Hacking research communication: a new market to disrupt?



The Internet was designed with scientists in mind, but it is only in recent years that academia related startups and web products have started to appear.

This interest in the academic market was triggered by the rapid explosion of free MOOCs via various universities and startups such as Coursera and Udacity, prompting speculation that the current university model would be replaced by an online solution that would spell the end of nine o’clock lectures.

More recent startups have turned their attention to the research side of academia. The number of researchers has grown rapidly in the last two decades and research output is now considerably higher. Over two million papers are published each year and academic staff and students attend conferences regularly to submit papers, display posters, share data and deliver talks and workshops. Vast quantities of “research products” are created every year and these are being produced faster than they can be communicated.

Most of these research products remain on a disk in the lab, not in the public domain. As a result, key information cannot be reached and disseminated to other researchers effectively, meaning that a large amount of research is doomed to be repeated by researchers who are not aware that it has already been done. Similarly, data from previous published studies and student projects are often not available, either because there was nowhere to deposit it or the student has moved on and it has been lost.

There is a growing need for web platforms that facilitate communication between researchers as this will not only help with collaborations, but also with the organisation of data and operations within lab groups. A good example of this is Figshare, an online repository supported by Digital Science, which gives researchers unlimited space to post datasets, documents and media for free as long as it is publicly available (there are also private storage options). Figshare is also working with publishers to help authors share the data related to their publications, something that is now required by some funding bodies.

Other platforms such as ResearchGate and Academia.edu have adopted a social network structure, indeed RG describes itself as the “Facebook for scientists.” These networks each have around four million users and allow you to add your publications and datasets, in addition to other features that you will recognise from other social networks such as endorsements (LinkedIn), the option to follow others (Twitter) and common features such as a profile, a news feed and a jobs page. The full feature set for each of these networks is beyond the scope of this post (coming soon though), it will be interesting to see how they develop and how often researchers choose to engage with them to support their work.

When designing web products for academic researchers it is important to consider their motivations. The phrase “publish or perish” is popular and research papers are still the gold standard method of communication by which individuals are hired and fired. However, research papers can spend years in the peer review cycle and the standard style of a paper has not changed since 1665. These limiting factors further slow an already saturated communication system and researchers need more options for publishing and sharing their work. Alternative research communication channels will only succeed and attract users if they are recognised and rewarded in the academic system, requiring funding bodies, governments and universities to shape their policies in a way that encourages and incentivises researchers to share their work.  #impact

In order to build and grow new web based platforms for researchers, teams and startups need financial support. Some, such as Figshare, are supported by existing publishers, others have received venture capital funding. ResearchGate received $35 million in a funding round led by Bill Gates in 2013 and Academia.edu received a second round of funding to the tune of $11 million a couple of months later. Other tools, such as the non-for-profit ImpactStory, are funded by foundations and public money.

Several sources of funding exist for funding startup projects including competitions, government grants and private equity investment. One of the few that are specific to software for research is the Digital Science Catalyst Grant. This offers grants of up to £15,000 to researchers with software ideas that will benefit research; projects are funded for up to six months and individuals are not required to give up any intellectual property rights.

The acquisition of London based Mendeley by Elsevier last year shows that research related startups are making an impact. The reference management tool/ social network was purchased for somewhere between $69-$100 million dollars in April 2013. Mendeley was started in 2008 by three cofounders; it received $12 million in venture capital funding and by the time it was acquired it had 50 staff. The platform had 2.3 million users by the time it was acquired, not a bad achievement for a project that lasted roughly as long as a postdoctoral position.

Academic publishing is currently undergoing something of a revolution and new platforms are offering communication alternatives to researchers. If sharing platforms and social networks continue to develop and attract users from the academic base, this raises questions about the effectiveness of the current publishing model: will an alternative to the traditional method of publishing gradually develop? Of course, this would raise questions about peer review, quality, filtering of articles and several other issues, but perhaps publishers and individual journals will choose to adapt?


Disruption in the Publishing Industry: Digital, Analytics & the Future conference – 20th June 2014, Edinburgh


One thought on “Hacking research communication: a new market to disrupt?

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