Q&A with one of ResearchGate’s Q&A superstars

In 10 years, millions of scientists have helped each other by answering questions on the network. One scientist alone has helped thousands. We speak with him.

Of the 15 million people on ResearchGate, there are 20 researchers who have answered over 5000 Q&A questions since 2008. Adam B Shapiro is one of those 20 people. Adam has personally answered over 5700 questions since 2012 (an average of over 18 per week), and in doing so saved his peers countless hours and helped them advance their own research. With people like Adam, ResearchGate’s Q&A has provided millions of researchers with rapid feedback when it’s needed most. We spoke with Adam about his amazing Q&A contributions.

ResearchGate: Could you briefly introduce yourself and your research?

Adam B Shapiro: I am a Ph. D biochemist with 20 years' experience working in antibacterial drug discovery in the pharmaceutical industry sector and 34 years' experience in the lab. I am a full-time bench scientist. My work concerns enzyme inhibitors.

RG: What motivates you to answer people’s questions on Q&A?

Shapiro: Several years ago, when I started answering questions on Q&A, I was motivated by the thought that I could supply better answers than the ones I was seeing written by other people, so at that point it was a combination of competitiveness, a little egotism, and a desire to improve the utility of the site for the users. It was also motivating that there was feedback (up-votes and RG Score points) to show that people liked some of the answers I was giving.

Now, answering question on Q&A is a hobby. I do it on weekday evenings and on weekends, when I have some spare time. Since I don't have a teaching position, I like that I can share my experience in a way that is helpful to other people, especially young people just starting out in research. I enjoy laboratory research, and science in general. I want to encourage other people who might also enjoy them, if they can avoid becoming discouraged by the day-to-day challenges with help from answers they receive on Q&A.

RG: In your experience, how does Q&A help people?

Shapiro: Many people who ask questions on Q&A find the answers they get useful, based on their own statements. Many of the people who ask questions appear to be people with relatively little experience who need help with technical matters, calculations, or understanding basic concepts.

For me, reading the Q&A and finding answers to some of the questions is often a great learning experience.

RG: How would you characterize the types of questions you see?

Shapiro: Some of the questions are technical. Something went wrong with an experiment and the questioner is looking for suggestions about how to fix the problem. Sometimes, the questioner does not provide sufficient details about the procedure, and you have to ask for more information before you can formulate a reply. Once there is a sufficient description, you can make suggestions, but it is hard to know whether your suggestions are on the right track.

Many of the questions are about how to do a calculation, and these are usually pretty easy to answer if all the necessary information has been provided.

A few of the questions have a philosophical flavor or address broad topics. I'm not sure what motivates people to ask questions of this type, but they can be interesting to think about and answer. If I answer questions of this sort, I try to write answers that are grounded in current understanding of relevant science.

The type of questions that require the most effort to answer are those that require explaining topics with which most people are unfamiliar because they are not usually taught in biochemistry classes, but about which I have experience from my work. Examples include subjects that are related to enzyme inhibitor screening and characterization, or the kinetics of multi-substrate enzymes. In addition to writing detailed answers, I will also direct questioners to textbooks that cover these subjects.

One thing that increases the difficulty of answering questions is the language barrier. English is not the native language of many of the questioners, and it's the only language I speak, so it can be difficult to understand a question well enough to answer it sometimes. I suppose the questioners must suffer the same problem when trying to understand the answers.

RG: What are some of the advantages of getting information from Q&A over other information sources?

Shapiro: Personally, when I am looking for technical information, I don't use ResearchGate Q&A. I use a commercial literature database to which I have access through my work, the public biomedical database PubMed, other publicly accessible databases like BRENDA, or Google. If I want to know what other people think about something, then Q&A is a pretty good way to find out. Other people, especially younger people, are probably more comfortable than I am using social media as a source of information ("crowdsourcing"). The issue with crowdsourced information, of course, is evaluating the quality of the responses, but the same can be said for literature publications. You have to develop the ability to distinguish high-quality information from low-quality information, good suggestions from bad suggestions. This comes from experience, but ResearchGate helps by providing information about the people supplying answers through their profiles. The recommendation tally feature is also useful in this regard because it gives a sense of how many other people thought that an answer was a useful one.

One advantage of getting answers from Q&A is that you don't have to spend time searching - the answers come to you, and they are usually directly addressing the question. One disadvantage is that you may have to wait a while for the answers, and there is no way to know whether a useful answer will appear within a useful time frame.

People frequently post answers to questions that were asked several years earlier. These answers are presumably too late to benefit the person who asked the question, but I am glad people do it because it adds to the information available to others who come to that question through a Q&A search.

RG: Do you ever hear back from people about how your answers have helped them? Do you have any examples?

Shapiro: I often get feedback from people who have been helped by my answers. One kind of feedback is the recommendation feature, of course. It's nice to see that an answer has been recommended by the person who asked the question. Sometimes people post a follow-up thank you note in the question thread. It's especially gratifying when, occasionally, someone says that they took my advice and it solved their problem.

In addition to the open-forum Q&A, there is the one-to-one feature, which is where I often have very detailed conversations with people about their research. In this environment, it can be quite clear whether my assistance is doing any good. There are many times?when people have thanked me in very moving terms for my help, which is highly gratifying and motivating.

In one case, my answer to a question led to a small research collaboration with the questioner in which I supplied some experimental measurements. I received co-authorship on a paper and a nice Christmas present.

RG: Can you tell us a little more about this collaboration?

Shapiro: About four years ago, a researcher asked a question about in vitro assays for anthracycline cardiotoxicity. Anthracyclines are a class of cancer chemotherapy drugs that inhibit enzymes called topoisomerases. Topoisomerases are important enzymes that work on DNA to make sure it has the right amount of twist and to keep it from getting tangled up. Since I had published papers on assays for inhibition of topoisomerases, a target of anthracyclines that could be a contributing factor to their cardiotoxicity, I suggested that those assays could be useful for his purpose. The researcher and I agreed that if he sent me his compounds, I would test them in my assays, which is what happened.