Social networking for scientists: an analysis on how and why academics use ResearchGate

Published date11 September 2017
Date11 September 2017
AuthorNicole Muscanell,Sonja Utz
Subject MatterLibrary & information science,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Bibliometrics,Databases,Information & knowledge management,Information & communications technology,Internet,Records management & preservation,Document management
Social networking for scientists:
an analysis on how and why
academics use ResearchGate
Nicole Muscanell
Department of Psychology,
Pennsylvania State University York,
York, Pennsylvania, USA, and
Sonja Utz
Leibniz-Institut fur Wissensmedien, Tuebingen, Germany and
University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the usage and utility of ResearchGate (RG), which is a
social networking site where scientists disseminate their work and build their reputations. In a sample
consisting largely of American and European academics, the authors analyzed the ways they use the site,
what they thought about the sites utility, and the effects of usage on career outcomes.
Design/methodology/approach The authors employed an online survey approach to target scientists
who have an active RG account. Scientists who were not users were also recruited in order to get a better idea
of the reasons for their nonuse.
Findings Most academics who have an RG account did not use it very heavily. Users did not perceive
many benefits from using the site, and RG use was not related to career satisfaction or informational benefits,
but was related to productivity and stress.
Research limitations/implications Systematic research is needed to explore positive and negative
consequences of using professional social media in academia, especially productivity and stress.
Findings also suggest that RG needs to increase user engagement.
Originality/value This study is one of the first to closely examine how and why people in academia use
professional social media sites and whether usage leads to perceived benefits and effects on more general
career outcomes.
Keywords Academia, Social media, Social networking, Digital scholarship
Paper type Research paper
ResearchGate (RG) is a social media platform for scientists, where academics can
disseminate their work while boosting their scientific reputation (
RG has currently over 12 million users. RGs mission is to help scientists connect with
each other, share knowledge and expertise, while at the same time building up
scientific reputation. This is accomplished by followingother scientists who can also
follow you back, uploading and sharing manuscripts, presentations, and project related
materials, and asking and answering research related questions. Usersscientific
reputation is also represented quantitatively via ones publications, questions and
answers, and followers; this forms a number that is displayed publicly on the RG
profile the RG Score. Additionally, altmetrics including number of document views
and downloads are publicly displayed.
Research has not fully examined the fine-grained ways in which academics are using
such tools and how they perceive them. Moreover, it is unknown whether usage benefits
scholars. In the current study, we explored these questions with a largely American and
European sample. We examined motives, use, and career-related outcomes. This study
offers insight on how sites like RG could be improved.
Online Information Review
Vol. 41 No. 5, 2017
pp. 744-759
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/OIR-07-2016-0185
Received 19 July 2016
Revised 3 January 2017
16 April 2017
Accepted 15 June 2017
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
There are increasingly more studies on RG and other networks for academics, but many of
them take a bibliometric approach. A number of these studies demonstrate differences by
discipline and country. Disciplines such as arts and humanities are underrepresented on RG,
whereas biologists are overrepresented (Ortega, 2015; Thelwall and Kousha, 2014). RG is
also more heavily used in Brazil and India than in China and South Korea (Thelwall and
Kousha, 2015a). Several researchers have correlated the RG score, the number of citations,
views, and downloads on RG with other conventional metrics and altmetrics (Hoffmann
et al., 2016; Thelwall and Kousha, 2015a, b 2017, Yu et al., 2016). Some research has focused
more on the network characteristics, i.e., network centrality on RG (Kadriu, 2013).
These studiesare largely based on objectivemetrics, i.e., statisticsthat can be scraped from
user profiles,but less is known about the subjective evaluation ofRG and the motivations for
using it. That is, what do users think about RG? Do they find it useful or not? There ismuch
less informationon how the specific features of RG are used.One study examined professional
usage of multiple social networking site (SNS) of more than 3,000 scientists and engineers
(Van Noorden, 2014) and found that most respondents were aware of RG, but less than half
used the site. The most common reason for using it was being visible for contact. Extending
on these findings, we wanted to examine the use of specific RG features, subjective
interpretations and perceptions about the utility and value of RG, and the potential
consequences (stress, productivity, career satisfaction, and informational benefits) we are
not aware of any research that has examined this latter question.
A majority of Facebook users (at least in the USA) are active and visit the site frequently
(Greenwood et al., 2016; Junco, 2011; Utz, 2016). A survey with a national sample in the USA
showed that 76 percent of Facebook users visit the site daily, and 55 percent visited it multiple
times a day (Greenwood et al., 2016). Yet research suggests that business SNS such as LinkedIn
are visited much less frequently (Greenwood et al., 2016; Utz, 2016).Thus, we suspect that login
frequency on RG might also be lower since it is also a professional network. With regard to
feature use, it is known that SNS users engage more regularly in browsing their timeline,
commenting or liking than in posting status updates (Smock et al., 2011; Utz, 2015). However,
due to the difference in available features, results from studies on Facebook or business
networks cannot easily be generalized to RG. Our first research question is therefore:
RQ1. How often do RG users log in and which features of RG do they use?
Not much is known about the perceptions of RG. That is, what do users think about the site
and its utility? On the one hand, it is a SNS because users have profiles, can connect
themselves with other users, and traverse the connections of others (boyd and Ellison, 2007).
On the other hand, it has less social features and might therefore, similar to business
networks, be perceived more as instrumental for self-promotion and sharing and receiving
work-related information (Utz and Muscanell, 2014). Because it makes publications that
might otherwise be behind a paywall easily available, users might see it more as an archive
for publications, and as an efficient way to access papers though, the sharing of such
publications is not always legal. People who use it in a functional way could consider it as
efficient research tool, but others who get lost in browsing or annoyed by the large number
of notifications, might perceive it as a distraction from their actual work. We thus pose an
open research question:
RQ2. Do RG users perceive the site to be useful for academic purposes?
We were also interested in the effects of RG use. In contrast to altmetrics papers that look at
objective citations such as how often a paper has been viewed or downloaded (Niyazov et al., n.d.),
we focus on subjective indicators from the perspective of the user: productivity, career
satisfaction, and informational benefits (only sample 2). We were interested in productivity
for scientists

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