‘TripAdvisor’ for research aims to shake up funding model

Sharing every stage of scholarship on Octopus platform will allow funders to offer smaller, more regular grants, according to founder

December 4, 2018
Still from ‘The Wright Idea’
Source: Getty
Tentacular: Octopus is a radically fresh take on the way in which researchers could go about their work

The chance to scrap the entire academic research funding and publishing system and rebuild it from scratch is a fantasy that many a frustrated scholar will have had at some point in their career. But an idea currently in development could soon make that fantasy a reality.

Octopus, an open-access online platform, will allow individuals to share research at every stage of their working, from initial hypothesis to data and real-world application, eradicating – according to its founder – the need for traditional scientific papers.

The brainchild of Alex Freeman, executive director of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, Octopus has been likened to a TripAdvisor for scholarly publishing, allowing each fragment of research to be rated and reviewed by members of a self-regulating online community.

The transparent nature of the platform’s content will allow funders to see the progress made by individuals and encourage them to offer smaller, more frequent pots of funding for the next step in the chain, according to Dr Freeman.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, she explained that part of her motivation for the project came from a feeling that bigger, traditional grant applications “are just a huge waste of time and resources”.

“Researchers are basically having to rewrite half of their papers into grant applications and it’s a very wasteful process,” she said. “With Octopus I’d [hope for] a more open peer review [process], and by publishing ideas and protocols along the way it could really break up that big lump sum into something far more efficient.”

Presenting the concept at a pitching competition hosted by the Royal Society last month, Dr Freeman impressed a panel of expert judges, who hailed Octopus as a revolutionary new approach to making research easier to both read and undertake.

Dr Freeman was awarded £1,000 to develop the platform with website designers, and has since received offers for practical contributions from across the world as well as “an expression of interest” from the Wellcome Trust.

Marcus Munafo, professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol, told THE that Octopus was “a radically fresh take on the way in which researchers could go about their work, which could in fact help bring us out of what has become a very antiquated system”.

While Dr Freeman argued that “the whole concept of a scientific paper as the unit of publication is out of date”, Octopus would not eradicate the need for journals. Their role will continue in offering “expert commentary and papers tailored to their own individual audience”, she suggested.

While independent research depositories do already exist, “Octopus will allow all of science to be found in one place, making it easily searchable in a community-run basin that is free at the point of use”, she added.

Unlike some similar community platforms, Octopus will have “no anonymous logins, making it possible to judge the critic based on their previous comments, too” – which Dr Freeman suggested could help to eradicate biased negative feedback.

Readers will also be able to flag publications for issues such as inappropriate use of statistics or plagiarism.

Dr Freeman is in the process of speaking to potential investors “who are philanthropic, not for profit”.

“I really believe we can build a system which allows people to be judged more on the real quality of their work and reward them for that work, breaking down the barriers to good science,” she said.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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