Revolutionizing Science: This Platform Lets Researchers Collaborate No Matter Where They Live

By Jim Probasco

What happens when you cross a Harvard astrophysicist with a collaborative business model? Answer: Something called Authorea.

Benzinga was given the chance to speak to an actual astrophysicist and learn more about this unique science collaboration and publishing platform.

Benzinga: Dr. Pepe, how did Authorea begin?

Dr. Alberto Pepe: First, thanks for calling me Dr. Pepe. That doesn’t happen very often. (laughs) My background is in astrophysics. Before coming to the U.S. I worked in Geneva, Switzerland at CERN, which is a large particle accelerator.

At CERN, I experienced, for the first time, how large scale collaboration works in science. Hundreds of people working together on one single project and then to have to write a paper. Literally hundreds of people working together on one single document.

What did you discover about that process?

I realized there were a lot of inefficiencies in the way scientists work together. This applies to large-scale collaboration but also to small groups. The major problem I found was the idea of having one manuscript and even 3 or 4 people exchanging the manuscript via email. Only one person can write at a time.

If multiple people are writing, you have 3 or 4 different versions of the same paper. So, I got inspired by how this problem is being solved in other fields.

What other fields?

One is the field of Web development. A lot of people are now using tools like Git and GitHub, tools that make it easy for developers, programmers to collaborate on code. And so we began thinking about using exactly the same kinds of tools to track documents.

What we ended up with is a very powerful, very robust control system to track changes in documents. It’s like Microsoft Word track changes but in a very native way. The actual control tool is built right into the platform.

So, Authorea helps collaborators track changes. Does it do anything else?

Yes. As a researcher I was doing a lot of data analysis. I call myself a bit of a data scientist because a lot of the work I was doing involved managing large data sets.

I realized that another inefficiency that existed in science is the fact that a lot of the data being analyzed and processed and managed was not being published. So we ended up reading research papers of my colleagues that were just PDFs. The data was not being shared.

Is having the data available important?

Absolutely. Without the data, others can’t build on your work. This is a big threat to science in general. So, I got really excited about the open science movement which has a lot of parallels with the source code community.

Our idea here was to bring the same level of openness to science. Now that the product is getting better and better, we’re getting more and more interest from outside of science. It can be used, for example, in the legal field. Or it can be used in banking. Or it can be used by large R&D companies such as pharmaceutical companies.

You mentioned licensing outside of academia. How would that work?

With corporations, an enterprise license is the only way we can actually interact and get these companies on board. Most of the companies that have approached us in the last few months only have two major concerns – privacy and security.

They cannot produce content that lives on our servers. They need to have an installation of Authorea that runs on their servers. It’s important to note that we don’t force anybody to share anything they don’t want to share.

On the academic science front, however, sharing the data allows for follow up investigations and discoveries, right?

Yes. By sharing data you're actually enabling not just your colleagues to build on top of your work, to extend the kind of work that you're doing and probably see beyond what you managed to see, but you also enable essentially everybody including citizen scientists or just people that are interested in that type of work to apply what you've done and come up with new discoveries.

Behind every single huge discovery in science and scholarship there is always the sharing of the data. I think it could not be otherwise.

What about importing previous studies or collaborations to make that data available?

Actually, we already allow existing articles to be imported, even if they haven’t used Authorea before.

We haven’t yet enabled data import but it is a very good idea and something we should eventually do.

Currently you monetize by charging for private hosting of research papers. Is that sufficient to support the business?

Actually, in addition to the private hosting of research papers for which we charge, there are also opportunities for institutional licenses that we sell to universities.

I think, in the long run, we definitely have a sustainable business model. For the number of users we have which is around 100,000, the system is sufficient to pay for some expenses. However, we rely at the moment on injection of capital from investors.

What about the value of the content published on Authorea?

Good point. Even though the business model is mostly based on encouraging openness and encouraging publication of articles and data, if you are an author and writing content on Authorea, the content you’re giving Authorea is extremely valuable. It’s making us a constant repository for scientific research.

Once we have enough content the business model will not be a problem because we will be the “go to” place for finding and discovering the latest scientific research.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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