Science works best when it’s open and openly communicated

Well, we’ve had some absolute stars recently in our ‘open science’ series! If you haven’t seen them yet, head over and check them out – such a diverse array of experiences and perspectives! Today we spoke with Josh King, the founder of Brevy. It’s an awesome new platform, and we’ll let Josh tell you more about it here, enjoy!

Hi Josh, thanks for joining us! Could you tell us a bit about why you started Brevy?

Brevy is an independent, volunteer group of a few stubborn individuals who work on the project during our off hours (read “nights and weekends”). While my own day job is in science outreach, I work with a couple of other partners (a fantastic computer science start-up owner and a behavioural psychologist make up our merry band) to help direct and maintain the site. We’re nothing special on our own, so the real stars here are those that pitch a hand adding summaries to Brevy or introducing it as class assignments to help grow the body of content!

Credit: Josh King
Credit: Josh King

When did you first hear about Open Access and Open Science? What did you first think?

That would likely be during my undergraduate years studying biochemistry and becoming hopelessly frustrated trying to write reports using papers I often had no access to (even with our university library!). At the time, I thought the concepts as fanciful dreams,  but thankfully here we are with open access a growing paradigm and various open science platforms blossoming around the web.

What do you think the biggest problem with the current scholarly publishing system is?

Meaningful publishing. By reasonable estimates, at least more than a 1,000,000 academic papers are published each year. These works are published on platforms known largely only to academics, and then only to that specific subset of academia. Publications on these platforms are not always accessible even to this select group and generally do not well support further dialogue or dissemination, with a surprisingly significant number going uncited. Taken pessimistically, this is tantamount to ejecting hundreds of thousands of new pieces of knowledge into the void each year.

We can be optimistic about this however! Taken optimistically, there are hundreds of thousands of possibly exciting and ground-breaking new ideas all of the time that most of us don’t know about! But to see it this way, to truly believe it, we have to start caring about the meaningfulness of research. We have to start thinking about different types of impacts than citation count and means of prestige other than the journal name. And we have to care what our work means to the world outside academia.

We have to start thinking about different types of impacts than citation count and means of prestige other than the journal name.

Why did you choose to launch Brevy? “Summarising the World’s research” seems like a mammoth (but awesome) task!

It came from a mixture of both frustration and hope. Frustration that, as a mentioned, so much knowledge is being produced – more than ever before in mankind’s history – and yet the overwhelming majority is inaccessible, unreadable, or utterly unknown to the world. But also hope! Hope that much of “how we know” what we do can be demystified to the general public, hope to break down the walls between scholarly works and the very same individuals they should theoretically benefit, hope that the light shined by our pioneers of knowledge can shine a little brighter and that the world will be all the better for it.

..hope that the light shined by our pioneers of knowledge can shine a little brighter and that the world will be all the better for it.

Brevy uses a ‘Wiki-style’ model. What does this say about the idea of treating research like a process, rather than just assuming a paper is the end of that particular discussion?

The “life” of a paper really doesn’t begin until after its publication, and as such, we should be at least equally concerned with this time rather than letting publication be the end-goal. How do we discuss the paper? What forum exists to ask questions about it, to analyse it further? What is its evolving significance? What if we discover new information that changes the conclusions we should derive? How do others find it, and how is it explained to them? The typical publication medium itself generally offers, astonishingly, little to no answers to these concerns.

As a wiki, Brevy can offer option to these concerns – a work’s written significance and critical response is allowed to evolve, it’s explanation may be constantly improved upon, and a centralized location (i.e. talk pages) are offered for discussion.

How does Brevy contribute most to ongoing scholarly communication? And how can researchers contribute to it?

Brevy provides a means of approaching and discussing scholarly literature in an open and easily understandable way, a repository for research that cares about being heard and understood by diverse audiences, and it allows anyone to contribute and access it freely, quickly, and easily.

Researchers particularly can contribute by adding summaries of their own works, or works they read,  to the site. It’s extremely quick and then allows you an easy link to and share your work or keep tracking of said readings in the future. Or, if one teaches, making summaries a class project allows an excellent venue to expose students to real research early on while also contributing to a larger and meaningful framework. Getting contributors for this is no easy feat, so we welcome a shameless plug wherever we can and would love anyone who buys into the idea incorporating it into their coursework!

How important do you think access and accessibility are to research? Do you think the latter is often overlooked in discussions of the former?

Certainly. An openly published paper may still remain in equal anonymity if not understandable by and disseminated to diverse audiences. A perfect example of this is research being done across disciplines or from the industry. The technical language in one field may render a work difficult or inaccessible to those trying to approach it from another, sometimes even in a closely related field or background. Presuming said individual will always take that extra time to learn the second language of that other field with little aid is idealistic, if not haughty.

An openly published paper may still remain in equal anonymity if not understandable by and disseminated to diverse audiences.

Do you think more researchers should be looking to engage the public with their work? How would you recommend they go about doing this, if so?

Absolutely! One thing we often forget is that much of research is publicly funded, and as such, there should not only be a return on investment to the public, but also a return on information to keep what are (effectively) its stakeholders well-informed. Not to mention that further funding comes from further interest!

As far as how to do this, I believe there are two key elements– accessibility and discussion. Accessibility means that the research is able to be directly visited and understood. There should be somewhere that anyone can go to see and really understand what you’ve done (hint, Brevy summaries are one solution for this). The discussion part is more difficult, but with the advent of social media and the web, it’s easier than ever to find target groups who are directly interested in your line of work and to casually nudge them in your direction. Tweet, blog, post on Reddit, speak at science cafés, get involved with your university’s outreach department, but do something, and you’ll most certainly enjoy it!

At ScienceOpen, we try and reward these sorts of activities by making reviews open and citable. What other sort of incentive systems do you think could work for getting more researchers to engage with post-publication research discussions?

Perhaps granting the scholarly community an even stronger voice in recognizing significant works, acknowledging great research, and even curating it might provide some of this incentive. Theoretically this is already done across journals, literature reviews, and conferences, but given the sheer volume of work now being published (along with the impressive growing number of journals), these methods seem a bit archaic for today’s time to rely on predominately. If there was also some way to build up credence and respect as a positive and effective reviewer, that may also help. Some of these thoughts might be well answered by components you commonly find in social media networks which, although might be initially unaccustomed to the demographic, has obviously shown great strides in sectors all across our culture and could help build community in this case.

It’s certainly something that needs to happen more either way. At Brevy we’re trying to leave room for some of this by providing a section of the site (the “Community” namespace), where we hope that some of that discussion might build. This coincides with voting capabilities for research works and talk pages on the main summary pages themselves, so I definitely think this after-the-fact discussion (and making it visible!) is important.

Where do you see such post-publication activities fitting into scholarly evaluation processes?

I think academics and the scholarly publication world may be somewhat subconsciously afraid of giving up the “golden ticket,” so to speak, of pre-publication-only review, but I’m personally glad sites like ScienceOpen are trying out alternatives. By “golden ticket,” I mean a sort of sentiment of “It’s published! It’s now slated in stone as Science! Done!”. Meanwhile, the truth is that the book is not closed, and what is good research today may be found better with different conclusions upon further study (and vice versa). Open discussion is needed, not only so that we know what the other experts are thinking, but so the status of our knowledge can be dynamically updated in real time. Without such, we are left waiting on the next published paper to review the original (which may come who knows when and who knows where, if it does even manage to be published in the first place).

It is only sensible then that we take advantage of the technology available to us, so I’m glad ScienceOpen takes this to heart. We need less static, stagnant means of publishing. And we need to recognize that, even if post-publication review can be scary in that it somewhat puts yourself out in the open and leaves you there, it provides the opportunities to get questions answered and to grow our knowledge at a faster pace.  Whereas platforms like ScienceOpen or, for instance PubPeer, can offer such options to the scholarly community, Brevy can provide an option of this for the general public on a more informal level.

We need less static, stagnant means of publishing.

Where do you see the future of scholarly publishing? And what steps do we need to take to get there?

That’s very hard to say as, even now, we still have quite a long way to go to make open access a full reality. If I were to forecast far, far ahead though, I think aggregation, community, and outreach will be the big improvements we will (or at least should) see. Aggregation meaning that we have an ever-growing body of knowledge that will need to be tagged, filtered, and curated with a much-improved efficiency. Community in that scholars will engage in more discussion about new works on platforms that are open and highly visible, and that said discussion will generate a meaningful impact in how we proceed with the work. And of course outreach, as we will realize that publishing in and of itself is not necessarily meaningful and find new ways to measure its meaning and effect. Funding stipulations are already growing to encapsulate this, and I think (hope) we will see an increased concern on the openness and understandability of research, as well as really promoting it so that it can make a difference.

As far as how to get there, you’re being even harder with your question! But I do think a lot of the platforms for this currently exist. Brevy provides one layer to the outreach and community aspect. We have toyed with the idea of wiki-style curation of research topics also, though it wasn’t well received. Semantic publishing movements are interesting in terms of topic aggregation though. And of course I’ve already mentioned my respect for sites like ScienceOpen and PubPeer for increasing community discussion and engagement. Then there’s also burgeoning new ways to look at effective impact like Altmetrics. All this noted, I think the uphill hurdle is really just convincing scholars of the utility of these platforms and that a better world of research lies around the corner once we prioritize more the connections and impact research makes with the world around us.

Thanks for your time Josh, and all the best in the future with Brevy!

Thank you! Stop by and see us sometime on Brevy, and feel free to add a summary of your work or whatever your reading at the time, and keep up the good work at ScienceOpen!