London-based tech startup Figshare has a pretty incredible mandate — use technology to completely overhaul how academic research is available. In turn, it hopes this will better society by speeding up scientific, economic, and sociological discovery.
Effectively, Figshare wants to accelerate the pace of discoveries like a cure for cancer through its platform.
It’s completely disrupting the academic world at the moment and some of the world’s largest drugmakers are in talks to licence its open data platform.
It’s basically a mixture of “DropBox on the back end and YouTube on the front end”, according to founder Mark Hahnel. Even the least tech savvy academic is able to use it.
‘I created it out of purely selfish reasons’
It was founded in 2011 by Hahnel while he was studying for a PhD in stem cell biology. He found that the world of academia was just as cutthroat and political as the corporate world when it came to making a name for yourself and getting credit for the work that you do.
“I was shocked that the only way you could advance was by writing around six papers and being published in a certain set of publications,” Hahnel told Business Insider at Figshare’s offices in King’s Cross, London. “Also, when it came to researching, it was difficult to find other research to disseminate from.”
“The current scholarly publishing model did not allow me to present the research I was doing. I created [Figshare] initially out of purely selfish reasons and I spent my evenings and weekends creating a platform that allowed me show, in a super simple way, data sets, and videos to put me ahead of the rest of my peers.”
Figshare allows users to upload any file format such as figures, datasets, media, papers, posters, presentations, and filesets. Research is citable, shareable and easy to search for.
Since its early days, an umbrella investor and startup incubator Digital Science has invested in the group. Hahnel won’t confirm an exact number but says it was “in the millions” of pounds, but Digital Science is not a majority shareholder.
Figshare primarily sells its platform to universities “for less than the price of a full-time employee,” and individual users can even use it for free, depending on the data storage space they use.
‘Academic journals are like different football teams’
Figshare is disrupting the status quo, where certain journals and companies can control the publication of papers. This affects the funding of projects and the career of the researcher.
“When people first start working at Figshare, I have to sit them down and explain the ‘impact factor’ in academia because most of the staff are coders,” said Hahnel.
“I explain the ‘impact factor’ like being the Premier League. Academic journals are like different football teams and each carry a ranking. As an academic, your worth is measured by what journals you publish in.
“If you published six papers in the Manchester United version of a journal, it would affect funding, your career, and standing in the community more than if you were published in lesser ranked journals,” said Hahnel.
“It shouldn’t matter where you are published. It has also been shown many times that there is vested interest, bribery, and corruption within the academic world of publishing and this should stop.”
The faults in science publishing have been widely documented over the last few years. Randy Schekman, a US biologist who won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, publicly said that he is boycotting top scientific journals because they distorts the scientific process. The journals he cited included “Nature”, “Cell” and “Science.”
“I have published in the big brands, including papers that won me a Nobel prize. But no longer,” he said in an article for The Guardian in 2013. “Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals.”
The Wall Street Journal also published a commentary piece by Hank Campbell, co-author of “Science Left Behind,” about corruption in the science publishing world.
Saving costs and saving lives
Figshare has a big task on its hands as it’s taking a huge incumbent, Elsevier.
Elsevier is the world’s largest provider of scientific journals, rankings, and research platforms. It currently charges around £1.5 million on average for a university to have access to its platform. To publish in one of its journals costs around £10,500.
Hahnel says there are huge differences between Figshare and Elsevier. Figshare “provides the tools” for the academic institution or company to upload and manage their own research and on top of that, it costs less than hiring a full-time member of a staff. It also includes negative data and others can read and share research freely.
These features have two big impacts.
Firstly, the cost savings are huge, so the university or company has more to spend on other resources. Secondly, in terms of their actual work, it will massively speed up scientific discovery because if the negative data.
“At the moment, if you were looking for the cure for cancer, you’d only be able to find research that shows a positive outcome, like ‘X drug has worked on prolonging the life of a patient,'” Hahnel says. “However, it’s difficult to find the 10,000 other papers that have researched other drugs or avenues for a cure that didn’t work or only worked on some people.”
“Without this data, researchers would have to effectively start all over again or just research from the positive results data. You’d also have to try and get permission from the authors, which could slow the process. So, having a platform where all data, including null results data, available will save move and time, speeding up the way new drugs are discovered, and less people die.”
Big pharmaceutical companies recognise this benefit. Hahnel says Figshare hasn’t been courting the big drugmakers but have a “reactionary” approach to those who are interested in adopting the Figshare technology to help with research and development.
This week, Hahnel and his team had a meeting with one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies in the world but he did not want to put its name on record.
“We’re getting approached by the big companies and in fact on Monday we were approached by a huge one,” said Hahnel.
“We’re a fast moving company in a very old-fashioned industry. Pharmaceuticals is the only massive multi-billionaire industry that hasn’t been completely revolutionised by the internet.”
It’s for this very reason that Figshare still has to convince some members of academia on the benefits of using its platform. Many are either fearful or wary.
“The web, being the disruptive force that it has been, makes a lot of industries a lot more democratic and a diplomatic playing field for everyone globally,” said Hahnel.
“However, there are some professors that have grown up in an age of no internet and a system that has been in place for 20 years. Some are resistant to change. We could wait 20 years for those guys to die but we’re not going to.
“The platform is all about openness, job opportunities, and progressing society. It’s all about showing that people are in control of their research and getting credit for it.”
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