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#FoundersFriday with Overleaf’s John Hammersley and John Lees-Miller: Part 2

1st April 2016
 | Katy Alexander

johnsWe are very excited to be launching a new recurring series on our blog, #FoundersFriday, in which we will be interviewing the founders of different scholarly communication businesses, asking them to share their advice for others and their perspective on the industry as a whole.

For our first edition we interviewed John Hammersley and John Lees-Miller, co-founders of Overleaf. They both had so many interesting things to say that we split their interview into two posts – you can read part one here. (Apologies for being a week behind, it was due to the Good Friday Bank Holiday!)

You’ve been involved in some of the broader discussions in the scholarly communication and publishing space through your #FuturePub events. There’s often this common complaint that people have the same conversations again and again, people say we were talking about this 10 years ago – can you think of an issue or an innovation that maybe people aren’t talking about enough or could be looking at to move the conversation forward?

JH: I think the thing’s that changed is cloud technology, services that don’t run locally but run on a server somewhere else and that you access through a web browser, you couldn’t do that 5 or 10 years ago, you had to have things locally installed. I think that does allow for a lot of different things to happen, services moving to the cloud allow for efficiencies in processes that weren’t there before, not just within academia. As more and more things move to being accessed through a browser, that can be a big change to how a lot of things are done, whether it’s authoring through Overleaf, or whether it’s any of the other services involved in scholarly publishing. Maybe a lot of the innovations are things that have been talked about before but I think there is a new technology there that people can use.

JLM: I think there is quite a lot of progress happening, I think the reason there’s a lot of frustration is that most of the people in the community are revolutionary, they want everything to change very radically, very quickly. There’s plenty of research and experience that suggests that things tend to change more slowly. When you’re talking about behaviour change, it’s often a case of changing things quite subtly so that it becomes easier for people to do the right thing, whether that’s making their work open or whether it’s paying a monthly fee for access to songs, instead of illegally pirating them. Spotify is a good example of how they make it easy for people to pay for music, so what are we going to do in science that’s going to make it easier for people to make their work open or make it easier for people to build on their work? I think a lot of that is about very slow and difficult changes, but also putting the groundwork in place for things to be easier, that’s one of the things we’re trying to do with Overleaf.

Where do you see Overleaf in 5 years?

JH: I think in five years we would want more and more people to be using Overleaf to write papers, to write project reports, to use Overleaf for their technical writing. I think Word, Google Docs and those kind of services, they work really well for short non-technical documents that you don’t need to look professional. If a document needs to look professional, Word doesn’t do a very good job of it, so you should be using Overleaf! I think alongside that, with our integrations with other publishing services, there’s a lot more we can do to keep streamlining that process, to make it easier to create a paper and submit it wherever you want to, resubmit it if you need to, for peer review to happen and be kept alongside that paper, whether the review happens in Overleaf or another system, so just making sure that everything talks to everything.

JLM: Getting the service used for more of the publishing process is an important direction for us, we’ve done these integrations with publisher back-end systems so that you can submit directly from Overleaf into 10,000 journals now, so more of that, not just the writing process but more of the long and complicated process that happens after the writing is finished.

Your #FuturePub events have featured lots of cool innovative ideas and startups, do you have a favourite up-and-coming startup, “one to watch” as it were?

JLM: I think there a lots of people doing neat things. Plotly in the US has a really nice plotting and collaborative graph-making tool, where you can produce really nice looking plots much more easily than you could before. I’ve got an eye on Transcriptic, which is automating more lab protocols and making it easier for programmers like me to help biologists to run complicated experiments. I think that could do a lot for reproducibility, that’s very exciting. Full disclosure, I mentor one of these startups, but I think scientific crowdfunding is an interesting area. In the UK there’s a company called Walacea doing interesting things in that space, in the US there’s which seems to be starting to get pretty close to hitting that critical mass, that’s quite exciting.

What’s your favourite thing that’s been created on Overleaf?

JH: Well I can go for a very recent one, I  have a 4 and ½ month old baby daughter and my wife wanted to create a scrapbook with photos and some text, in different shapes, hearts, diamonds etc. I said, “Oh, Overleaf can do that!” So then I had to spend a little time setting that up and showing my wife how to use Overleaf, which is always good fun, training a new user! So now we have a nice scrapbook done in Overleaf.

JLM: In the very early days it was basically just me using the product, but one of the first documents that was written by somebody other than me, was actually a wedding invitation. That was the first time I realised that maybe Overleaf was going to be useful for more than just writing scientific papers.