Faculty Forum: Frankenstein Walks into a Bar...

By Madeleine K. Scammell

If you have ever moved to a new town, lived alone, and had a job that required you to work in isolation, then you understand the challenge of trying to build a community. For me, it came down to a choice: join a church or find a bar I liked. I chose a bar.

These days, of course, one can also find community online, but I stopped using Facebook a few years ago. Who has time for social networking when you are an assistant professor in the health sciences? I have to raise 70 percent of my salary through research grants. Those grants enable me to publish. If I publish, I might not perish. I might survive long enough to use my publication record to get another grant. If I both get grants and publish papers, I might be promoted to associate professor.

In such an environment, the lure of predatory publishers is real. On a nearly daily basis, I receive advertisements from publishers promoting peer-reviewed journals and quick publication time. Some of these journals are shams. Their editorial boards consist of individuals who never consented to having their names listed; some simply do not have editorial boards. They publish papers without any review. Eager authors pay a publishing fee, and voilà!—another reference for their CVs. How does one know what is authentic?

One way is by measuring the “impact” of a journal. Few people seem to mind that the measure of impact, published by Thomson Reuters, is flawed. Based on the number of citations to a journal, it does not distinguish positive from negative citations or self-citations from citations by others. In academia (unlike in a bar) it actually does pay to be self-referential. The impact factor also doesn’t include any measure of “real-world” relevance. Only quantity matters.

I recently received an e-mail from a colleague inviting me to join ResearchGate, a researcher-oriented social network. My colleague is a full professor at my institution and sits on the Appointments and Promotions Committee. He is also a real person, awesome and brilliant. I often get to have real conversations with him (sometimes over real beers). So why did I choose to engage with him through a virtual social network?

Like Google, ResearchGate catalogs your publications and keeps track of your citations. But when you join, you also receive a free “RG Score”: “We calculate your score,” ResearchGate says, “based on how other researchers interact with your content, how often, and who they are. The higher their score, the more yours will increase.” The score appears next to a person’s profile photo. On my profile, before I added a photo, there was a male silhouette and the number 17.73: ResearchGate’s computer-generated judgment of my worth.

I pulled up my colleague’s profile: 40.41, accompanied by an impressive “impact factor rating” and a large number of citations. Another researcher I admire had a score of 38.63. Feeling that this virtual bar might be too high-class for me, I logged out.

For several weeks I monitored e-mails from ResearchGate and weighed the pros and cons of having joined. I kept asking myself: What monster have we created? A horrifying blend of journal impact factors and Facebook? In 1818, Mary Shelley knew that Frankenstein would more likely be read if she published her writing anonymously rather than with her real (female) name. Our work seldom speaks for itself. Who wrote it, where it was published, and who reads it all matter. ResearchGate is an unapologetic acknowledgment of this fact. But what if we don’t know anyone? What if we don’t fit the traditional criteria used to measure our worth? With all the emphasis on impact factors and RG scores, have we lost sight of why we do our research: to make a real difference in the real world?

I decided that ResearchGate is a beast of ambition akin to Frankenstein’s monster. But, just as Frankenstein’s monster craved a companion, I need my research colleagues—not for my score, but for my happiness. I want to belong to a community of real scientists with integrity, not scamsters. I uploaded a photo of my real female face, and I feed the beast with each publication. I choose community, as imperfect as it may be, so ResearchGate it is . . . although I still prefer the bar.

Madeleine K. Scammell is assistant professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Academe accepts submissions to this column. Write to academe@aaup.org for guidelines. The opinions expressed in Faculty Forum are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.


I loved your article! Research Gate is a curious (not to say disturbing) science ("social"?) place. After many years of study and hard work it's sad to see backpackers with zero education/background (but with NGO money pushing self-authorships) displaying neat "RG scores". Something's wrong with the system.

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