Disrupting the world of science publishing

Every scientist wants his or her paper to appear in Cell, Nature or Science. In today’s scientific world, being associated with such publications is synonymous with prestige and excellence, opening doors to top positions and coveted awards.

Nonetheless, these journals are typically known to have an acceptance rate of 5-10 percent, meaning that the other 90-95 percent whose papers have been rejected are forced to find other publishing outlets that simply don’t have the same alluring impact within the academic world.

ScienceMatters, a Swiss startup that launched in February, is trying to pave the way to a more democratized system by offering an open-source publishing platform to every scientist who wants to share his or her observations. “We are trying to publish the same way top science publications published 50 years ago,” explains Lawrence Rajendran, founder and CEO of ScienceMatters. “They used to publish exact observations, but now, competition for space is extremely high so there needs to be that wow factor.”

In other words, scientists must not only present outstanding and unique results, but they also need to craft them within an appealing narrative that pleases the editors. Therefore what drives scientists today is no longer the curiosity of discovering something new, but rather the glorification of a high-impact factor (i.e. essentially an indicator of the number of times articles published in the journal are cited).

“It has been repeatedly said that the impact factor of a journal cannot be considered as the only proxy for the quality of the work it publishes,” says Monica Di Luca, vice rector of the University of Milan. “However, the fact is that universities and research centers all use this measure when hiring and promoting researchers. Even scientists consider it a useful means to assess the scientific status of a colleague.”

“This publish or perish culture instills a hostile scientific environment, pressuring young researchers to outperform their peers, which can lead to data fraud.” Lawrence Rajendran, ScienceMatters founder and CEO

As a neuroscientist himself, Rajendran experienced first-hand the biased and unjust system that constitutes the world of science publishing when he was a post-doc. “This publish or perish culture instills a hostile scientific environment, pressuring young researchers to outperform their peers, which can lead to data fraud,” he explains. Born in a slum around Madras, India, this University of Zurich professor decided to build an inclusive platform for all scientists, whether they’re full professors at Harvard or post-docs in Mumbai.

To publish on ScienceMatters, the scientist needs to demonstrate two things. First, the research has to be technically solid (i.e. proper controls and execution). Second, it has to have a scientific context (i.e. neuroscience, chemistry, physics…). Once the paper has been submitted, it goes through a triple blind review process where both the authors and the editors are anonymous. “This prevents any form of bias as we believe science alone should matter,” says Rajendran.

There are other open-access platforms that are on a similar quest of democratizing the world of science publishing. One of them, eLife, was founded by Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman, who famously denounced Cell, Nature and Science for their selection criteria. The Guardian quoted him saying: “Just as Wall Street needs to break the hold of bonus culture, so science must break the tyranny of the luxury journals.” Frontiers, also based in Switzerland, is another open-source publishing platform for scientists.

“I don’t think journals like eLife or Frontiers are fundamentally different from, let’s say, Cell Reports or Nature Communications,” explains Stanford-based professor Tom Südhof, Nobel Laureate and chair of ScienceMatters’ board of advisors. “I think ScienceMatters breaks this mold, at least partly, by publishing short pieces that are not stories, but simply results.“

These results are incorporated in MattericTM (patented in 2015), a metric system that provides scores on how impactful an observation is using network-based algorithms. “Taken together, the vision of ScienceMatters is to create an internet of validated science,” explains Rajendran. The hope, according to the CEO, is to become the “Google of Science,” indexing every research paper to render the whole system more transparent and accessible.

“A new metric is exactly what we need,” says Di Luca. “But we also need this metric to be shared among peers and endorsed by scientific societies or structured funding agencies.” The Swiss startup seems to be on the right track, as it was recently accelerated by MassChallenge Switzerland and recognized by the European Commission. Thanks to its recent seed round of $380,000, led by the Velux Foundation, the team has managed to fund submissions — a stark contrast to other journals that impose a publishing fee.

ScienceMatters has published around 60 papers since its launch, each from multiple authors and more than 600 editors behind the review process. “We are now negotiating with universities so that they can take care of the publishing charges for their authors,” explains Rajendran. They have already confirmed partnerships with the University of Zurich, the University of Bern and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne.

The team now wishes to raise additional funds to expand the platform’s reach. “We are looking for VCs, impact investors, philanthropists or charitable foundations who believe in this idea and who don’t want a rapid exit,” says the CEO. “We want to keep growing and, who knows, maybe even become a publishing company.”