Kiwi peer review system speeds up science

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Victoria University PhD student Andrew Preston was fed up with how long it took to get research findings published. Photo / Anthony Phelps
Victoria University PhD student Andrew Preston was fed up with how long it took to get research findings published. Photo / Anthony Phelps

Two Wellington entrepreneurs have developed an online platform which they hope will radically disrupt the 300-year old academic peer review process.

Their business has already attracted the attention of more than a dozen investors this year, who have collectively injected start-up funding of $350,000.

Publons allows academics and journal editors to share articles online, enabling the science community to review and discuss the work.

It shortcuts the time-consuming traditional system, in which academics have to submit their work to a journal and have it formally peer-reviewed before it can be published.

That process can take weeks and journal editors often find it very difficult to enlist researchers who have the time and desire to review a piece of work.

Publons was co-founded last year by academics Daniel Johnston and Andrew Preston, who had both become frustrated with the arduous process of getting work published.

Preston - who received his PhD in condensed matter physics from Victoria University in 2010 and went on to do his postdoctoral research in x-ray spectroscopy at Boston University - said the way academics shared their findings with the world had not changed in more than 300 years.

Other publishing industries had kept in step with digital changes but academic research had remained static, he said.

"We literally communicate and evaluate our research the same way that Isaac Newton did when he published his first paper back in 1662," Preston said.

"The only difference is it's now a PDF and it's online."

Publons allows free and open discussion of an article, either before or after it has been published.

Traditionally, reviewers are not paid and receive little recognition for their work but Publons allows reviewers to advance their careers by building up a visible portfolio.

Fabiana Kubke, a senior lecturer at University of Auckland's School of Medical Sciences, said the science community currently had few very opportunities to openly discuss published work.

"Every time I see something where you can comment on the published literature I think that's a good thing," she said.

For a journal editor, finding academics to peer-review an article was a "horrible" process, Kubke said. Publons could well help solve that problem.

She said Publons had the potential to help authors, editors and reviewers but the biggest winner would be science itself.

"I'm watching to see how it ends up working. If it does what it wants to do, it could be incredibly useful."

Publons, which is now a team of three and looking to grow, was selected earlier this year to be part a three-month boot camp accelerator programme named the Lightning Lab.

At the end of that programme, Preston pitched the business idea to about 150 investors. About 15 had since collectively invested $350,000 in seed capital.

That money was being used to develop the platform and significantly increase the number of authors, peer-reviewers and publishers using it.

Preston said the academic publishing market was now worth $19 billion spread across 27,000 peer review journals.

He was "not a fan" of advertising on the site as a source of revenue but the team was looking at other business models.

The model likely to be used involved journals paying to submit each article, allowing them to easily find a suitable and willing peer-reviewer from the Publons community.

Preston hoped to have about 20 major international journals signed up to the service within a year.

So far, there are 11,000 authors and 3000 publications in the database but the authors are not active users. There are about 200 users right now.

Publons gets its name from the colloquial term given for the smallest unit of academic material needed to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, a 'publon'.

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