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Opening up scientific publishing for the Flickr generation

For an aspiring scientist, being published in a creditable journal is a major step towards gaining respect in the field. But for Mark Hahnel, founder and CEO of Figshare, this old system was drastically in need of an update. “The internet was built for sharing academic data but the way scientific papers are published had hardly changed since the early days of the printing press,” he says.

In 2011, Hahnel was studying for a PhD in stem cell biology at Imperial College London, but grew frustrated when it came to getting his work published. In particular, there was no way to publish non-written formats.

Figshare founder Mark Hahnel Photograph: PR

“All my data was graphs, datasets and video, but when I went to publish this I realised that a lot of publications weren’t set up to handle anything but papers,” he says. “I was spending all weekend creating videos and frustrated that I couldn’t publish them.”

Hahnel saw an opportunity to both help aspiring scientists and improve the quality of debate in science. Using WordPress and “some basic Python” [computer code] he set up Figshare – initially to publish his own work. But he soon found there were others in the scientific community who saw it as advantageous.

“Academia is very cut-throat. People need to get published and receive citations in order to get jobs and funding,” he says. “But also I think a lot of younger students get it, as they’ve grown up with the internet and think things should be open and collaborative.”

His activities caught the attention of the technology investor and incubator Digital Science, which backed Hahnel to further develop his platform. “I handed in my PhD on the Friday and moved into new offices on Monday,” says Hahnel

Hahnel admits that in the early days he “didn’t have a clue” about business and had to learn a lot. “I’d never done business studies, but we were able to learn about business and how to market the company. Digital Science helped me with the startup process; everything from establishing a sustainability model to marketing and understanding what an EBITDA is,” he says.

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“We brought in some developers and relaunched Figshare in January 2012. We’ve created a place where anyone can publish and view the content for free.”

Hahnel says he was inspired by sites such as Github and Flickr and wanted to create something comparable for research science. However, there have been some technical hurdles to overcome. For instance, academic papers require footnotes that link to other sources, but this can be difficult to do online as URLs are often reorganised and this can lead to broken links. The developers at Figshare created Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) that find the new address of a page if it is moved.

Ultimately, the business aimed to create an infrastructure that was designed to last and to be user-friendly. “The process of building scalable infrastructure as a priority over cool new features is something that we set up early, and it is really helping us now,” Hahnel adds.

But the most important aspect of Figshare is that it has created a model that disrupts the current method, where universities pay publishers to see the work that they have created. According to STM, the trade association for academic and professional publishers, its members’ revenues are worth roughly $10bn (£7bn) annually and the industry employs more than 100,000 people worldwide. And although well known journals such as Nature, Science and Cell are much sought after, there are more than 28,000 English-language science publications to choose from.

“I’ve published three papers but I don’t have access to them because I’m not a university,” Hahnel says. “The top ten publishers were paid over £430m by universities between 2010-14 so that they could access their own content.”

Figshare has two revenue streams: it provides universities with the means to publish online – universities are given mini Figshares which let students self-publish – and it provides cloud solutions for publishers to host and publish data.

Figshare has now published 2.5m objects (papers, datasets and videos) and provides several institutions with its services including the University of Sheffield, The Royal Society, Wiley and University of Auckland.

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But not everyone in academia is impressed. Hahnel says younger scientists and tenured professors are positive about Figshare, but those less secure in their work are more wary. “The people who were taught to publish or perish and don’t want people to see their data because they will find their mistakes are worried by it,” he says. “That’s the insanity of academia, that people in a self-correcting science might be concerned that someone will find an error.”

But having an open platform means that the strength of the content is dependent on those publishing it. Currently, files are checked by a team of 30 people to ensure they are of academic standard but the business is developing ways to enable its users to curate content.

“We would like to start curating all of this information in a crowdsourced manner. Instead of using traditional peer review – which may be difficult for a 10-second video – we’ll be looking at automating levels of curation and measuring global attention around objects.”

Hahnel adds that journals don’t have to follow the peer review model, citing the physics, maths and computer science archive, arXiv.org, as one example. He also says that science can only be checked and corrected if the datasets are open.

Hahnel is now focusing on spreading the word and meeting with universities – including American institutions – to make it the place to go to publish research. But the big aim is to create a portal that can truly advance science. In the online age, where inaccurate news can spread fast, a definitive, rational and instantly accessible voice is needed, Hahnel suggests.

“We hope to help build a future where everyone can ask questions and back up their answers with data, whether it is inaccurate reports linking autism to vaccines in mainstream news, or much larger questions such as the origins of the universe and how to treat diseases,” he says. “By making all of this information openly available to all in a manner that humans and machines can interpret, we can advance human knowledge a lot further, faster.”

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