Changing the Status Quo: Jon Tennant, Communications Director at ScienceOpen

By Leah Cannon posted 05-30-2017 02:37



Jon Tennant is a paleontologist who recently completed his PhD at Imperial College London. He is also a science communicator and a big open science supporter, writing about research and scientific publishing on his blog ‘Green Tea and Velociraptors’ among other places. Jon recently founded PaleorXiv, a pre-print server for paleontology, and is Communications Director at ScienceOpen.

Why did you found PaleorXiv?

Hi Leah! Thanks for inviting me to ramble to you all here. So PaleorXiv is a dedicated paleontology preprint server developed with the Center for Open Science. I’ve got six other awesome paleontologists from around the world and from different sub-disciplines helping me out too. I saw other research communities like Law, Psychology, Social Sciences and Economics setting up specific branded servers with the COS, and instead of thinking ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. Someone should totally do that for Paleontology..’, I figured perhaps it was about time to take this responsibility and challenge on myself, after preaching about the value of preprints for some time now.

While paleontologists have published some preprints on other broader-scale platforms, uptake has been relatively low compared to other fields where this practice is rapidly increasing. The Paleontology sections of platforms like PeerJ preprints and biorXiv look quite sad compared to other disciplines, but indicate that there is at least a spark of interest from researchers. So PaleorXiv acts as a dedicated space to encourage the wider adoption of preprints and is built by the community, for the community,. I think community support and buy-in is what’s super important here – just because we build something, we shouldn’t expect people to understand how and why to use it. This is why communities need to decide on what processes work best for them, and design platforms around that. Ultimately, by working closely within the paleontology community, I hope this will help to accelerate the dissemination of our research in the future so that we can develop more rapidly as a field.

Why do you think there is so much discussion around preprints at the moment?

Preprints are a hugely disruptive research output. While some fields like physics and maths have been widely using preprints for decades now (the arXiv was founded back in 1991!), the conversations and developments in fields like the life sciences have been relatively lacking until recently. There are big cultural differences between disciplines to account for, and much that we can learn from each other. It’s worth remembering though that the entire reason why the Web was originally built was for researchers at CERN to rapidly share research outputs with each other. The ASAPbio movement, and others, are now adopting this principle for the life sciences, and they have been largely responsible for igniting these discussions recently, gaining increasing momentum every day.

Perhaps most importantly though, most of the discussion around preprints is because of their huge disruption to how we publish our research, and discussions about ‘open science’ more in general too. The traditional model for research has always been ‘filter then publish’, with peer review acting as the filter, and journals the vehicle for publishing. Preprints are all about ‘publish then filter’, which basically turns the traditional model on its head. This has a huge number of implications for how we communicate, validate and re-use research, which is why we are seeing a lot of fascinating debate about them at the moment (e.g., here). We’re probably going to see a lot more in the future too, regarding things like community peer review of preprints, and implications for decoupling research communication from journals. Exciting!

What do you think are the major barriers stopping the life science or paleontology communities from adopting preprints?

Aha, this is a really important question to ask. Without first understanding the barriers, we cannot even begin to work on potential solutions. I think overall though, a system of cultural inertia is the biggest barrier. Preprints in the life sciences are only just beginning to take off, and are being pushed forward by a combination of ideology and technological advancement, and cultural practices will always naturally lag behind these. These things take time to take off, and I imagine we’re in the beginning of a snowball phase at the moment. As you mentioned, open conversations around preprints are increasing, and it’s important that we’re making sure all voices are included and considered when pushing forward. If we don’t do that, then the early adopters of preprints become the biggest barrier themselves to the broader uptake.

In paleontology, we have some very specific issues to overcome. For example, much of our work regards the identification and naming of new species. Sometimes during peer review, these things can change, which can lead to conflicts between a preprint and a published version of a paper. While this sort of thing is actually fairly common as research develops, with changes in taxonomy being a natural part of the process, that sort of error can potentially have negative consequences for the proliferation of conflicting information, especially in a time when communication happens so rapidly. So one easy solution to this is simply not to publish papers that name new species as preprints. Sorted. As long as communities are engaging in open discussions about these things, we’ll find that most if not all potential barriers can be overcome.

What is ScienceOpen?

Gear change! ScienceOpen is a community platform for researchers that encourages ‘open’ practices. The coolest things about it are the search and discovery tools, the integration with other essential services like ORCID, Publons, ImpactStory, and CrossRef, and the community tools like public peer evaluation and article collections.

How are you different from ResearchGate (people must ask you that all the time!)? And PubMed and Google Scholar?

So other platforms like and ResearchGate have quite different functions. They have research databases based on manual upload from their membership, much of which is actually hosted by them in direct breach of copyright (naughty naughty). Instead, we draw our content from a huge range of platforms and publishers, including PubMed, arXiv, and SciELO, and moderate researcher uploads through ORCID where everything is integrated and legit for speed and simplicity. We take all of this, and place each researcher in this broader ‘context’ network, linking things through with keywords and citations. Researchers can build upon this network with our collections and post-publication peer review features, which are treated like any other research output and allow researchers to build their digital profile while helping to advance their field in the open. Also, we don’t do silly things like charge users ‘freemium’ services for search functions, recommendations, or targeted advertising – every single service we provide for our users is for free.

In terms of search capability, we don’t restrict ourselves to a particular research domain or geographic subset like PubMed. We also don’t include as much ‘grey literature’ as Google Scholar, and all content on our platform is drawn from peer reviewed journals. Last year, we saw huge growth in our humanities and social sciences content, as well as research from Latin America. We also do not host any copyrighted content, and do not provide links to them like Google Scholar does with ResearchGate. As such, we have both open and closed content on our platform, but with tools like Unpaywall and the OA Button, access to the content we host is increasing but in a structured and legal way. Perhaps best of all though, we have an awesome array of sort and filter functions unlike any other scholarly search engine, which really helps researchers with efficient and precise discovery.

How does ScienceOpen work?

So we actually have different services for different stakeholders. For publishers, we integrate their published research and metadata and use that to enhance the ScienceOpen network while helping to promote and enhance the visibility and reuse of their content. For journal Editors, we provide journal-level metrics (for free) that show how users are engaging with their content on the platform – see Scientific Reports here, for example. For researchers, we provide a range of services including search and discovery, community peer review and collections, and author-level statistics on their profiles. To get the most out of ScienceOpen, researchers should totally integrate their ORCID and watch the magic happen!

Does it show only open access articles? What happens if a researcher wants to access an article that’s behind a paywall?

When we first started out, we only had articles that were OA on the platform. However, we realized early on that this is not great for researchers. By only focusing on and segregating OA content you end up ignoring the value of the closed content, which is still invariably the vast majority of research for most disciplines, and therefore imposes a bias on your research. However, with the advent of tools like Unpaywall and the OA Button, ‘jumping the paywall’ has never been easier, and both work wonders across the entire ScienceOpen database.

Sadly, paywalled content exists whether it’s on ScienceOpen or not – there’s very little we can do about that. What we can do though is show publishers and researchers that they get the most attention and usage of their research when it is published OA, and use this to encourage its wider adoption. Helping to foster a research culture of sharing, valuing the principles of open, and working with a range of stakeholders to find the best solutions for all, is a much more sustainable approach to OA.

Can non-scientists – science journalists etc - sign up?

Absolutely! You don’t even need to sign up to use the search platform actually. Anyone with an email address can sign up, and you can also use your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google profiles to join, because it’s 2017 and you should be able to do that. While some advanced functions require an ORCID to use, such as post-publication peer review (which we can over-ride anyway upon request), we strongly encourage anyone with an interest in science to join! Science journalists in particular might like ScienceOpen, as they can set up alerts for topics of interest and track the latest published research from across 3000 publishers and have it delivered right to them in one place. Neat eh!

How many articles do you have on ScienceOpen? Do you also list preprints?

At the moment, we have more than 31 million article records on ScienceOpen. We’re growing at an incredibly fast rate too, with around a million records added each couple of weeks now. New content is added each day as we work closely with publishers, researchers, and platforms like PubMed to bring all of their data together.

We do have preprints! In fact, we have the entire arXiv on the platform, so more than 1.1 million articles, and are looking into integrating more from different servers as the ‘preprint revolution’ continues. Anyone can read, recommend, share, comment on, and even formally peer review any of these preprints. In the open, and free.

How can platforms like ScienceOpen change peer review and scientific publishing?

Peer review is undergoing quite a critical examination at the moment. We support post-publication peer review, based on the recognition that research is a process and does not stop at the point of publication. We are also helping the research community to really think about the purpose and process of peer review, and how opening this up could create a much more objective standard for it. At ScienceOpen, we encourage open participation, identification, and publication of referee reports, very much in line with the increasing support for Open Peer Review across the board.

Can you tell us about Peer Review Week?

It’s the most wonderful time of the yeaaaar... PRW is an annual event that we helped kick-start back in 2015. This year, the theme is ‘Transparency’, which is awesome. As a researcher, this is something I’ve been pushing for with publishers on a personal level to help improve the system of communication for peer review. From a ScienceOpen perspective, we’ve been pushing for increasing transparency in peer review since we began, and we’re thrilled to see the wider scholarly communications community coming together to talk about these things more. Open Access and Open Data are pretty mainstream now for research: It’s time for Open Peer Review to take the stage!

What do you think scientific publishing will look like in five years’ time?

Scientific publishing is changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up with at times. I think one avenue is that we’re going to see deconstruction of the entire process, with community-organised peer review of preprints, increasing use of version control, and a move towards more objective research evaluation – all part of moving away from a system governed by journals. People are smart, and the next generation is coming into academia with very different ideas about communication and knowledge transfer, and is wickedly talented in terms of Web-oriented skills. We’re seeing more and more research funders supporting their own publishing platforms now, instead of funneling money into corporate publishers. We’re seeing whole countries coming together and taking a stand against some of the biggest publishers, and I think a lot of them are beginning to realize that their time is running out as, er, publishers. Even Elsevier, one of the most beloved publishing houses, now identifies as a service provider! So I think we will see research communities take much of the process away from traditional publishers, and those publishers moving towards data-oriented services instead. This is the sort of thing the Web enables at a massive scale, and what we’re slowly moving towards as the ‘Open Science movement’ continues to accelerate and diversity.

At ScienceOpen, we will hopefully always be there to help research communities manage peer review, increase their digital footprint and research impact, discover relevant research, and work together to progress research in the open.

At a personal level, I’ll always be there to help make sure what we’re doing is in the best interests of research communities, and not just reinforcing the status quo or a privileged elite.

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