Ahead of ESOF 2014, we talk to three leading figures in science, technology and academia who through frustrations of not having the effective tools necessary to do their work, decided to build their own.
In this three-part series in the run-up to Europe’s largest, general science meeting held every two years, this year in Copenhagen (June 21-26), we look at the increasing number of start-up companies that are “spinning out” of academic institutions worldwide.
Here, the co-founder and CEO of Frontiers, Kamila Markram talks about the growing numbers of academics starting companies as a result of frustrations and advances in open science.
Kamila Markram is a neuroscientist, autism researcher and co-founder and CEO of Frontiers, an open-access publisher and research network. Frontiers innovates in peer review, article-level metrics, post-publication review, research networking and a growing ecosystem of open-science tools. With over 20,000 articles published in 47 community-run journals across 29 STM fields and 50,000 researchers on its editorial boards, Frontiers is the fourth leading open-access publisher worldwide. In 2013, Frontiers joined the Nature Publishing Group family in a partnership to advance Open Science.
What inspired you to start Frontiers?
As a neuroscientist, I have had first-hand experience of traditional scholarly publishing and I was frustrated by the process. Much time and energy is lost by authors, reviewers and editors in shuffling perfectly valid and great articles in a rejection cascade from one journal to another. Within this process, peer review had lost its true purpose of providing constructive feedback to improve a colleague’s work. So we founded Frontiers in 2007 with a different approach: to use the power of the Web to build from scratch an online platform that puts scientists in control of publishing, empowers them to work within their niche communities, to run journals and take editorial decisions, and re-instate the collaborative spirit of peer-review. Today, we see Frontiers as an Open Science platform that evolves to meet the many needs of scientists, and in their roles as authors, reviewers and editors.
What background did you have in business, if any?
I did not have any background in business, but I do not think that this is a prerequisite to start a business. You need business knowledge to manage success, but success starts with people who really care about what they do.
Apart from publishing research articles, I also had no knowledge of the scholarly publishing industry, but I think that actually worked to our advantage. Without worrying about any traditions and constraints, you are free to think of innovations that can offer something radically new and push boundaries.
What qualities do entrepreneurs share with scientists?
Scientists have a high frustration tolerance, do not give up easily, and maintain strong focus. Simply put: their work is their life. Many experiments can take years of failure before we get it right and we make a ground-breaking discovery. When I worked on the neurophysiological underpinnings of learning and memory at the EPFL, I performed experiments in a dark room, all day long, many weekends included. I loved it. Being a scientist is certainly not just a job, it is a calling. Being an entrepreneur is very similar. Successful entrepreneurs are dedicated, persevere and do not take no for an answer. They will continue even if others tell them they cannot succeed. Entrepreneurship is about believing in your vision and mission. Frontiers would have never succeeded they way it did if we – I and the many researchers involved – did not truly believe that we could benefit society with our mission to improve the publishing process by empowering researchers to run journals and disseminate research discoveries freely and efficiently to the world. I see Frontiers as a calling, like neuroscience.
Have you seen growing trends / numbers of academics starting companies as a result of frustrations and not having the effective tools?
Certainly. Tools for academics have for a long time been lagging behind those developed in other industries. Today this is slowly but steadily changing. When we started Frontiers in 2007, scientists used their published articles, email and conferences as the main communication tools for their science. Today, I would say this is still the case for the majority of communities, but there are many more tools available. Many younger, and increasingly also more established academics, are using these tools to communicate and collaborate.
The scholarly publishing industry, including traditional publishers, seems to be awakening and we are witnessing very interesting times indeed. I believe that we are close to a tipping point, where scholarly publishing will become mostly Open Access within this decade. There are now significantly more open-access journals than when we created Frontiers in 2007. Most new journals launched by the big traditional publishing houses today are Open Access, and there is also a growing number of progressive open-access policies by governments, funders and institutions. There is more and more experimentation happening within the publishing process itself. Over the last few years, there have been many more approaches to peer review, new ways to evaluate science, to publish and share data, and to make articles machine-readable to allow knowledge integration and synthesis. Much of this is driven by vibrant grassroots initiatives that are helping to transform the scholarly publishing landscape.
Frontiers was launched with a vision that as the next-generation publishers, run by scientists, we should be building an Open Science platform that evolves with our needs. So we incorporate the daily feedback we get from the 150,000 scientists involved in Frontiers as editors, reviewers, authors and network users. We are also often approached by scientists who have an idea that they would like to integrate into the Frontiers platform.
What were your expectations and ambitions at the start?
At Frontiers, we believe that scientific and academic discoveries should be freely available to accelerate progress for the benefit of humanity. We believe that the process of peer review and academic publishing should be constructive, fair, transparent and efficient, so that others – researchers, clinicians, parents, teachers, companies, governments – can benefit from a discovery as fast as possible. We believe that scientists and scholars who produce the discoveries should also be in charge of publishing them. Our way is a community-driven and democratic approach to publishing. We want to publish the body of science with high-quality standards to help advance scientific and societal progress.
As a result, the development of our entire platform, products and philosophy are centered about academic communities and how we can best empower them to make their research freely available, maximize their outreach and impact, boost their profiles, collaborations and more. Science is growing at a phenomenal rate and Frontiers aims to make the best web technologies available to meet the evolving needs of scientists in the digital era.
What have been the biggest challenges and rewards since starting your business?
Scientific publishing is dominated by a small number of well-established publishers, and scientists tend to be conservative about the choice of their publisher for reasons of reputation. The process of peer review with an in-house editor and 2 to 3 external reviewers, with a mandate to publish only those manuscripts with a potential for high impact and to reject the rest, has remained essentially the same for decades.
So it was certainly a challenge to introduce a new publishing model with a radically different and collaborative approach to peer review. At Frontiers, active researchers take all editorial decisions. We believe that peer-review must be rigorous to safeguard quality-standards, and that it should be at the same time constructive, fair, and focused on the validity of research. To achieve this, we implemented new guidelines and took peer review entirely online. Reviewers were accustomed to send a word document with their evaluation. But at Frontiers they are required to fill in a detailed online questionnaire that focuses on the most rigorous technical points. They then collaborate with the authors and iterate until a consensus is reached, all issues are addressed and the manuscript is of a high-standard and ready for publication. We disclose the names of reviewers on the final article. This was very different from anything that people knew in publishing, especially when we first started seven years ago. Usually the focus is on quick rejection, but at Frontiers the focus is on scientists collaborating to improve the manuscript. There were objections initially.
The biggest reward certainly was to see that once the reviewers went through the process once or twice, they really liked the collaborative interaction with the authors, and quickly adopted it as the new standard. The fast uptake of our publishing model shows that innovations in peer review are welcomed by the scientific community, and the high impact of our publications proves that our model works
Another challenge was the Gold open-access business-model. In traditional subscription publishing, university libraries pay substantial subscription fees to buy access to scholarly journals. Authors publish for “free” (except for hidden costs that include color figures, reprints, and in last few years also paying for Open Access fees) and this has made academics believe that publishing is somehow cost-free and therefore should be free. In the Gold open-access model, authors pay a fee to publish their article – usually from their grant or through a university library agreement – and the article is then freely available to any reader in the world. However, many academics find the idea that an author should pay to publish their own article strange, or believe that they do not have the funds to do so. At Frontiers, and as part of a strong and growing open-access publishing community, we do a lot of advocacy work to explain the open-access publishing models and clear up many misconceptions. The reward is that we contribute to changing the scholarly publishing landscape and make science available to anybody in the world.
Lastly, the biggest reward for us is to work with leading scientists to improve the way science is published, disseminated and communicated so that humanity can benefit and progress better and faster. Nothing beats this.
How did you go about building your tools / communities?
The secret to our success is a combination of having a great in-house team, uniting leading researchers to build and manage community journals and providing a state-of-the art-IT platform tailored to their needs.
While we do not cherry-pick articles, we do cherry-pick our in-house team. We currently have a team of around 140 employees of mainly journal and publication mangers and software engineers. It is an outstanding team, and a truly great privilege to work with so many highly talented and dedicated people. While they all come from very different academic backgrounds and many nationalities, we all have one thing in common – our belief that science is the fabric of modern society and that we need to disseminate research discoveries for the benefit of humanity.
We also take great care and pride in building the communities for each of our journals and specialty sections. Only leading researchers from top universities are invited to serve on our editorial boards and our teams of journal managers work with them to build a comprehensive and stellar representation for their field and specialty. This helps to ensure quality.
Importantly, we consider Frontiers an IT company at heart. The entire Frontiers Open Science platform, including the Review Forum, Article Level Metrics and Research Networking, was designed and built entirely in-house. We consider this the foundation for true innovation. It is very rare for a publisher to develop its own publishing platform and products, and it is not easy, but the results are worth it: customized products and tools that deliver high-quality publications, enhanced article dissemination, detailed online article metrics and a review forum that enables scientists to work together to improve manuscripts.
What impact do you think you’ve had on advancing Open Science since starting Frontiers in 2007?
We help in the growing and global movement to make research freely available to the world – this is an important mission with huge impact on society and economy. Specifically, we have made numerous contributions to make the publishing process and dissemination of scientific discoveries more community-focused and more efficient.
We know that our collaborative peer review translates into high-volume publishing, consisting of high-quality papers. Our publishing rates experience exponential growth and we have already published over 20,000 articles as of May 2014 and expect to publish our 30,000th article by the fourth quarter of this year. This makes Frontiers one of the largest and fastest growing scholarly publishers. When compared to the 9,000 journals listed in Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, the leading journal index, our journals are well above average in terms of citation levels and article volumes. We have the largest editorial board of any scholarly publisher – presently, we count 50,000 leading researchers as editors from over 5,000 universities. These numbers are still growing as we continue to launch journals across all science, medicine and engineering fields and are about to expand into the social sciences.
Other innovations include our first version of article level metrics in 2008 and these provide the basis for objective and democratic evaluation of discoveries and researchers. In the next years, we will see the importance of this objective type of research evaluation rise.
To improve the dissemination of articles, we are the first to combine open-access publishing with social networking technology, to increase the reach and impact of articles and disseminate them in a targeted way. This is the next generation of open-access publishing and we will see the potential of this strategy.
We recently launched Frontiers for Young Minds, a free web-based open-access journal for children. Established scientists mentor kids aged 8 to 16 to review science articles written for a younger audience. This is not just fun, but key to our mission of making science understandable to the world, and it has also been phenomenally well received by kids, parent, teachers, and scientists.
Overall, we can show that the scientific communities are helping us to change scholarly publishing and dissemination for the better and we are having an increasing impact. And last year, we joined Nature Publishing Group and together we are stronger to make an impact for Open Science.
What advice would you give to academics thinking of starting out in business?
Put the vision first, and the rest will come. Define your core principles and remain true to them as you go along building new services and products. Be convinced that what you build is solving a burning need or frustration in academia and worth giving up your science career for and getting out of bed every morning.