Yahoo Answers Is Not Research, Or How Two Startups Are Fighting For The Future Of Knowledge

We’re told never to forget the ultimate laziness of humans, but when it comes to research in the internet age, sometimes that laziness can shock even the most prepared of minds. Students in grade school have grown accustomed to “remixing” internet sources to create their research reports, copying a line from here and a line from there into a massive kludge of plagiarism often bereft of a single original thought.

While the internet has made those original thoughts ever more precious, it has also provided new communication channels that can cultivate originality. Through social networks, researchers can connect and share their work quickly, avoiding dead ends and speeding up the process of finding answers to our most pressing challenges. Unfortunately, much of this research remains locked behind paywalls charging $45 an article, in marked contrast to the open nature fundamentally advocated in the web’s design.

Research – the original use case of the web – is still transforming, and two startups evince the remarkably different challenges facing it today. Imagine Easy Solutions, the owner of the popular EasyBib and Citation Machine online citation generators, is preparing to expand from their beachhead in citations to a new software platform it hopes will reinvigorate the training of research in primary and secondary schools.

While Imagine Easy Solutions is rethinking the way we educate about research, ResearchGate, the well-known academic social network, is beginning to rethink the way that science should be conducted in the 21st century. What does an academic publication look like when we can publish with the push of a button? How do we ensure that knowledge isn’t bottled up and is freely available to those who could benefit from it?

The continuing transformation in research will both expand the number of researchers and connect them more fruitfully, and we will all be the beneficiaries.

Rethinking Research In Schools

EasyBib, which allows students to easily generate citations and bibliographies in different formats simply by typing up the details of a publication, was first founded in 2001 by Neal Taparia and Darshan Somashekar, who were high school students at the time. The company’s first revenues came from an $800 check from their associate principal, who said “Why don’t you build a version for the school that monitors students’ bibliographies?”

The cofounders maintained the project for many years while seeking out internships and eventually becoming management consultants and bankers. Taparia was working at Lehman Brothers during its collapse in the 2008 global financial crisis, and it was in that maelstrom that he and Somashekar got back together to work on Imagine Easy full-time.

The two started rapidly improving EasyBib, and eventually bought out a competitor known as Citation Machine as well as BibMe. Together, the websites pulled in roughly 90 million unique visitors in the last year, driven in large part by word of mouth between middle school and high school students on social networks. The company developed several products for schools, including a teaching tool called Research Ready, and a research monitoring tool called EasyBib School Edition.

Now, Taparia and Somashekar are looking to build a new comprehensive platform they hope will revolutionize the way research is taught in schools. With the launch of Common Core standards across the United States, “…teachers want to challenge students with critical thinking about a topic and how they are thinking about it,” Taparia explained to me.

In order to do so, Imagine Easy’s platform allows students to put all of their notes and citations into a “digital notebook,” which conveniently handles all citation formatting. Then the platform offers a variety of organizing tools that students can use to make sense of those notes before they begin writing their research paper.

The real magic happens on the other side of the platform though. As students work, teachers can watch and monitor the actual construction of a student’s research paper, and the platform’s vision is to provide key analytics and insights about which students are struggling, offering teachers moments for intervention.

“We remember both in college and high school, we were never taught how to go about writing, but we’re only told what the final product should look like,” Taparia explained. “We want to provide teachers with the ability to guide students along the way.”

Given its library of citations, which currently number more than a billion entries, Taparia was surprised to find that students were citing Yahoo Answers incredibly frequently. “A lot of kids don’t understand the difference between primary and secondary sources,” he said. The platform could alert teachers about these problems and help bring the issue up in the classroom. Rather than just hearing platitudes about research, teachers can now actively engage students in their specific projects using their specific sources, a teachable moment for research. Imagine Easy intends to provide lesson plans and guides to fully integrate its software into the classroom.

The startup has grown from its humble roots. While still bootstrapped, the company has expanded to 52 employees in New York City. Its new platform is currently in beta as the team works to crush all the bugs before a launch in the upcoming weeks.

Rethinking Publishing In The Internet Age

In many ways, ResearchGate is the opposite of Imagine Easy. Whereas Imagine Easy was bootstrapped, ResearchGate has raised more than three rounds of capital since its founding in May 2008, most recently a $35 million check from Bill Gates and Tenaya Capital. The academic social network has seen rapid growth, with more than 2 million publications claimed on the site every four weeks by its users.

All that success has given Ijad Madisch, the founder of ResearchGate, some time to think about the future of research and how ResearchGate can be a part of that transformation. “Publications are still reflecting how we compiled information 200 years ago,” he tells me, and “it’s a dead end of information that just exists and no one talks about.”

Productivity demands from governments and research funding bodies have increased the publication workload for academics, who have to write a new introduction and methods section for every one of their papers regardless of how marginal the result they are trying to publish. That wastes incredible time that could be better spent finding the next result.

ResearchGate is hoping to completely change that static paradigm of academic publications into something more dynamic. Madisch believes that “It’s only a matter of time until no one cares about where you publish.” To get to that world, the company asked a simple question: “Why don’t we convert all of our documents to a living home?”

Inspired by the concept of minimum viable products and the general startup approach to ambiguity, the company introduced the “ResearchGate Format (RGF)” for academic papers a few weeks ago. The idea is that papers should be spaces for social communication, allowing peers to comment and converse around the results rather than just merely reading them.

“We know that the quality control that is done by publishers is not the way that it should be done,” Madisch explained. Instead, imagine publishing an article much earlier than is traditional in universities, and then getting a small group of peers to expand and comment on it over time, increasing the quality of the “product” through iteration. It would not just open up the final results, but could make the entire editing process significantly more transparent.

Along the way, the company is hoping that this sort of social approach to science will improve the culture of research. Madisch believes that “We have been specializing a lot without looking left and right, but we can get the science disciplines back together and again enable scientific progress.”

As humanity confronts incredible challenges this century, we have the potential to dramatically expand the number of people capable of independent and rigorous research while helping them communicate and bring out their best work through open editing and publishing. While research has now been joined by disappearing photos as use cases for the web, it is clear that we have much to look forward to, lazy humans be damned.