'A taste for openness and change'

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Daniel Hook founded Symplectic in 2003, alongside three fellow PhD students. Several years later the company was noticed by Nature Publishing Group, which was in the early stages of planning Digital Science. That lead to an investment in Symplectic and the start of Hook's relationship with Digital Science, where he is now managing director

Do you still have the same enthusiasm for growing start-ups?

Yes. It’s an exciting time for start-ups and at Digital Science we have the privilege of working with some of the most driven and brightest entrepreneurs. The central team at Digital Science has a lot of people who, like me, have come from a small company or entrepreneurial background and who are experienced in creating the right culture and keeping our users and innovation at the heart of what we do.

What is the biggest technological development in the research world recently?

The obvious answer would be the use of Cloud technologies to support research – specifically with regard to on-demand computational power and large-scale storage. This has made the capabilities of ‘big science’ accessible to researchers across a greater diversity of fields and at all scales of research project. The big challenge is that the majority of researchers still don’t know how to access and make use of these powerful technologies – the bar to entry is still relatively high.  

For something slightly less obvious, the pervasiveness of collaborative tools has crept up on researchers almost without their realising. Five years ago, Papers, Mendeley, Zotero and ReadCube were all new players in the researcher tools area but were all building on established experiences and use cases that researchers were familiar with. We’ve seen the coming of age of online electronic lab notebooks such as LabGuru and collaborative research environments such as Figshare and Overleaf have become the norm.

We’ve also seen the professionalisation of research management move to a new level. Symplectic started working with its first clients in 2003 and started selling Elements widely in 2008. It’s been about five years since we’ve seen universities adopt commercially-provided systems to support their internal compliance and decision-support processes. This move away from in-house development to good collaborations with vendors open to working with clients has lead to significant technological developments.  

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities facing researchers?

There is an ongoing increase in the administration that researchers need to deal with – a recent study of North American institutions stated that researchers now spend 30 per cent of their time on administrative tasks. With the increasing pressure to publish or perish, comply with open access guidelines and demonstrate real-world applicability and impact of research, researchers face a more daunting task than ever before.  

At the same time, there is much greater acceptance of publishing in open access journals amongst researchers and there is embryonic recognition and acceptance of wider contributions to scholarship. We have a long way to go until the system of credit in research is fit for purpose in the context of the current paradigm of research – the software and calculational tools are changing the fundamental nature of research and this change is running ahead of the evaluation and review systems that we have in place.  

The opportunity for the current generation of researchers and research managers is to change the way that the academy works fundamentally and to value all the different parts of the research process more evenly.

The researcher of the future will look significantly different from the researcher of today in terms of their interaction with tools that power research and in terms of their level of visibility of research in process. That thought would probably make most researchers today a little jumpy, but things have been changing for a while and I think that there is a taste for openness and change.  

Will Digital Science be likely to continue to grow its portfolio?

Digital Science already has an extremely strong and interesting portfolio. Digital Science will continue to support companies that support researchers’ ability to do better research in the most innovative and imaginative ways. The bar has never been higher to join Digital Science – companies that work with us will definitely be ones to watch!

Interview by Tim Gillett