Working towards a fairer playing field

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Mark Hahnel

Figshare founder Mark Hahnel describes the company's beginnings and raison d’être – and his wider hopes for scholarly communications

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

I was a stem cell biologist, albeit briefly. My undergraduate was in genetics, my master’s in human genetics, and my PhD in stem cell biology. It was all just a natural progression of focusing on an area I found super interesting. I never intended to leave academia, but often wonder how successful I would have been in what I now see to be a very competitive academic landscape.

How, when and why did you found Figshare? Explain a little about the company’s raison d’être and activities?

While completing my PhD, I was generating lots of different file formats. In order to disseminate my research (and due to the concept of ‘publish or perish’), I had to write up my work into PDFs. I had a lot of videos of stem cells moving from one side of the screen to the other that were deemed too big by publishers at the time to be published alongside the paper. Most researchers generate more computationally heavy files as technology becomes more accessible. When we think of academic data, it's really just academic computer files. If you think your subject doesn’t produce data, ask the question ‘what files am I producing?’.

The fact that I couldn’t publish these files caused a lot of frustration. I had to reverse engineer my findings into written text. At the same time, I was frustrated by the idea that so much of my work that could be useful for others, would never see the light of day. 

So, I started making these files available in a way that adhered to best practices as well as I could: data persistence, including persistent identifiers. I opened the platform up to other academics, received some investment from the newly formed Digital Science, and started working on sustainability models to support open data. Our business model now is to provide the best repository infrastructure for organisations looking to disseminate the research of their academics, for compliance or open access reasons, and to track the impact of said research.

You were one of the first people I met in scholarly communications, about eight years ago. What have been the biggest industry developments since then?

In terms of academic publishing and the wider move to open research outputs, there are two types of change that show the trajectory of where we are headed. The first is that we’ve seen open access papers become the majority over restricted access papers and the steady growth in funder and publisher policies on open data. Probably the most notable of all is the January 2023 policy for open data from the NIH. But with 52 funder policies and counting, it is truly a snowball effect coming to fruition.

The second real change has been preprints. What has been fascinating about the rapid expansion and acceptance of preprints is that it came at a time when fake news, fact checking, and alternative truths were hitting the headlines. For me, this highlights how difficult the need for ‘fast but good’ publishing can be.

The triumvirate of open access fees, the need for faster publication, and the necessary quality checks mean that we have a three-pronged tug of war, where pulling on one end has direct impacts on the other two. While this has its own set of challenges, the fact that we have seen such a need and desire for more efficient publication practices shows that there is a lot more innovation to come in this space.

Are there any other areas of scholarly communications that you are passionate about?

The bio I use for conferences includes the line “Mark is passionate about open science and the potential it has to revolutionise the research community”. I think we are just seeing the beginning of the effect of machine learning and AI on research outputs, most notably the DeepMind AlphaFold project which is already dramatically accelerating research. 

I also love the wider research communication space in general. Taking complex ideas and translating them to those with non-specialist knowledge is a real skill.

What are your wider hopes for the industry for the next 10 years?

I hope for a fairer playing field, where any interested person has the opportunity to pursue an academic career in a field they care about. I think the real driver for most people working in academia is passion about a subject. We as humanity should encourage these passions. Essential to this is the need for equitable ways to publish, access, and disseminate academic content. I see these as things worth striving for.

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

I’m learning Icelandic to keep up with my in-laws! So feel free to say ‘hæ!’ If you see me out conferencing!

Interview by Tim Gillett