Octopus aims to grasp ‘publishing revolution science needs’

Creator of ‘fast, free, fair’ platform hopes to help researchers shift away from journals and ‘increase meritocracy’

August 12, 2021
Octopus kite
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A planned research publishing platform aims to help create a “revolution” in science and “increase meritocracy” by disrupting a hierarchy where “gatekeepers” of huge teams can block career progress.

Octopus, billed as a “fast, free and fair” replacement for journal and paper publication, will receive £650,000 over three years from Research England, allowing it to progress from “prototype” to full launch in spring 2022.

The platform is described as allowing researchers to publish “what you do when you do it” by its creator, Alex Freeman, who is executive director of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence at the University of Cambridge and a former producer of science and history programmes at the BBC, where she made documentaries with figures including Sir David Attenborough.

Dr Freeman said that when she returned to academia after leaving the BBC, she was “slightly shocked” at the approach to publishing, seeing colleagues being “assessed and judged on exactly the same kinds of metrics as we would be in the media: how many people read us, how many people follow us or forward us, or like [our research] or cite it. Those aren’t necessarily the right metrics for judging science – it’s essentially judging someone’s storytelling ability.”

She also argued that the pandemic had showed the need to bypass journals with fast, open, free publication, a need that would remain equally pressing post-pandemic: “Why should a breast cancer patient wait three years for some research to be published?”

Unlike traditional journal articles, Octopus will divide research projects into eight elements: problem, hypothesis/rationale, methods/protocol, data/results, analysis, interpretation, real-world implementation, and peer review. These elements can then be linked together to form “chains” of collaborative work.

Dr Freeman acknowledged that getting academics to shift away from journal publication was a “big ask”. But she suggested that because Octopus – a not-for-profit community interest company – will pull in existing open access papers and group them by research problem, it will become a “useful place to find research, then rate it and review it. Once you’ve got into that pattern and you’re getting credit for those reviews – they are appearing on your profile – it then makes sense to publish, quickly and easily, these short publications that are about your original research…I think it can snowball quite quickly.”

Dr Freeman hoped Octopus could help “get back to smaller author groups or single author publications, which not only makes things more accessible – whatever your resources you can still publish – it means we can increase meritocracy”.

It would, she argued, reduce hierarchy and remove from the equation “gatekeepers” of big research teams who “hold the reins of your career by being the person who is in charge of deciding the author list or getting the funding…Who you know governing your career is not a good system.”

But, without pre-publication peer review won’t the quality be much lower than that of orthodox journals?

“Yes, there is going to be poor quality publication in there, as there is sent to every journal every day,” replied Dr Freeman. But she argued that a post-publication rating and reviewing system linked to profiles would mean that “if you’re publishing poorly rated stuff that will look bad…You will want to publish your best stuff.”

Some will be sceptical of the idea of a user review-driven platform for research – and of the scope to challenge orthodox publication culture. But Dr Freeman said: “Think of what happened when Spotify came out. Revolutions can happen quite quickly in any culture and I think the scientific world is ripe for it.”


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Reader's comments (3)

This type of 'Stream of consciousness' publishing does not look very helpful and will rather serve to make it even harder to read the literature and assess its merits.
Nah, not going to work; academics will never move away from peer-reviewed journal model.
I agree. Amongst other reasons is that, if we are relying on post publication review, will qualified academics with some knowledge be bothered to review? Or will it be people with time on their hands but no expertise- or worse, rivals with scores to settle.


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