Like many academics, when Josh Nicholson was in the final year of his PhD in cancer biology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, he got frustrated with the process of publishing research. But unlike most academics, he decided to do something about it.
“I was frustrated that publishing was so slow, expensive, closed and really ineffective at its one purpose – communicating ideas…I found the incentives in publishing to be misaligned with the aims of research,” he said.
These frustrations spurred him to create The Winnower, an online open access publishing platform that uses open peer review after publication. “The idea was to publish everything, and then sort the good from bad,” he said.
The platform publishes work that researchers are writing but not necessarily submitting to traditional journals and would otherwise be lost. This so-called grey literature can include datasets from research that an academic decides not to take any further, null or negative findings, and pieces describing software or methods.
The Winnower also publishes student essays, blogs, citizen science projects and discussions from the social media site reddit. The platform gives each document a digital object identifier, a sequence of characters that is used to uniquely identify electronic documents. It has grown steadily and has recently been acquired by another online platform, Authorea, where Dr Nicholson is now the chief research officer and is working to bring the two products together.
“Authorea is trying to reinvent the research article so that it is not just a static PDF,” he said. Researchers can write in collaboration with others on the platform, store data that are linked to the text, and create interactive figures as well as submit their work to any journal with one click. “We are really trying to rethink how researchers communicate from the ground up to make it more appropriate for the web,” he added.
Although the main focus is on original research, Authorea will still publish work that traditional journals do not.
These grey outputs of research are receiving ever more attention as funding for science dwindles because without any record of work that has been done previously, precious money is spent repeating experiments unnecessarily.
Rebecca Lawrence, managing director of F1000, a publisher that also provides immediate publication, open peer review and data deposition, said: “Funders have got a lot of evidence that a lot of what they fund just goes straight in the bin essentially because nobody gets to see it.”
Then, funders inadvertently end up giving money for the same research to be performed again – albeit by others – “as nobody knows it has been done”.
This is not only a waste of time and money. “It is also skewing our understanding of science generally because we are only seeing one part – what appears to be impactful or positive findings,” Dr Lawrence added. “We are missing the other half of the story, where things haven’t worked, and the null and negative results are the findings that might change our understanding and perspective.”
Dr Lawrence said that researchers currently have no incentives to publish work that does not fit into the traditional journal article. Careers depend on getting meaningful results that are published in high-impact journals cited often by others, for example, and publishing null or negative findings takes time that researchers might prefer to spend writing up work that they consider to be more important.
One funder that has been hoping to change this is the Wellcome Trust.
Later this month, it will launch Wellcome Open Research, a platform supported by F1000 that offers grant recipients the chance to publish any work quickly before an open peer review. Authors can revise manuscripts as often as they wish on the platform, which affords early career academics an outlet to publish work that might not get accepted to a traditional journal.
“We don’t call it a journal because we don’t have editors making decisions on behalf of the community,” Dr Lawrence explained.
She added that funders play a “crucial role” in getting grey literature published and in shifting the incentive system in research. “There is a really unique relationship between the researcher and the funder. The researchers want to do [the] things that their funders think [are] a good thing to do,” she added.
Phill Jones, director of publishing innovation at Digital Science, which owns Figshare, a site that academics use to share scholarly outputs, said that funders are becoming “steadily more firm” with their wish to make science more open and are encouraging researchers to share more data.
“That will change the way that researchers behave in the lab,” he said. At the moment, many researchers refrain from making data available until they realise that they have to, at grant renewal time, for example.
“In the future, they will prepare their data as they go along, so they will be ready to share it when the time comes. It could result in increased rigour,” he added.
But Dr Jones stated that in his opinion the journal article was still here to stay. “The narrative of research is the journal article, and that is never going anywhere.”
Dr Lawrence said that current funder platforms for grey literature could be a “stepping stone” to the creation of one big platform, owned by the research community, where academics publish their work for peer review.
“Maybe you [will] get stamps as to the quality of the finding. You could imagine Nature and other places putting a stamp on an article rather than doing the actual publication of the article in the first place,” she said.