One Scientist’s Attempt to Create a New Science Communication Platform

As someone who writes about science communication, I’m always interested in experiments designed to help people share information about research and research findings. Sometimes they are formal studies designed by science communication scholars, and sometimes they’re efforts by scientists, reporters or professional communicators to try something new and see how it works.

I work at NC State University, and in late 2015 met a postdoctoral researcher at NC State named Kamy Singer. His research focused on plant and microbial biology, but he was also the creator of a web platform called SPapers that aims to help researchers share their work more effectively.

When I heard about SPapers, I was curious. How does it work? Why did he start it?

Singer has completed his postdoc and is now working on SPapers full time. I recently had the chance to ask him a bunch of questions about the site, so here’s the resulting Q&A.

Note: Singer started SPapers before coming to NC State as a postdoc, and SPapers is not affiliated with NC State (my employer) in any way.

Communication Breakdown: Can you explain what SPapers is?

Kamy Singer. Photo courtesy of Kamy Singer.
Kamy Singer. Photo courtesy of Kamy Singer.

Kamy Singer: SPapers is a free scientific communication platform that helps researchers to better communicate their research to other scientists and to the general public. We created an application that allows authors to promote their research by creating a “home page” for each of their articles. We also wanted to help researchers get their manuscripts peer reviewed, because academic journals’ peer review system isn’t focused on helping researchers. That is why we created a peer review service that lets authors get their manuscripts peer reviewed outside the traditional journal system. It is a service that helps scientists improve their research. Today, journals’ peer review is mainly used as an evaluation method to serve publishers and other business’s financial interests. Publishers want to keep it this way, but we want to change this system.

CB: What gave you the idea for SPapers, and when did you launch it?

Singer: I got the idea when I was a biology Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan. At the time, I was completing my research and writing my paper. Once it was ready, I sent it out to journals. But the first three journals rejected my manuscript without even sending it for peer review. I was unhappy, considering the amount of energy and time I had spent writing the manuscript and formatting it per journals’ guidelines. After publishing my article, I also realized that I was not happy with the way academic journals are handling the articles they publish. I felt that journals are mainly interested in maintaining their business model rather than serving the best interest of the research community. This is why I decided to create a disruptive platform that can benefit researchers and not necessarily publishers. We launched SPapers and got our first users in the summer of 2013. At that time, I was a post-doctoral fellow at Purdue University.

CB: Why do you think it is important for researchers to take an active role in promoting their research?

Singer: There are many important reasons for researchers to promote their research, and I will focus on the online space here. Promoting the research can be important for authors, for other researchers, and for the public who is interested in the research. Not all reasons apply to everyone and to every situation. For instance, some scientists promote their research actively because they enjoy a deep sense of purpose by sharing their work. Others do it to obtain funding or career promotions. Still, most researchers, especially the PIs, are not so active. I can understand researchers who are not interested in time-consuming activities such as writing blogs or participating in online scientific forums—these activities are not necessarily the best use of their time.

However, publishing articles without having an online presence might give the impression that authors are not interested in discussing their research after publishing it. But creating a profile on SPapers for a paper, for example, takes only a few minutes. It shows everyone that the author is available for discussing the paper or the research in general. The author created an inviting environment for this. This also emphasizes that the author is accountable for the research produced, and this is important today more than ever because studies show that much of the published research is not reproducible.

CB: Can anyone who has published a journal article use it, or does it focus on specific research areas? And do you charge people to create a “home page” for a paper?

Singer: Creating a home page for a paper on our website is completely free, and everyone who has a published article can create a home page for it. Even better, because we are not a business that is tied to publishers, on our website, authors can also create home pages for papers that were not published in peer reviewed journals. Actually, our website already has one article that was retracted by its author, and the reason was disputed authorship. Here is what the author wrote on his SPapers page: “Copyright remark: Currently the author holds the copyright for this article. It was formerly accepted and published (online; http://sdrv.ms/PEu7sG) at the J MEMBRANE BIOL before it was pulled out by the author due to violation of the author’s copyrights….” On the publisher’s website, there is the following note: “Article retracted due to disputed authorship.”

CB: Why does SPapers support retracted articles?

Singer: In principle, we are not filtering any research submitted by scientists. We don’t plan to try to evaluate each page and make scientific decisions. So, while we do not have a special policy to support retracted articles, we are not preventing researchers from publishing retracted articles.

CB: Are you concerned that hosting pages for retracted papers hurts the image of the site?

Singer: I am not worried that pages for retracted articles will hurt the site, especially if the retraction was due to reasons such as disputed authorship. This is because we are very clear that SPapers is not taking the task of evaluating the research pages—the authors are responsible for the content of their pages. I want SPapers to maintain its good image, and I believe that it will if we behave ethically as a company and are loyal to our users.

CB: You launched SPapers on a limited scale in 2013, and dozens of papers are online already. From what I’ve seen, the home pages highlight a fundamental challenge: many researchers don’t know how to communicate about their work effectively across disciplines or to the general public. I mean, most of the home pages use the same technical jargon that you’d expect to see in a journal article. Since the language and images are pretty much the same as a journal article, how does an SPapers page help researchers highlight their work?

Singer: You are right about that. We plan to be more involved in helping authors write short summaries and post more photos to explain their research to the general public. Some authors have already added photos or written comments that were not part of the articles. Those small additions are enough to create an environment that fosters communication, inviting criticism and questions at present and any time in the future. But even without these additions, I think that users who created a page on our platform showed accountability for their research, even if they had in mind to connect only with peers from their specific research areas. After all, these authors invited peers to post questions publicly or send them a private message. One of the challenges is that some young authors, Ph.D. students or postdocs, lack the confidence to create a page for their own work without the approval of their PIs. For example, writing an additional summary for an article and posting it online requires effort and confidence. On the other hand, PIs are usually more focused on imminent career goals, which do not include communicating their work to the general public. But we believe that this will gradually change.

CB: Once a researcher has created a home page on SPapers, they are still faced with the challenge of getting people to visit that home page – which is similar to the challenge of getting people to visit a journal article online. So, again, how is SPapers helping researchers advance their work?

Singer: In the end, it is up to every researcher to decide how much effort to invest in promoting their articles to attract visitors to their SPapers pages. I think that it is important to accept that not all authors have the same needs or aspiration for publicity, and not all should follow the exact same path. For example, some researchers may be interested to focus on reaching out to researchers from other scientific fields or even the general public. Others may prefer to focus on reaching to everyone in their specific research niches at present or in the future.

My general advice for increased online visibility is relevant for any webpage, including SPapers pages. The first advice is to have more content on your page. This improves the ranking of your page in search engines and therefore helps users doing a search find your page. Another important way to optimize your page visibility is to have outside links leading to the SPapers page. For example, I have a link from my LinkedIn profile to my SPapers page. More outside links to your page will increase its visibility. These are all relatively simple steps to take, and it is your responsibility as an author to add content, such as photos and documents, and to create the relevant links to your page. You can also use the feature in SPapers that allows you to invite people to view your page.

CB: I know that SPapers is fairly young, and is still developing, but have the home pages for those papers already on the site made a difference? I.e., have researchers actually seen the home pages raise awareness of their work or drive traffic to their journal articles?

Singer: It is difficult to obtain this kind of information, especially because we are young and still developing. I should mention that our decision is not to follow or provide page metrics. It is widely agreed that evaluation of research importance and quality can be best achieved over long periods of time. I don’t think that measuring traffic, especially immediately after publication, is a good way to determine the importance or quality of a paper. We don’t want to encourage SPapers users become obsessive about metrics.

Another point that I would like to make is that not every article should be necessarily promoted to a wider audience. In my opinion, it is perfectly fine if a specific article is read by a small number of readers who have a specific interest in that article.

CB: If you’re working on SPapers full time, what is your revenue model? How does SPapers make money?

Singer: Our revenue model is that on top of the services we currently provide for free—and will continue to provide for free—we will offer paid additional services. These will be related to scientific communication, such as article publication.

CB: Has your work on SPapers influenced your view of the research community? Has it influenced your research, or your career as a researcher?

Singer: My work on SPapers led me to interview scientists from different fields and learn about different perspectives related to scientific communication. I learned that there are huge differences between the research communities, and the way they publish and communicate their research. However, a common thread is the widespread dissatisfaction with the current journal peer review system. Today I can understand better the tremendous negative effect of this system on scientists’ work. More than that, the journal peer review system is harming the advancement of science and technology worldwide by promoting the “publish or perish” culture. Regarding the second question about my own career as a researcher- personally I lost a lot of drive for an academic career as result of the “publish or perish” culture. It is important to change this culture as soon as we can, because it has devastating consequences.

CB: What are your short-term goals for SPapers?

Singer: Our short-term goal is to get more researchers to be aware of us and use the tools and services we offer. This will help us gain momentum and achieve our long-term goals. Now we are focusing on our peer review system because we want to change the dogma that peer review is done by journals. Peer review is currently mediated by journals, but in most cases, it’s not done in a very constructive way.

CB: What about long-term goals?

Singer: Our long-term goal is to revolutionize the current academic publication system; that is, we want to eliminate the traditional peer reviewed journals. I think that the journal system is no longer working for a majority of researchers. It is causing a lot of damage to scientific research, and many good researchers all over the world are frustrated. The journal publishers encourage the publish-or-perish culture and benefit from this culture financially. We want to change this system, and this will require a complete disruption to the business model behind academic publishers.

CB: What do you think SPapers needs in order to be successful?

Singer: We need everything that any startup needs, so we need a lot. We first need to achieve our short-term goals: more researchers being aware of us, use our services, and give us feedback. I hope researchers that agree with us and want to change the system will tell their peers about us.

CB: What lessons have you taken away from your experiences with SPapers?

Singer: After many years in the lab doing research, I learned a lot from my relatively short experience with SPapers. My initial experiences with starting a company were very similar to conducting research in the lab. Like in every startup, you begin by identifying the problem, studying it, and then coming up with an idea for a solution—the hypothesis. Finally, you do the experiments. In SPapers, the first experiment was bringing a few people together to build a web application, launch it, and obtain initial feedback. In an academic setting, this would be the time to publish a paper. But in a startup setting, this is hardly the beginning of the journey.

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