Collaboration Platform Authorea Helps Ebola Virus Researchers, Others

[Updated, 9/16/15. See below.] Sometimes it takes many brilliant minds working together to create a breakthrough—such as understanding one of the most insidious viruses on the planet.

Collaboration is a cornerstone of scientific and medical discoveries; the same might be said of New York-based Authorea, a platform for sharing and working together on research.

Co-founders Alberto Pepe and Nathan Jenkins, along with chief scientific officer and board member Matteo Cantiello, demoed Authorea at last week’s New York Tech Meetup. Pepe and Jenkins later spoke more in-depth with me about what the platform offers to academics, researchers, and others who want a more fluid way to put their ideas together.

“We thought we could rethink the research article to be not just a static collection of text and images,” Pepe (pictured) says.

The platform also opened the way for some researchers to help tackle a major worldwide health concern. Two and a half months ago, a paper on Ebola virus research started to take shape on Authorea, Pepe says. “The collaboration was centered around the Broad Institute, a medical research center in Boston mostly funded by MIT and Harvard.” [A spokesperson for the Broad Institute says though the center is aligned with Harvard and MIT, its funding comes almost exclusively from grants and philanthropy.]

The first author reached out to Authorea for some technical help on the writing of the paper, Pepe says. Soon after, some 25 authors were working on the paper, which was published in June by Cell, a medical journal—with a link back to the Authorea version of the document.

The article in Cell naturally generated buzz about the research, and the link back to the raw version on Authorea includes edits and revisions so that others can see the progression of the collaboration. “You can download their data and see every data point behind every image from the final version of the paper,” says Pepe.

Other projects of note developed on Authorea include paleoclimatology research by climate scientists at the University of Southern California, who collected comments and annotations through the platform from their peers. “It’s really a departure from the way science was written and published in the past,” Pepe says. More often, he says, research is conducted very privately, one might even say in secret, until a paper with proof of the findings is published in a reputable journal.

There is a growing push, though, for open science and data, and Authorea can be integrated with other software and services in order to attach coding, figures, and data to research on the platform. “The idea being the reader can reproduce your analysis as they read the article,” Jenkins says. The overarching goal is to make sharing easier and more interesting, and to give scientists incentives to be more open. “I can imagine a whole ecosystem of open science tools and data sets and analysis you can host on Authorea,” Jenkins says.

So far Authorea has raised a bit less than $650,000 from backers that include the New York Angels—chairman Brian Cohen has a board seat with the startup—and ff Venture Capital, whose founding partner John Frankel also sits on the board. Authorea’s funding includes an earlier grant from Digital Science, based in London, which develops software for academic publishing.

Authorea expects to close a Series A funding round in the coming months, Pepe says. The startup has a crew of six now, he says, and plans to hire up to seven more people, particularly in engineering and user experience, after the next funding round.

A slew of collaboration software and websites already exist, typically for running meetings and project management. Box, Open Atrium, Basecamp, and Yammer all come to mind, oftentimes used by businesses. For the research world, Thomson Reuters-owned EndNote lets people organize, publish, and share their work. Other options for researchers and students to manage and share their references and sources include Mendeley and Zotero.

Authorea strives to be a more interactive platform that lets collaborators include content from their references that can be worked with by the reader, Pepe says.

The platform was initially built with astronomers and physicists in mind (Pepe is an astronomer and Jenkins is a physicist), but other types of researchers and academics started to use it in such disciplines as computational biology, medicine, and genomics. Furthermore, some users started to reveal to others what projects they were working on, rather than keep their efforts hidden.

“A lot of people were creating public content, instead of closing their collaborations and doing their work in private,” Pepe says.

The co-founders met some 10 years ago in Switzerland when Pepe was working as a researcher at CERN, the particle physics lab, after finishing his masters in astrophysics and computer science. At the time, Jenkins was finishing his doctorate at the University of Geneva. Pepe eventually relocated to the U.S. for his doctoral and postdoctoral research, at UCLA and Harvard, respectively, before making his way to New York where he reconnected with Jenkins.

One night while talking research over some pizza, Jenkins and Pepe both dished about the time wasted and hassle of exchanging drafts back and forth on collaborative research papers. Wanting a more robust tool for researchers and scholars to work together, that conversation became the root for Authorea.

“We see research articles and scholarly content of the future becoming much more data driven and interactive,” Pepe says. As a researcher in astrophysics, his day-to-day work meant crunching large datasets. The process of putting out documents after doing research, however, brought a bit of frustration. “Towards the end of my research projects, I was annoyed that all my data, source code, and work that I had done would essentially disappear when the paper gets published.”

Being able to include content—for example, maps showing the occurrence of tornadoes across the U.S. over several decades—from the originating sources can make a document more dynamic, Pepe says.

Jenkins says there are some technical challenges ahead for Authorea, such as trying to scale up. “Imagine if we had 10 million users; at that point we’re going to need a distributed file system,” he says.

Making sure that researchers’ data remains secure and accessible required something more than general cloud-based services, so Authorea uses Tarsnap, a heavy-duty online backup service. “We can’t just back up data in the open and put it on, say, Amazon S3; if the data wasn’t that sensitive we could use something like that,” Jenkins says. Local installs of Authorea are also available for institutions that require such services.

Pepe says Authorea’s next steps will include developing the platform for content beyond scientific research—for example, by college students—to expand the user base. Institutions outside of academics, such as government entities, consulting firms, banks, and pharmaceutical companies, have taken interest in using Authorea as well. “At the end of the day, all those institutions create research documents,” Pepe says. “They need a way to track changes to those documents.”

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