The Bourne Innovation: UC Researchers Launch a YouTube for Scientists

As an editor at a growing online resource called the Public Library of Science, UC San Diego Professor Philip Bourne is in an ideal position to see the disruptive changes that are remaking the $11 billion scientific publishing industry. As it has with other types of traditional publishing, the Internet is turning the staid-but-highly lucrative business of academic publishing on its head.

Of 1.35 million peer-reviewed articles published in 23,750 journals of science, technology, and medicine in 2006, two Finnish researchers recently estimated that 8.1 percent are now available online at no cost. They estimate another 11.3 percent can easily be found on authors’ Web sites and free repositories.

Bourne saw the emerging trend and recruited Leo Chalupa, a friend and colleague at UC Davis, to launch an online video project to help scientists make their research better-known. Bourne and Chalupa were initially unsure if the project they started last year was merely an interesting science project or a business. But they decided to form a startup company earlier this year around what they call SciVee. It is basically a YouTube for academic researchers.

As Bourne explains in this SciVee video, “What we’re really trying to do here is to further the dissemination of science.”

Bourne says his first idea was to essentially create “pubcasts,” which typically consist of a 15-minute video in which the author of a published and peer-reviewed article explains the research and highlights the key findings. Presentations can include slides, computer-generated animations, and other graphics.

“What Phil and Leo saw was the opportunity to add new capabilities with Web 2.0 technologies to that part of the publishing world,” says Marc Friedmann, who joined SciVee as CEO about six months ago. Like YouTube, SciVee enables scientists to combine video and data in a media-rich format that makes their research more visible, accessible, and shareable.

Scientists also are using SciVee to enhance research published in so-called “poster sessions” at scientific conferences and to form online communities of interest. “The idea is that it creates a new learning experience,” Bourne says. “The long-term goal is to really aggregate online content and provide more of a ‘National Geographic’ style to a whole set of dry, scientific presentations.”

By providing a technology platform much like YouTube’s, SciVee enables scientists across a host of disciplines to create content in any field of science, technology, or medicine. Bourne says K-12 teachers and other educational users also are using SciVee to post videos like this for younger students to access. About 1,000 users have posted videos on the site so far.

SciVee’s broad-based approach contrasts with JoVE, the Journal of Visualized Experiments, an online video rival based in suburban Boston that is focused narrowly on video publication of life sciences research. The Science Network, based at The Salk Institute in La Jolla, represents yet another approach by offering webcasts of scientific presentations over the Internet.

Both SciVee and JoVE, however, depend on the emerging “Open Access” trend in which scientific, technical, and medical research is made available online at no cost. Bourne says the trend, which began about eight years ago, has been encouraged by dozens of federal funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, which provided the $175,000 “exploratory grant” that enabled Bourne to get SciVee started.

Open Access also represents a fundamentally different business model for disseminating academic research in an industry long dominated by publishing giants such as Elsevier and Springer that publish journals supported chiefly by subscriptions and advertising. Under the Open Access model, scientists pay to publish their own research, with the online publication costs included as part of the research grant awarded by sponsoring agencies.

The San Francisco-based Public Library of Science, for example, operates as a non-profit organization of scientists and physicians who believe scientific and medical literature should be a public resource. Also known as PloS, the group oversees research published in seven online PloS journals, including Biology, Medicine, and Neglected Tropical Diseases. Bourne is editor of the PloS journal of Computational Biology.

SciVee, likewise, is based on a fundamentally different business model. “It is not an advertising supported model,” says Friedmann, SciVee’s CEO. “We are distinctly not pursuing the approach of putting up a website, trying to build a lot of traffic for the site, and then realizing revenue through advertising based on that traffic. To this point in time, we’ve built the business with a little bit of government grant support, but we’re looking to commercialize it by generating revenue from paying customers.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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