Rousing a Revolution: Open Access and 'Startup Science'

Theral Timpson

Joseph Jackson has come up with another conference to further open science and disrupt the status quo.

“Startup Science” ran June 15-16 in South San Francisco starting with a line-up of Joseph’s peers in the open access community. Disguised as a conference to promote startups in the hard sciences and engineering, the new meeting is quite similar to Jackson’s other conference, the "Open Science Summit." Friday's schedule included some well known names in the Open Access community--William Gunn of Mendeley, John Wilbanks from the Kauffman Foundation, and Richard Price of The big score for Jackson was getting Pete Binfield, co-founder of the new PeerJ in the same week the new publishing service debuted.

Jackson is a futurist who came to Silicon Valley with some strong ideas. He quotes economists, philosophers, and scientists like he just had lunch with all of them yesterday. I just interviewed him for our program, and he talks about humans living indefinitely like it had already happened. He constantly questions the purpose of concepts we take for granted each day. Like net profit. What is it, he asks, and why do we need it?

If going through all the details to put on a conference wasn’t formidable enough, there appears to be not much money (yet) for open science. Who wants to sponsor a conference about open access journals, open marketplaces, and--here’s a new word I learned at the meeting--altmetrics?

These ideas are clearly the way forward. And their value will be realized. And there will be sponsors and investors. But in the beginning, it can be slim. Which is why, Jackson acknowledged, he opted for a conference focusing on encouraging entrepreneurs to start those businesses that will lead us into a new world.

Open Access Gaining Ground


PeerJ is a new open access journal that was launched this week by the former publisher of PLoS ONE, Pete Binfield, and VP of R&D at Mendeley, Jason Hoyt. Under Binfield’s leadership, PLoS ONE has grown into the largest peer reviewed journal in the world. As many of you know, the open access journal brought new editorial models that are being adopted today.

The essential innovation with the new PeerJ is the business model. “We knew it was a good thing to do for the world, so we just needed to find a business model that works,” said the optimistic Binfield.

His aim is to bring down the cost of publishing for the researcher. Even with open access journals such as PLoS ONE, publishing an article costs the researcher an average of $1,400. With the new PeerJ, the researcher will pay to become a member. There are three tiers of membership. $99 gets you membership for life with the rights to publish one paper per year. $169 gets you two papers per year and $259 gets you unlimited publication rights for life.

Will such an inexpensive model prove profitable? Binfield says yes. What numbers does he have access to that we don’t have? He did share one at the meeting. There are 10 million publishing academics in the world with 1/2 million new ones and 1/2 million “dropping off” each year. Do the math.


Presenting a new publication platform for the medical industry was John Adler of CurEUs. Adler says that ultimately the world needs just one publishing house. “So much of the content I want is not in the journals to which I subscribe,” he complained. “When we publish, we all start out with the New England Journal of Medicine. But usually we end up getting published in the Medical Journal of Bulgaria or something like that.”

For Adler and Binfield, the real value comes from crowd sourcing. These publishers are determined to do peer review in a new way, with members of the community who are not behind a paywall. And the software will be open source.


As we transition to a world of open access journals, there is one site which is proving handy for researchers who seek access to articles in the traditional journals as well as the new platforms such as PeerJ. Mendeley is both a place to search for academic research and is a reference organizer with software that can be downloaded to your desktop. William Gunn from Mendeley says his site could actually be the platform for peer review.

Mendeley also offers other metrics than the traditional ones such as citations. Researchers can find out who is reading their papers. Libraries can learn which papers are most popular and better allocate their limited resources.

Richard Price, founder of had his own response to this. “No one walks down to the library and reads the journal anymore.” He might have been kidding, but with nearly 1.5 million academics using his site, he probably wasn’t. A good sign for the other entrepreneurs in the room, last November, Price's company raised $4.5 million.

Total-Impact and 'Altmetrics'

Total-Impact is a new company that specializes in other metrics such as those Gunn mentioned. And they take it further. Type in a paper to their search engine, and they’ll tell you how many times it’s been tweeted (known affectionately as a “citwation”) or posted on Facebook along with other traditional statistics. These additional metrics are what is known as altmetrics. This is a new term for me. The idea behind it is that commercial success should be valued along with scholarly endeavor. According to Heather Piwowar from Total Impact, the next generation of science will be built on a new metrics infrastructure. And if you’re not on social media yet? As long as you publish somewhere, it’ll be out there and others will spread it for you.

“Not having a Mendeley or address will be like not having an email address is today,” she said.


John Wilbanks is becoming the Open Access man who goes to Washington. In his talk Wilbanks related the story of #OpenAccessMonday. This is a Twitter hashtag which also became the name for a White House petition to extend the open-access policy that the NIH has in place to the other 15 funding agencies in government. The NIH’s Public Access Policy requires that all investigators funded by the agency make their research public within 12 months from the official date of publication. However, Wilbanks says that leaves $30 billion in funding from other agencies without such a policy.

John Wilbanks

John Wilbanks at 'StartUp Science'

The petition spread quick, picking up 5,000 signatures in the first day, and 15,000 in the first week. The 25,000 needed to garner a response from the White House came soon after. According to Wilbanks, he and a couple others are the only ones in Washington pushing for open access, compared to hundreds of lobbyists for the publishing industry. To leverage his efforts, Wilbanks is relying on an already powerful movement within the research community.

“We want to put the fear of SOPA into the White House on this issue,” he said, referring to the grassroots effort that stopped a congressional bill aimed at limiting the internet. “Know that they’re very well aware of us in the West Wing,” he claimed. “And they weren’t before.”

The conference went on to feature other topics such as “Ecommerce meets E Science” and “Big Data Science.” (Several of the presenters have been guests at mendelspod:Kevin Lustig of Assay Depot, Barry Bunin, CDD and Elizabeth Iorns of Science Exchange) The second day began with a roll of business plan presentations. The winners will be announced in October and awarded with some funding that Jackson raised from the Kauffman Foundation.

Jackson is to be lauded for tireless work in bringing together those who live in the future. It’s a young crowd with great ideas. Joseph is generous with audience participation, so talks tend to run over. And last minute speakers are squeezed in. It would have been nice to have more time for networking. One-on-one chats are as important as what happens over the loud speakers. Who knows? Perhaps the bit of chaos one feels at these events is a good thing. These are folks deep in the industry who want to go after the root problems-now.

John Adler of CurEUs is a practicing physician at Stanford. “The revolution will start with disillusioned insiders,” he rallied the crowd.

Watch for upcoming interviews with Joseph Jackson, William Gunn of Mendeley, Richard Price of, and John Wilbanks.