#FoundersFriday with Andrew Preston from Publons
In our #FoundersFriday series we interview the founders of different scholarly communication businesses, asking them to share their advice for others and their perspective on the industry as a whole.
What made you decide to leave academia and launch your own business idea?
I think what every researcher learns very quickly when they’re doing a PhD or a postdoc is how much of research depends on publishing and building your reputation as an expert in your field of research. Myself and my co-founder Daniel found out very quickly that it’s a very weird system, particularly with the way the internet works today. If you come at it from the outside or from the perspective of an early-career researcher it doesn’t fully make sense. So we just started talking about how it could be different, and at the same time I was starting to review papers etc. One day we thought why don’t we just build a peer review service for the ArXiv, so you can take papers on the ArXiv and review them. That was our first naive idea for something that you could build in this space. Since then we’ve learned a lot about the way publishing works and how the system is kind of the way it is for some reasons that are actually good and so we’ve evolved the system to build around that.
It’s interesting, because with ArXiv and with certain subjects, like physics, you do see different approaches to peer review.
That’s actually really interesting for Publons, there are 27,000 different journals in the world, and they all have their own slightly different perspective on peer review. So trying to build a platform where you can get recognition for reviewing for any one of those journals and build your reputation as an expert in your field, while at the same time supporting journals that want to do open review, blind review, published review or unpublished review, that’s been a big challenge. It’s been a big thing to figure out, how to build all of those considerations into one platform where for most people it’s very similar and simple to use.
If you could go back in time and give your pre-startup self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
Tell the story! I’m very much a physicist, I like cool stuff and I’ll go out and find that, and then I’ll use it or not. But what I’ve learned is that the way the world works, it runs on stories. It’s hard for people to really care about peer review on its own, but if you can tell a story about fundamentally speeding up the way all of research is communicated to the world, helping people learn to be better reviewers and helping editors to interface with those reviewers, then people get really excited.
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 your advice to me be?
My first qualifier would be that every business or startup is different and will do things in their own way. I think you have to make an explicit choice about the direction you want to go down. One direction is that you can build something that is cool to you and solve a problem you have, and go nuts building that, but it has to be an explicit decision. The other direction is to go and talk to 200 people, literally just talk to 200 people, and try to figure out if they would actually use this thing that you’re building, because you’ll get some hard truths very quickly. You have to make that explicit decision of which path you’re going to go down and you should probably go down the path where you just talk to 200 people and figure out if they’re actually going to use this thing. I think the easiest mistake anyone in business can make, especially when you’re new to business, is to just build things and think that people will use them.
As the founder of a business, what are you most proud of?
Well we’re just getting started, so I think the stuff I will be most proud of is still to come. I think we’ve built a pretty cool team and a really awesome group of advisors, and if you look back from day one to where we are now – we’ve come a long way. But I think the coolest thing is that if you look at the number of papers that were published last year and work out from that roughly the number of reviews that were done last year, the fact that 1% of the world’s reviews were on Publons in 2015 is pretty cool!
So I guess that’s your key KPI for the future then!
Yeah, so this year we want to get to 10%. If you look at the number of journals in the world that could probably integrate into Publons, there’s about 15,000. Earlier this year we were at the point where we had about 150 journals formally integrated into Publons, so about 1%. So we really have two KPIs, 10% of the world’s reviews and 10% of the world’s journals integrated formally into Publons. Big numbers are cool, but I think if we can do that, the big numbers aren’t what matters, what matters is that we’ll get to the point where we’ll fundamentally be able to build tools and interface with enough editors to actually improve the process for the entire ecosystem. It’ll be helping editors to make better and more informed decisions about the review process as well as recognising the efforts and expertise of reviewers
In the scholarly communications and research tools space, it’s often said that people have the same conversations again and again. What would you say is the main issue or problem that, in your view, people aren’t paying enough attention to?
I’m surprised by how cool some people think open access is. For me, it’s a manifestation of the fact that everybody in research is obsessed with the article, that’s all everybody cares about. People care about opening up access to the article, they care about getting more downloads of the article, more citations, and I find that surprising. For someone growing up on the internet, openness is just table stakes. Obviously I’m biased here but I think people should be talking more about things around and beyond the article, obviously data is one interesting example. The whole point of publishing an article is to put something out there that the world can learn from and interpret. Finding other ways to discuss and evaluate the world’s research is just not talked about enough.
With Publons we really want to help people highlight their expertise by discussing, reviewing and evaluating the world’s research. I think that’s just genuinely an important thing that people don’t pay enough attention to.
I’ve heard people talk about examples like Stack Overflow where you just put something out there and people provide their input, people review, people give their feedback.
Our first pitch, in New Zealand, when we’d really just started was, “We want to be Stack Overflow for journal articles!” The way they developed their platform and thought about incentives was really impressive and informative for us.
So what does the future have in store for Publons?
One thing we’ve realised in the process of building recognition for review and getting that to the point where people start to care about recognising reviewers, is that in the whole publishing process editors play an absolutely critical role in finding reviewers, facilitating the conversation, and making decisions about improving manuscripts. So not only are people obsessed with the article but they seem to forget the editor in this whole process. If you look at where Publons is going to go and some of the things we care about in the future, it’s not just recognition for reviewers but I think there is room to recognise editors as well. The flipside of helping editors to be recognised for their expertise is to give them the right tools to better facilitate that whole conversation, so that’s one of the things we’re really excited about for the future.