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#FoundersFriday with Lyubomir Penev from Pensoft

11th January 2019
By Katy Alexander

We are very excited to bring you a new interview for our #FoundersFriday blog series! If you’ve missed our previous posts, Founders Friday is a forum in which we interview entrepreneurs from science and technology businesses. Founders Friday provides a platform for our interviewees to discuss their entrepreneurial journey and their perspective on the industry as a whole.

For this edition, we have interviewed Prof. Lyubomir Penev (@LyuboPenev ), Founder & Managing Director of Pensoft Publishers (@Pensoft) & ARPHA Platform (@ARPHAplatform). Lyubomir graduated in Biology at the University of Sofia and also holds a Ph.D. in Ecology at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Currently, he is Professor of Ecology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia. In 1992, Penev established and successfully developed Pensoft to become one of the world’s leading biodiversity publishers with more than 1000 book and e-book titles published to date. In 2008, Penev founded Pensoft’s first open access journal ZooKeys.

Can you tell me a bit about your history and what led you to start Pensoft?

I am a scientist before anything else, so if you asked my younger self back in the years when I was defending my PhD and looking for a place in the research landscape, whether I saw myself in the role of a publisher, I would probably laugh and continue with my research. In fact, had it not been for the Open Access movement, that reaction would have probably been accurate. Open Access opened the doors for large-scale sharing of knowledge and I became extremely fascinated by that perspective. From a business point of view, Open Access opened the “can of worms” in a market largely dominated by big publishers and library deals, especially during the last century. Above all, Open Access gave opportunities to new players in the market and it gave rise to an unprecedented technological boom in the academic publishing sphere – the fruits of which we are already bearing. As a zoologist and ecologist, innovation was precisely my main motivator. During one night, surrounded by fellow scientists and friends, I got the inspiration to start Pensoft’s first open access journal – ZooKeys. There were already many good and renowned journals in zoology, but what we wanted to do with our new title was to introduce a new-generation, highly technological venue, where science could benefit from the developing semantic technologies and bioinformatics.

What’s your main goal at Pensoft?

Since our start with ZooKeys, innovation has been the main driving force at Pensoft. Scientists like – and are expected to do – new things and that spirit of innovation has been directly “transferred” into the business philosophy of Pensoft. Instead of the famous “publish or perish”, I preferred the much more compelling motto “innovate or perish”. I see the amazing potential for science that has come with the development of technologies, both in general and through specialised publishing and dissemination tools and especially in a far deeper integration of the publishing process in the entire research cycle.

We know several outstanding publishers that emerged in the last decade and many of them have been established by scientists. We, as publishers, have been linked closely to the biodiversity community and have reached an unprecedented level of international collaboration and the interlinking of scientific outputs in that domain. What the future has in store is undoubtedly even more exciting. For the 10 years after launching our first open access journal, we’ve been striving to ride the wave when it comes to new technologies, both by being early adopters and by introducing them ourselves.

“Instead of the famous “publish or perish”, I preferred the much more compelling motto “innovate or perish”.”

A good example is our Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal, a project close to our hearts that was launched to explore the opportunities towards an Open Science environment, where outputs are shared along the research cycle from the idea, through project proposals, data and methods, towards the final research article. All this is supported by the collaborative authoring environment of our ARPHA Writing Tool, enhanced commenting functionalities and possibilities to map research outputs to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), amongst other tools.

When we launched the journal in 2016, it was a completely new concept and we received a lot of positive comments as well as some sceptical ones at the time. The two largest acts of recognition for us, however, were: first, when the journal was awarded the SPARC Innovator award shortly after its launch; and second, the fact that RIO has established itself as an active publishing venue.

Long story short, RIO is an excellent example of our philosophy at Pensoft – we like to challenge the status quo through new technologies and operational models and we firmly believe this is the best way to move forward.

Does the publishing scene differ in Eastern Europe? Or do you face the same problems as we do in the UK?

Pensoft has been an international business from its very start, with clients using our publishing platform ARPHA and our own journals coming from across the world – so, in a way, this is a difficult question to answer. As a scientist and professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences I would say that the problems seem to be quite similar everywhere, but in some places, there seem to be more obstacles when it comes to overcoming these challenges. The truth is that the chance for survival for small society and university journals lies with their willingness and possibilities to modernise. It seems that, in the next few years, everyone will be looking at their opportunities to advance, in terms of technological platforms and also services provided to authors, reviewers, editors and readers will be increasingly important in the future.

“…what further disadvantages scholarly publishing in Eastern Europe, in my opinion, would be the long and inherently complicated procedures to instigate and adopt change, alongside additional hardship to fund it.”

The modern, up-to-date platforms and services should come, however, with affordable conditions which is a real challenge – not only for Eastern European journals but worldwide, due to scarce funding of science. Although the problems are similar everywhere, what further disadvantages scholarly publishing in Eastern Europe would be the long and complicated procedures to instigate and adopt change, alongside additional hardship to fund it. I would also add the obvious “trust” problem with journals based in Eastern Europe, something we have managed to overcome at the cost of years-long persistence and effort.

Suppose I have an idea for a tool or a solution for a problem within the research landscape and I want to develop my idea into a business. What would be your advice to me?

Based on the two examples I gave above, I would say – even if your idea is one that people mostly disregard, when you have that gut feeling that this is the way forward, ignore the negativity and focus on delivery. In our experience, even if it is slow to adopt at first when you are offering a good solution for an existing problem, the market is eventually going to catch up. After all, innovation is innovation because you’re the first and because it changes perceptions. The key is patience and belief in your solution.

In the scholarly communications and research tools space, it’s often said that people have the same conversations again and again, e.g. we need to improve reproducibility etc. Can you think of a particular issue that, in your view, people aren’t talking about enough?

In my view, one issue that seems to be neglected is the wrong expectation that the “communities” around learned societies or different branches of science will take care to safeguard reproducibility through voluntary work. Even now, scientists are more than just busy, so it is hard to believe that large and continuous effort in controlling reproducibility issues may be performed by the respective communities themselves. Reproducibility should be achieved through new tools and services that would, of course, still allow community-wide open access to the methods, data and software, but should largely be based on the development of automated technologies for validating several aspects of the quality of data or code.

What does the future have in store for Pensoft?

One thing is for sure – we are always looking for more innovation! Right now we are focused on showcasing the benefits that our publishing platform ARPHA has to offer beyond services to journals. For example, we have a fully-functional and innovative Open Access Books publishing module, which we want more people to know about. Besides, ARPHA has also recently launched a conference module which brings a new semantic layer to classic published abstracts, including post-conference publication of video recordings and slides from the respective presentation, as well as several options for commenting and discussion to stimulate collaboration.

That said, ask us in a year and who knows what we would have developed by then. That’s what makes it so interesting and keeps us inspired!

Follow Lyubo on @LyuboPenev and follow @Pensoft  / @ARPHAplatform for company updates and more.


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