How could Octopus break the status quo?

May 14, 2018 by Alex Freeman

How Octopus might start up and change the status quo in scientific publishing

Most people agree that the idea behind Octopus is a good one, and also that it is technically achievable. Many, though, fear that it will not work in reality because the status quo in science is so well established. Journals are hugely profitable commercial enterprises and hence naturally resistant to any change that will undermine that. Scientists are judged almost exclusively on how many papers they publish and in which journals (ranked by 'reputation') and so anyone stepping outside of that established system and publishing in a place other than an accepted journal risks that work not being recognised by academic recruitment and promotion panels. Science funders have some influence, because they literally hold the purse strings and so can stipulate that in order to obtain funding, researchers must publish their work in a certain way or in a certain place. Academic institutions who hire and promote scientific researchers can also wield power by making clear how they will assess candidates.

Out of these players in the game, then, where are the incentives to change the scientific publishing system so radically as to move to something like Octopus? I'll go through each in turn and outline why I think they would see an advantage and how they could shift from one system to another in a practical sense.

Academic institutions

Academic institutions have multiple roles to fill in the world of scientific publishing. Firstly, they are the main purchasers of traditional journal subscriptions. Many people do not realise how expensive the traditional scientific publishing system is. Major UK universities are paying tens of millions of pounds each year to the top 10 journal publishers (see this spreadsheet). That is money that institutions desperately need to spend elsewhere. In some countries universities have started to boycott expensive journals in order to try to force negotiations on price, but so far those negotiations are at stalemate. There is, therefore, a huge financial incentive and a willingness on the part of some universities internationally to move to a cheaper system, and one where they are not 'held over a barrel' by commercial companies. This should mean they hugely favour a system like Octopus.

The other important role of academic institutions, however, is as the main hirers and promoters of individual academics. This role is generally undertaken by an entirely different set of people at the institutions from those who have to worry about negotiating institutional journal subscriptions. Picking the right individual researchers to represent an institution on the competitive world stage of academic science research is difficult and perilous. Institutions want high profile researchers - and 'high profile' is still usually universally defined by how many papers they have published and in what journals (with some institutions taking into account public profile or commercial potential of scientists as well). 'High profile' individuals are high risk as well - a profile is often gained by being vocal in support of a particular idea (which means defending and clinging to that idea even if all evidence starts to point another way), or by publishing a lot - which as my previous post detailed, might tempt some researchers to undertaking 'questionable research practices' in order to increase their publication record.

Academic selection panels, therefore, are in a more entrenched position: they are trying to assess researchers to some extent simply by their perception by others within the field (i.e. will this person be SEEN as a good hire?), although they do of course want them to be genuinely good (or at least not actually 'bad', in terms of being the possible cause for scandal, which is very bad news for any institution). This makes them to some extent wedded to established system. However, given the importance of getting an appointment right, any extra information about a candidate would be very welcome. What sort of qualities as a researcher do they actually have? Are they an 'ideas person', a good collaborator, a thorough data scientist? Is their work genuinely well-respected in the field? All of these can be difficult questions to answer from the current metrics, gained from traditional publishing. However, Octopus has the potential to give much more information. Click on an individual's name in Octopus and you will be taken to a page which shows all their publications and reviews, along with their ratings. Infographics can easily summarise their output in far more detail given that each publication is far smaller, and more specific to the author.


An example infographic illustrating an author's contributions, and (below) a mock up author page from Octopus.


This much finer-grain detail would make Octopus a much more useful provider of information to academic panels than any other system. It will, though, take time and effort to make insitutions aware of Octopus' potential and willing to start overtly listing it as a source of information they will use when considering candidates for positions. Once they do, though, academics will quickly follow. It seems likely that there will be a 'tipping point'. As long as Octopus can get enough momentum to start with to be demonstrably useful in some circumstances to academic institutions then they have the potential to push it use far wider and relatively quickly through their influence over researchers' careers.

Science funders

Most scientific research is funded through fixed-term 'grants', given by governments, charitable organisations, or commercial companies. A lot of researchers, therefore, rely on being able to secure enough funding to employ them for a year or more on a particular project or projects. Grants come with conditions, set by the funders. Many for instance now stipulate that the resulting data and other findings are published in 'Open Access' journals and data repositories - meaning that they are freely available for others to read and use and not hidden behind paywalls. Traditional journals have embraced this Open Access model and charge authors to publish instead of charging readers to read. It costs from a few hundred to several thousand pounds to publish an article in a traditional Open Access journal. This cost can come out of some grants. Other specifically do not pay this cost and the researcher has to find the money from another source. Some funders have started to create or sponsor electronic publishing platforms with much lower publishing charges (such as Wellcome Open Research).

Funders have obvious incentives for wanting to save money that would otherwise be spent on traditional publishing models. They also want their funded research to be widely read and used. They also have the power to mandate any particular publishing practice for those who want their sponsorship. For many science funders, then, encouraging the use of a platform like Octopus is not a difficult step - as long as they trust that it will fulfill its promise to be as good and as universal as it has the potential to be. (For those funders who have already publicly backed or created their own e-publishing system, Octopus may unfortunately be seen as a rival).

Funders also want to minimise the resources that they put into selecting projects to fund. Just like academic selection panels they want to be able to identify good individual researchers and also assess the quality of a proposal. To do this, they usually have to undertake full peer review of proposals themselves. It is a lengthy and costly process for both researchers preparing such detailed proposals and for the funding bodies to assess them. With the detailed researcher profiles found in Octopus, combined with the possibility for funders to select only/mainly from protocols already published on the system and openly reviewed and rated by others, the resources currently wasted in grant proposal writing and assessing could be hugely reduced.


It's chicken-and-egg. Researchers will tend to publish where funders and academic institutions are looking - and academic institutions at least look only where researchers are publishing. Why might researchers take a leap into the unknown and publish somewhere like Octopus? I have several good reasons...

Firstly, for some aspects, Octopus is offering something valuable that nothing else does. Think about the good idea that a researcher comes up with one day but knows they will not have the resources to follow up more fully. They want to share the idea, though (and get credit for having come up with it first!) Currently there's almost nowhere to get something like that published. On Octopus, a few hours' work publishing a Hypothesis could get them a nicely appreciated addition to their record for all to see.

Secondly, Octopus can get researchers credit for things that they currently do but which are not valued. Reviewing the work of others, for example. Because of the peer-review system and the expanding number of scientific articles being published, researchers are contantly dealing with requests from journals to review others' work. They do this for free, and the result is anonymous - there is no credit for doing so. In Octopus, such review work would be open and potential employers or funders could see what quality of review work people are doing.

Thirdly, because the unit of publication in Octopus is smaller, researchers can get more fine-grained credit for the work they do. They will less often be one on a long list of authors, whose contributions are difficult to distinguish.

Fourthly, the instant translation facilities will help researchers who are not native English speakers to publish their work for all to see, hugely increasing accessibility.

All of the above will particularly benefit early career-stage academics or those from developing countries who will otherwise be struggling to publish their work in traditional journals. Late career-stage academics who do not care so much about their publication record in traditional journals must also be encouraged to publish in a system like Octopus to provide leadership.

In order to make Octopus a 'go to' place for publishing, though, I believe that it has to be a useful place to go from day 1 of its existence - it can't start as an empty resource or it will never reach 'tipping point'. To do that, I propose to make it firstly a place to FIND already-published research. Octopus' digital linking techniques (replacing all traditional references with hyperlinks, and vertically and horizontally linking related publications to make everything dealing with a particular 'problem' easily found) should make it an improved searching environment from the very beginning. By sucking into it all the current Open Acccess publications, and using machine learning to help fit it into Octopus' structure, I see it quickly becoming a site for daily use by researchers to FIND rather than publish research. Very quickly they will start to use the 'rate' and 'review' features, and rely on these to help them refine their searching. And once it has become a useful daily place to go to find research and publish reviews, adding quicker publications such as Hypotheses or ideas for translation into the real world will become second nature too. And that will give the whole platform enough momentum to start providing useful metrics for academic selection panels and thus reach 'tipping point'.

Journal publishers

What, then, would become of journal publishers in the world in which Octopus has become 'the place to publish'? Naturally these hugely profitable businesses are never going to support a free replacement service. However, I think they could still have an important role. A few researchers have expressed concern over the idea of relying on post-publication peer review. They point out that many publications have so few readers anyway that the ratings and reviews would be unreliable indicators of quality, and the system too easily 'gamed' by having friends rate your work highly. It would also be very useful to have intelligent research aggregator systems, alerting people to new publications they may want to read. Could journals, therefore, become the layer on top of Octopus - developing algorithms to alert people to content that they personally may want to read; providing commissioned peer reviews of significant publications; and producing expert editorials commenting on trends and discoveries? That is a service many would pay for and value, and which would remove some of the concerns that some feel about abandoning the traditional peer review structure entirely.

These, then, are the reasons why I feel that Octopus is not an impossible pipe-dream. It may be a long road ahead to replace the scientific publishing model with something better, but if we can find agreement on what 'something better' would look like and then technically build it, the final stage of driving adoption should be possible. I think it's a matter of understanding what binds each of us to the current publishing model and ensuring that the replacement system surpasses the current one in all those important ways. That, and building the social and media momentum needed to drive traffic to it.

The first stage, however, is to start building Octopus. It may not be perfect in all its planned features yet, but until we start building it I don't think it's possible to see where it needs tweaking and improvement. Nobody seems to think that its technical specification is particularly difficult/impossible and many existing tools can be pulled into its construction. We just need to work together to do that. Do look at our baby GitHub repository and help us start out.