Moving Beyond the PDF: The RG Format Leads Scholars Into the Social Age

03/10/2015 03:19 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

The Portable Document Format (PDF) created by Adobe Systems has pulled its academic weight. Created in 1991, the same year as the general, widely understood Internet went live to the world, the PDF file format has played a crucial role in disseminating millions of scholarly articles over the past 24 years. From its widespread academic use the PDF has gained nearly Kleenex brand recognition for information display. And its accolades are for good reason: the PDF served our scholarly purposes very well.

While the PDF truly has had an amazing run, one quick assessment of the format from society's evolving social media context shows the PDF is less than ideal for the evolving state of scholarship. Our modern scroll down culture coupled with current PDF citations and associated graphs often at the bottom of the documents makes returning to the point of contention complex and time consuming. Further, the PDF creates an unmalleable structure of research and does not allow shareable comments and critiques to be associated within the main document. The PDF is a one-way street and lacks the ability to spur on conversation in a social context.

The Importance of Format Evolution

As early as 2010, TED creator Chris Anderson told the world that crowd-accelerated innovation, on the heels of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook's rise, was drastically changing and strengthening how individuals learned complex activities. Anderson said this new media environment was creating connections between users that had never existed before and that these virtual connections spurred the cumulative audience to evolve more quickly, completely and accurately. Drawing from Anderson's view: the format we choose to display scholarly and scientific research can have real reverberations on readership, evaluation, and researcher synergy -- all of which can impact some of the most important research topics on our planet. It is time for a change.

ResearchGate a social networking site for researchers, is perhaps making the biggest splash in linking research and our evolving social context. Utilized by over six million researchers, ResearchGate just released their new RG Format in mid-February which creates real-time social dialogue within the research document. By using two columns of information display, comments, concerns, or related citations and graphs are always in sync with the information retrieved. This makes for a more streamlined information transfer, and one that elaborates on the author's views by harnessing knowledge by the collective crowd. This all equates to a possible paradigm shift in scholarship display and assessment as ResearchGate is currently rolling out this new format to their backlog of 19 million existing scholarly publications as well as a steady stream of 2 million incoming research articles that are added to their user's profiles every month.

Ijad Madisch, CEO of ResearchGate speaks highly of his company embracing the new RG Format and tells me, "We wanted to create something that turns publications into a conversation starter. If researchers get talking about research right at the source, on the same page, other researchers can see at a glance how others feel about the work at hand - and authors get immediate feedback. We wanted to have this conversation happen in one place so no one loses time looking around for information or it becomes diluted and not of much use to the researcher."

"As a first take I found it to be interesting to have a more social way of presenting research and discussing it in a way that is more interactive. I thought it was pretty innovative," says Alexander Reisenbichler, a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at George Washington University and currently on fellowship at Freie Universitat Berlin. Reisenbichler is an early adopter to the new RG Format on ResearchGate. He links the RG Format to his academic orientation specifically and says, "In political science, we often write journal articles and books to land a job or get tenure and so on; then some go on and write a short spin-off article in a blog or newspaper to discuss their work more publicly. The RG format may be able to connect these two worlds -- the public intellectual world and the academic world -- which I find interesting."

Although praising the technology Reisenbichler makes a point to stress that our collective academic pursuits are somewhat set in their ways and the transition might not be as seamless as some may hope by saying, "I think it is hard to overcome the path dependence in academic publishing. All these institutions are super sticky: the PDF, the publishing business, and so on." John Bohannon a biologist and Science contributing correspondent, is in agreement that there is an academic rut and says, "In spite of having the reputation of being revolutionary, scholars are pretty conservative. As a culture, academia moves pretty slow, which is ironic since all revolutions ultimately seem to spring from liberal academia, but academia itself has not undergone any revolutions in 500 years."

One thing is for sure, a lot of key players that blend education and technological savviness are placing bets on ResearchGate and through association the new RG Format. The company's Series C $35 million round of venture capital funding was led by Bill Gates and Tenaya Capital. What remains to be seen is how this platform and new RG Format will be fully monetized to keep the slew of venture capital firms satisfied while simultaneously keep the masses of finicky scholars well served.

In 2010, Madisch was asked what would constitute success in his mind. Madisch replied, simply, "winning the Nobel Prize." If all goes as planned, and the RG Format delivers on promises as grand as expected, we might find that Madisch is in a holding pattern and just waiting to land for his vision of success to be realized.