisch, whose family comes from Syria, is using his Berlin-based startup, ResearchGate, to build a kind of Facebook for scientists. The platform, founded in 2008, already has 6 million members. By Madisch’s estimate, that might be as many as 80 percent of the world’s researchers. Every day, Madisch said, 10,000 new scientists sign up. And like Facebook’s users, members make new connections on a regular basis, exchange information about projects they’re working on, and help each other when they’ve reached a dead end in their research. The exchange of information in this gigantic digital lecture hall is Madisch’s top goal.

“Until now,” he said, “scientists have worked very inefficiently.”

The exchange of research happens in real time among members of ResearchGate -- rather than through slow-moving and expensive publication in specialized periodicals -- and speeds up scientific progress worldwide. Among other achievements, researchers from Europe and Africa have come together on ResearchGate to discover deadly and previously unknown pathogens, progress has been made in the use of renewable energy, and doctors from various countries developed a notification system during the Ebola epidemic in Africa that would inform infected individuals of the nearest treatment options. The researchers also share failed experiments, in order to prevent others from repeating their mistakes. And the platform, which puts together the smartest minds on the planet, uses the collective knowledge of its members to identify errors. That’s how ResearchGate found itself at the center of an international scientific scandal last year -- members of the social network revealed critical errors and deliberate misrepresentations in a high-profile Japanese stem cell study published in the journal Nature. Investors are excited about Madisch’s idea, too. He has received $35 million in capital from Bill Gates and others to support the further development of ResearchGate.

HuffPost Germany sat down with Madisch to discuss his plans for the future of ResearchGate, as well as the people who have inspired him.

What is it you most hope to personally achieve in the next 10 years? My personal and professional goals are the same. I want to make ResearchGate the place where the scientific world connects. My goal is for researchers to use the network to make progress that serves all of us. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome in the past year? My biggest challenge, in the past year and always, is to be patient. At the end of last year I had the idea for a new type of publication format that makes reading research social. It basically turns every publication in a starting point for a conversation –- and for new research. We have a fantastic team and they worked really quickly to make this idea a reality, but I still couldn’t wait and was very happy when it finally launched in February. Now we’re on to new big things and I’m having a very hard time waiting again. Who has been the biggest role model in your adult life? The biggest role models in my adult life are my parents. They came to Germany without speaking a word of German, raised their own family and successfully made a living for themselves here. I’ve faced my own challenges as a second-generation child, but they were nothing in comparison to theirs and I’m always grateful for them paving the way for me. What is a story you wish the media would do a better job of covering? I wish the media did a better job at highlighting how out of touch our education system in Germany is. We’re schooling tomorrow’s workforce for yesterday’s jobs. They don’t learn about entrepreneurship and very often they also don’t learn how to code -- a skill that I believe will quickly become just as important as knowing how to write. Which living person do you most admire? My parents. What advice would you give a young person trying to decide what to do with their life? My advice for young people trying to decide what to do with their life is to not always listen to other people’s advice. If I had always listened, I wouldn’t be where I am today. “Get that bird crap out of your head,” was my professor’s answer when I asked whether I could work half-days to devote more time to ResearchGate. I didn’t get it out of my head. People repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t start a business together with friends. Today I’m very happy I did. For anyone who still wants my advice on what to do, I’d just say: Do it. . What are you most thankful for? I’m most thankful for my family, my friends and my team at ResearchGate. Where do you get your news from? I get most of my news on Facebook. What is the cause or issue that you are most interested in seeing solved over the next 10 years? The issue that I’m most interested in seeing solved over the next 10 years is the issue I’m trying to solve with ResearchGate. We want to bring transparency to science so it can be even more useful for all. There’s a lot wrong with the current system; it’s confusing at best. Researchers waste a lot of time because they don’t share what doesn’t work. Results that do get shared and make it online float free in the orbit of information overload. Where the money goes is often just as random. We’re fixing these problems, and hopefully it won’t take another 10 years. What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? I check my emails. What do you do to de-stress, recharge and stay balanced? I play beach volleyball to balance my work and life. I only started two years ago, and that’s also when I met the guy who’s now my coach. He spotted me at a beach volleyball clinic and asked how old I was. “Thirty-two,” I said. “Too bad. Too old to play professionally,” he said. The challenge was on. Just a couple of weeks ago my partner, Tom-Julius Werscheck, and I won our first professional tournament in Turkey. Beach volleyball has become my passion (after ResearchGate). It teaches me a lot about being a better athlete -- and a better entrepreneur. For instance, I always want to lead and take responsibility, but on the court I also need to let myself be led. Finish this sentence: In the year 2025, we will… ? … live very different lives. I believe artificial intelligence is changing and will change our work life in especially dramatic ways. Many more or less menial tasks could be automated even more. That’s why it’s so important that we put much more emphasis on better education and educate children for jobs with a future in science and technology. What current trend do you think we'll look back on in ten years in disbelief? I don’t think we’ll continue to overshare private information on social media as much as we do now. At least I hope this is a trend we’ll look back on in disbelief. How many hours of sleep do you get each night? How important has sleep been in your life? I get three to seven hours each night, which I know isn’t enough. I often take a 30-minute nap after lunch, which helps a lot.

What do you value the most? My family, my friends and my team at ResearchGate.

This piece was originally published by HuffPost Germany and was translated into English. It was condensed and adapted for an American audience.