Relaunching the academic seminar

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Ben Kaube (left) and Andrew Preston

Andrew Preston and Ben Kaube tell us about their new venture Cassyni, which is aimed at shaking up the world of academic seminars

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications...

Andrew Preston: We both have backgrounds in academic research. Coincidentally we spent several years working on the same niche piece of software in the same niche of physics without ever meeting. It was only after we had moved on and been working together in the business world for some time that we made the connection. Our time doing research gave us first-hand insight into the problems faced by the research community and the potential for technology to make a positive impact. This experience is what gave us the insights to found our previous startups Publons (Andrew) and Newsflo and Kopernio (Ben).

Ben Kaube: Andrew and I met at Clarivate after Publons and Kopernio (now EndNote Click) were acquired in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Working closely with the Web of Science and EndNote teams, we had the privilege of scaling our products into platforms that make a positive impact on the professional lives of millions of researchers. Between us we are lucky to have experienced the research world from just about every angle, from researcher roles like completing PhDs and working as a practicing researcher, through to building startups in this space, and then to working at leading companies like Clarivate and Elsevier.

What have you been up to since we last spoke?

AP: Ben and I both left Clarivate at different points in 2020. I took some time off for the birth of my daughter in November before travelling back to New Zealand for several months to spend time with family. As Covid continued to progress we began thinking about new problems faced by researchers. It is quite clear that it has provided a shock to the system that has changed the way researchers and their institutions view travel around the world. Even in New Zealand, which has escaped the pandemic relatively unscathed, I saw a lot of discussion about how to remove geographic barriers and remain connected with the global research community, now that Covid and concerns about climate change have made regular travel more challenging.

BK: One area that got us excited was the academic seminar. More than a million academic research seminars are held each year. They are a critical part of research culture, with a heritage spanning hundreds of years. Seminars are a place where ideas are discussed, developed and disseminated, and yet there is no record of any of this happening, resulting in lost knowledge and limited reach and impact.

When Covid struck, many of these seminars went online and on to a patchwork of Zoom, YouTube and Google Drive, causing all sorts of challenges for organisers and participants. One upshot of going virtual has been the removal of a lot of the geographic barriers that have historically existed around seminars. We got interested in this space and began to work with researchers at Imperial College London and Texas A&M to learn more about what goes into organising and running a successful seminar series, and to think about what we could do to empower more researchers to spin up their own seminar series.

Tell us about Cassyni. How will it benefit the research community?

AP: The idea is to ‘relaunch’ the academic seminar. We’ve built a tool that removes the pain and back and forth of seminar organisation. Researchers can kick off a series in minutes and never have to worry about scheduling or collecting bio and abstract details from speakers. We integrate directly with Zoom and provide a great online experience, and once the seminar is over we make it possible to edit and publish it on Cassyni with a DOI, so that seminars become a formal part of the sphere of human knowledge – a complement to the published literature.

BK: The idea is to build a vibrant and connected ecosystem that enables millions of online (and hybrid) seminars. We aim to remove the geographic barriers to seminars, allowing existing and entirely new discussions to happen online, without the need for additional travel and to ultimately build something along the lines of a Web of Science for seminars.

AP: We are just getting started, and have been validating our idea with key partners, but already seeing a great response from the community. Researchers, university departments, and journals are all running seminars on Cassyni. It’s been fantastic to see communities start to form around some of these series. One highlight was seeing a seminar about that piece of software we both worked on during our PhDs appear on Cassyni (without any prompting by us).

BK: A great example of communities forming around regular seminars is the PyFR seminar series, which has been running for several months and has built a community of more than 100 researchers that attend their seminars. PyFR is an academic software package for running computational fluid dynamics simulations. The organisers’ goal was to share what you can do with PyFR with the community, and learn how other people are using the tool. It’s safe to say that they’re achieving this goal, with downloads of the software having doubled and researchers from universities around the world joining, alongside participants from the R&D departments of companies like Boeing, Nvidia and McClaren.

AP: This form of ongoing discussion and interaction was very difficult before the removal of geographic barriers spurred by Covid. Another great example is the institution-wide deal we’re announcing with Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. They are concerned about difficulties with travel cutting their researchers off from the world. Our agreement makes the seminar organisation tools of Cassyni available to all their researchers, so they can launch seminar series in just a few minutes, and together we’re aiming to launch several flagship seminar series to share their research with the global community.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the scholarly comms industry, and where do you think it will be in 10 years’ time?

AP: Removing geographic constraints could change the nature of the research group, department and university. This won’t necessarily be a challenge for research (though it is proving one for higher education) but it will result in very interesting new behaviours.

Seminars are a harbinger of this change. It’s early days yet but we’re already seeing many examples of seminar series appearing that are focused on specific research topics (PyFR is a good example). This is somehow a new class of research communication, one that is distinctly different from conferences, which are still heavily constrained even when held online, with discussions restricted to just a few days out of the year. On the other hand, seminar series seem to enable this natural concept of community that grows and evolves over time, as they develop the research topic.

BK: We’ve seen plenty of examples of the scholarly comms industry borrowing from broader consumer technology and communications trends, to the benefit of the research community. From e-journals to the rise of scholarly social networks built around sharing papers, rather than cat pics, it’s never long before the research world catches up.

One trend that remains comparatively underdeveloped in scholarly comms is the role of video. Across media, from news through entertainment to professional education, we’ve seen video take up ever larger proportions of consumer attention (just consider the number of hours spent across YouTube and Netflix during the pandemic). Yet researchers often have no choice but to scan the dual columns of journal article PDF documents.

The PDF article will be with us for some time yet, but it will increasingly be complemented by video content. Given the choice, I expect more and more researchers (especially millennial and younger generations) to click for the 45 minute video seminar, rather than the 45 page manuscript when researching an unfamiliar topic. This will become even more compelling as AI developments can make video content as searchable and discoverable as text. For example, with Cassyni we’ve been able to use machine learning to make the audio of what is said, along with the text presented on slides, searchable. So it is trivial to find relevant sections of a long recording in much the same way that you would scan a PDF.

Tools like Cassyni provide an opportunity to democratise the creation of this video content, make it discoverable and formally embed it in the wider sphere of human knowledge.

Finally, do you have any fascinating facts, hobbies or pastimes you want to tell us about?

AP: I began to renovate our apartment during the lockdown. DIY is new to me but my partner and I had a blast stripping wallpaper, replacing taps, and painting.

BK: I can confirm Andrew did an excellent job of it! While locked down during the pandemic I had the opportunity to nurture some new hobbies and I’ve enjoyed building Rube Goldberg machines to make household chores more fun!

Interview by Tim Gillett