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Calvin Coffey, a professor of surgery at the University of Limerick in Ireland, has a world of gadgetry, scientific equipment and medical tests at his disposal.

Recently, he added another tool: social media.

During a monthslong project to prove that the mesentery — folded tissue that connects the intestines to the wall of the abdomen — was in fact a human organ, Professor Coffey regularly turned to his followers on ResearchGate, a free Facebook-style social network aimed solely at scientists worldwide, for tips and suggestions on where his four-person team should focus their research.

“It’s real-time feedback from people who are experts in this field,” said Professor Coffey, who published his findings last month in the The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatologya prestigious British medical journal. “It’s not like your typical social media.”

That paper was, in part, shaped by his interactions on the social network, indicative of a shift in how scientific research is conducted. As Professor Coffey noted, researchers once faced difficulty in getting feedback from peers before publication, and their projects were often closed to outsiders.

This change was initially gradual. But it has increased at pace in recent years as the cost of cloud computing has plummeted and researchers have become comfortable in uploading their work onto social media.

That is what Ijad Madisch, who founded the social network ResearchGate with three partners in 2008, had in mind when he ditched his budding scientific research career in Massachusetts to return home to Germany to build his start-up in Berlin’s fast-growing cluster of technology companies.

According to Mr. Madisch, the social network has signed up 12 million scientists, or roughly 60 percent of all such potential users worldwide.

Researchers now upload roughly 2.5 million papers to ResearchGate every month. In comparison, scientists added the same amount of research over the first four years of the network’s operation.


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