From Crowdfunding To Open Access, Startups Are Experimenting With Academic Research

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These days may well be the next golden age for universities, and startups are leading the way. For institutions that can feel much like their counterparts from a thousand years ago, universities have witnessed breathtaking change in just a handful of years.

The development of Massive Open Online Courses by startups like Udacity, Coursera, and others have forced many staid university administrators to consider how technology can transform higher education, particularly in the dissemination of educational content. And while the hype around these startups may have subsided, the change in mindset they have engendered means that their influence will continue well into the future.

Yet, for all of the splashy accounts on the rise of these new teaching startups, one function of the university has consistently been missed – their research programs. Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, once coined the term “multiversity” to describe the multiple parallel missions of universities, which includes both teaching and developing the frontiers of human knowledge. Research defines a university’s status, setting the prestige and influence of the institution far beyond what a lecture in a classroom can hope to accomplish. Research is also big business – at large universities like Stanford, sponsored research often exceeds revenues from tuition.

There remains an incredible opportunity for startup founders to build the next generation of work collaboration tools for researchers.

Startups have begun a slow and quiet revolution that has the potential to offer us new ways to seek knowledge and build future innovation. This revolution has not been as dramatic as with education, in part because of the culture clash between startups and university researchers. Since university research is deeply connected with status, it tends to emphasize very specific arenas of competition like funding grants and publication records that can make it difficult for a nascent startup to find footing.

While that conservatism may never disappear, the next generation of scholars coming through the ranks today are showing a propensity to try new approaches, including those offered by startups. Through new channels to socialize among researchers, find funding for projects, and publish results in an open way, the research process may have never changed more in such a short period of time. But these are early times in this revolution. There remains much to be done by new startups to allow anyone the ability to contribute to human knowledge.

Creating New Research Networks

While there is often a public and historical image of the solitary scientist discovering an invention in a “eureka” moment, today’s research is fundamentally a social activity. Researchers actively collaborate and co-author papers with each other, and discovering new research often happens much the way you would expect news to travel, through email and messaging apps.

One of the core utilities of the early Internet was its ability to connect scientists together, to allow them to share data and debate results at a faster pace than traditional communications methods. That is one of the reasons why a significant share of the infrastructure of the Internet was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Thus, the idea of connecting researchers together is an old one, but a number of startups are starting to rebuild these models in a world of social networks. Among the most popular are Academia.edu and ResearchGate, two competing startups that are attempting to amass the world’s researchers onto one platform. Both sites subscribe to a similar social model – researchers post profiles of themselves and others can follow them and communicate through the tools on the site.

Also, researchers can post their publications, although both sites have had fights with publishers over whether posting copies of research articles violates copyright. Both sites emphasize the ability to see analytics about the number of reads of a paper and thus, get a sense of what research is interesting to others.

Rates for the acceptance of NIH proposals have declined from 33 percent in 1998 to 19 percent last year.

While these network models have perhaps increased the ability of researchers to discover others in their fields, they have not done much to change the way scholars conduct research. Email remains the nearly exclusive communications method used to collaborate, and most researchers will already know others in their field. And while analytics are certainly welcome, citation counts have been available for years now, and those will tend to hold more currency than simple page views.

As a result, there remains an incredible opportunity for startup founders to build the next generation of work collaboration tools for researchers. Graduate students and faculty members still use a combination of Microsoft Office and Google Docs, email and often their own servers to store data and share it with others. While social networking would still form a key element out of any business, the next startups here would also include better ways to exchange drafts and save revisions, deposit datasets and share them, and track editorial calendars in a frenetic publishing world.

Declining Funding And The Rise Of Crowdfunding

For academic researchers in the United States, funding grants come predominantly from federal government agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, among others. These agencies had a combined budget of $140 billion in fiscal year 2011, supporting hundreds of thousands of scientists across the U.S.

Like most federal budgets, however, overall research funding has not kept pace with the demand of academic researchers. Current research dollars are roughly equivalent to those in 2002 when taking inflation into account. That has led to a dramatic increase in competition for grants. For example, rates for the acceptance of NIH proposals have declined from 33 percent in 1998 to 19 percent last year.

The average age of a research investigator at the NIH has increased from 39 to 51, and the average first grant is awarded to someone who is 42 years old, up from 36.

It may seem that heightened competition is a good thing for science, but there are serious deleterious effects that come with lower acceptance rates. Since most federal research grants are awarded based on merit, the overall decline in research funding often hits younger researchers hardest since they increasingly have to compete with more experienced researchers for the same funds.

The average age of a research investigator at the NIH has increased from 39 to 51, and the average first grant is awarded to someone who is 42 years old, up from 36. That not only prevents many novice researchers from moving forward in their careers, but also deprives the research community from the valuable insights of fresh members.

That’s where crowdfunding platforms come in. Experiment, formerly Microryza, is one option for both graduate students and other scholars to find funding for their research. The YC-backed startup has created a funding mechanism to connect researchers to potential funders. Based on data from the startup’s website, there are currently 103 research proposals that have been funded through the website, and the projects range from studying the patterns of crow movements to investigating the effects of music on improving memory. Another startup in the space, PetriDish.org, lists 32 completed project fundraises, with a similar range of research agendas.

Both startups use a Kickstarter-inspired approach to crowdfunding. Researchers post project descriptions and request an amount of funding, and the project is only approved if 100 percent of that amount is raised. While such an approach is familiar to crowdfunding veterans, it has the same drawbacks as other services, namely, the lack of sustaining funds for a research project. Considering that most research agendas are not going to be completed in a single project, it makes sense for startups to consider a subscription model, where funders could support the research agenda of the scientist for the long-term. Given that researchers spend 42 percent of their day managing grant paperwork, such a system could transform the operations of many laboratories.

These startups, though, face one obvious bias that also influences the budgets of federal research agencies – popularity with the public. There is a reason why defense research dwarfs health research, and why health research dwarfs basic science research. It is much easier to get Congress and crowdfunders to sponsor research in cancer and aging than in black holes, for instance. Developing a model that simultaneously raises more money from science, and that also distributes those funds in a societally beneficial way, will be crucial for these startups to succeed.

Distribution And Open Access Publishing

Publications are the lifeblood of any researcher and are the key determinant for research grants, awards, and tenure decisions at universities. As such, changes to the way publications are handled are among the most conservative areas of the research community. Even so, vast changes are underway given the state of academic publishing.

Today, researchers publish far more articles than they have in the past, and also submit their research to a larger number of conferences, reports, seminars, and other outlets. The feverish pace of research output has a number of critics, but the reality is, researchers need to efficiently produce papers to maintain their academic standing.

Even though the Internet was designed with scientists in mind, there has not been a true transformation in the way research is published.

There have been a number of startups that have tried to improve the ability of researchers to manage their references. Mendeley, which was acquired by Elsevier last year, was one of a host of organizations offering citation management. Mendeley allows researchers to track the papers used in the production of their research, and share their notes with colleagues. Similar functionality exists with products like Papers for Mac and iPhone, which is my choice for reference management. All of these products, though, lack the kind of deeply integrated editing tools that would allow for more fluid collaboration between researchers, representing a key startup opportunity.

There is also still a lot to be done in making the writing process easier, especially with the increase in the number of co-authored papers. Most work is still done in software, because online editing tools are hard to use and often lack key features. Some startups are starting to target specific types of researchers, such as WriteLatex, which targets the mathematicians and scientists who use LaTeX as their academic language. Yet, there are few sites that have managed to attract an interdisciplinary following and can be the platform company for research.

Simultaneously with the increasing pace of research is a growing sense among researchers that the current peer review model of science has failed to maintain high integrity standards.

Dr. John Ioannidis at Stanford has been leading the charge within medical research about the lack of replication controls over published results, and similar concerns have been voiced by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in the area of social priming. The story, of course, is early and not fully resolved, but given the need for integrity, improving the process around publications is also critical.

One startup that is trying to solve this problem is Scholastica, which attempts to help editors in migrating their process to an entirely online experience. So far, the company has managed to move about 100 journals onto the platform, many of them law reviews.

The concerns over process have added fuel to the desire of many academics to open up academic publishing. For decades, research journals have blocked access to their knowledge through extraordinarily expensive payrolls, which have only continued to increase in price.

Furthermore, journals still require researchers to hand over their copyright as a pre-condition for publication. In response, researchers have pushed for open access initiatives at universities across the world, arguing that human knowledge should be available to all. Journal publishing remains a deeply profitable enterprise, with one of the largest publishers, Reed-Elsevier, reaching revenues of about $10 billion in 2012. While groups like the Public Library of Science have certainly advocated strongly in this direction, there are still an incredible number of opportunities here for startups to build sustainable businesses in the dissemination of new knowledge.

Next Steps

It is an exciting time for the research community. There has never been so much research being conducted, nor so many people in the profession. Given the positive nature of research, we all benefit from these results being published. However, there are a lot of problems that need solving. Connecting to other researchers is still burdensome, finding sustainable funding is difficult, and writing publications for distribution is not efficient. Founders have a lot of opportunities to find new solutions to these processes, and potentially have a multiplier effect on the output of research.

More fundamentally though, research is still being conducted in the same way as it has over the past several centuries. Even though the Internet was designed with scientists in mind, there has not been a true transformation in the way research is published.

Developing an entire new model of thinking about knowledge dissemination is certainly an intellectually interesting problem, with commensurate awards available to the startup that finds the right model. Even further, expanding the scope of research outside of a handful of academic institutions would be an incredible step, one that could allow part-time researchers to contribute their knowledge as well.

It has been a slow and steady revolution, but we are still waiting for a leader in the research space who can fundamentally redefine how we make discoveries.

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