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Summary:

Berlin-based ResearchGate, in which Bill Gates is a prominent investor, provided a platform for study results that led to highly embarrassing backpedaling from a Japanese research institute.

Bill Gates and ResearchGate CEO Ijad Madisch

ResearchGate, the 4-million-strong academic social network, has just scored a major victory in its quest to turn the research process upside-down – its platform proved instrumental in the debunking of a major stem cell study, which on Friday resulted in a very apologetic roll-back from the Japanese institute that put out the original study.

The original study came out in Nature, the peer-reviewed scientific journal, earlier this year. It purported to show that it was possible to turn normal blood cells into master stem cells by dipping them in a mild acid solution. Stem cells hold great promise for the future of medicine, but there’s a lot of controversy around current harvesting techniques, particularly when embryos are involved, and this would have provided a terrific workaround.

Unfortunately, while the Riken institute’s research promised great things, other researchers found themselves unable to reproduce the results. One, a Hong Kong professor of regenerative medicine named Kenneth Lee, used his ResearchGate profile to publish his and his students’ findings, demonstrating a failure to get this technique to work.

There had been a good deal of grumbling about the Nature paper — notably from biologist Paul Knoepfler and on PubPeer — but Lee’s ResearchGate publication provided the final straw and on Thursday Riken admitted the original Nature papers contained errors. One of the key researchers there has now had her research suspended, and investigations are underway at both Riken and Nature.

Validation

“This is what I was dreaming of,” ResearchGate CEO Ijad Madisch told me. Indeed, Madisch has long advocated the advantages of “post-review” over “pre-peer review”.

Rather than the traditional system, where a paper is submitted to a journal like Nature and pored over for months by a couple of reviewers, he wants to see a system where all research is published openly and immediately – not only does this bring more eyes to the research, but it also means that unsuccessful results get as good an airing as the successful ones. That’s something that should save other researchers an awful lot of time.

Bill Gates likes this approach, which is why he has poured millions into ResearchGate. And, although the discussion around it occurred in more places than just ResearchGate, the stem cell episode provides a good deal of validation.

According to Madisch, researchers who have found it difficult to reproduce the results of published papers have generally had trouble getting as much attention as those behind the published paper – the press, certainly, are keener to trumpet a study that has been peer-reviewed than something that may come from a hater and that journalists feel unable to evaluate themselves.

Open Review

The excitement around Lee’s activities on ResearchGate led the startup to speed up the completion of a new feature called Open Review, which is designed to make it easier for users to give open feedback to papers published on the network. The feature combines a structured feedback mechanism with commenting facilities.

“It’s open, real-time and transparent, and the authors can contribute,” Madisch said. “It forces the authors to provide more data. It’s important to understand that it’s not only to debunk research – we also want to highlight positive research.”

As the feature wasn’t available then, Lee began his reproducibility quest on ResearchGate’s Q&A system, but the sped-up release of Open Review made it possible to publish the efforts of Lee’s team in that format.

ResearchGate has found a clever contractual way to let researchers upload their papers outside the walled gardens of the traditional journals, and it’s growing fast. In its first 50 months, 2 million publications were added to the platform – the same number is uploaded each month now, and 700 datasets are going up each day. Here, for example, is the original Nature stem cell paper on ResearchGate, complete with a red note on the side to say it is “non-reproducible”.

“The next couple of months on ResearchGate will be so exciting,” Madisch enthused. “We have the reach, we have the engagement, we have this great feature, and the scientific community is accepting us.”

UPDATE (March 26th): Lee has published a Nature letter rejecting the study that ended up going on ResearchGate, claiming it doesn’t challenge the key points of the original study. Which is still not reproducible as of the time of writing.

This article was updated at 10.15am PT to more explicitly recognize the contribution of Paul Knoepfler to the debunking. His work was linked to in the original version, but not prominently. A mention of PubPeer has also been included.

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  1. komarovstyle Friday, March 14, 2014

    Nice blog on social network

  2. Ralph Haygood Friday, March 14, 2014

    I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, peer review as we know it is problematic in a variety of ways. On the other hand, I’m not crazy about post-publication peer review happening on a privately owned, for-profit platform (in which Bill Gates – not exactly a paragon of openness and public-spiritedness – is a major shareholder). For years, many of us have objected to the de facto ownership of publicly funded research by privately owned journals like Nature that charge exorbitantly for access. So I’d prefer this kind of thing happened in public venues like PubMed Commons (http://bit.ly/1cYyXPv).

    1. Ralph Haygood, please get your facts straight – Bill Gates is not a “shareholder” of ResearchGate, because RG is not even in the stock market, he just personally invested 30 million dollars as venture capital. And RG is not “privately owned”, in fact, all data ever published on RG, as well as commentaries, discussions, jobs, etc, is all available to both users and non-users.

  3. This article/advertorial completely omits the important role of Paul Knoepfler, a UC Davis researcher and his influential stem cell blog (www.ipscell.com) that has worked hard to collate results from attempts to reproduce the STAP protocols. Paul was the target of pushback from members of the stem cell “elite” for his efforts (see his post not he aforementioned site from March 11th).

    In addition, there has been a lot of information posted by the post-publication review site, PubPeer, much more than on ResearchGate.

    The only new thing I learned from the story/advertisement here was that Bill Gates is an investor in ResearchGate.

    1. Hi Jim — I did link to Knoepfler’s site in the story, but not prominently enough. That has been fixed now. Thanks for flagging it.

      1. Thanks for that – there has been a groundswell of concern over these papers by many groups. However, I am not sure that the ResearchGate article was the last straw, or, indeed played a significant role in this story. For that to have been the case, it would have had to attract attention and to have been cited by the RIKEN staff. Methinks ResearchGate’s PR people are trying to rewrite history for their own gain.

        It is is also important to point out that although there are a number of doubts and concerns over the STAP data, the underlying biology of induced pluripotentiality is not in question. The debate circles the inability to reproduce, efficiently, the effects found in the RIKEN study. Some labs have reproduced at least part of the findings and some of the authors have cooperated in trouble-shooting the protocols. This does not appear to be a sequel to the infamous case of Hwang Woo-Suk.

  4. Let’s just get the timeline straight here. The STAP papers were published on Jan. 29. Knoepfler was blogging about them the same day. Commenters on PubPeer were highlighting real problems from Feb. 4 onwards. Nature and Riken started investigations shortly afterwards. Lots and lots more commenting and blogging happened, including *10* replication attempts documented on Knoepfler’s blog, *prior* to the RG review. The RG piece went up on Mar. 13, Riken gave a programmed update on their investigation on Mar. 14. To claim that RG had anything to do with events is a complete joke.

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