Revolutionary web-based peer review platform – Publons

Kiwis are famous for their ingenuity and self-sufficiency. It is said that Kiwis can create amazing things — all they need is ‘a piece of Number 8 wire’.

Today there is a new species of ingenious New Zealander emerging. All they need is a laptop and an internet connection.

Andrew Preston is one of those Kiwis, and the “thing” he’s created is Publons, a peer-review platform that is completely revamping the world of academic reviewing and publishing.

Peer reviewing is the practice of formally checking the veracity of the work written into scholarly articles by professionals who operate in the same field. This ensures that the quality and accuracy of the work is pristine before (and after) it is published and becomes widely accepted. In many cases the reviewing is done anonymously to encourage objectivity.

Saying that the current system is broken is a bit of an overstatement. A better adjective would be “fractured” or “imperfect.” The anonymity of the peer reviewing system already in place is its strength, but also its weakness. Reviewers are not recognised for the important contributions they make to science, and the valuable insights they share are typically discarded after publication.

Now Publons has come in and created an environment where reviews are encouraged, conversations are facilitated, and the reviewing process is completely transparent. Typically, peer review is performed before an article is published, but Publons allows review after an article has been posted online. This “post-publication” peer review is becoming increasingly important in academic circles.

Publons also gives each reviewer recognition. Reviews are endorsed, and when a certain level of endorsement is reached, they are given a DOI (digital object identifier) so that scholars can add their work to their CV’s. Research development is encouraged since authors, reviewers, and readers can hold conversations around the articles well after they are published.

“The concept came from my experiences in academia,” said Andrew, “I did a PhD in physics at Victoria University and then a postdoc at Boston University. During that time I published papers and began to review them so I got to see the way things worked.”

“We [then] started hacking – building – what we thought might work. Things really kicked off when we were accepted into Lightning Lab earlier this year.

“One interesting thing about Lightning Lab is that it follows the TechStars accelerator model which tends to have more of a B2B focus, than, for example, Y Combinator model, which has a lot of B2C startups. That really encouraged us to focus on solving problems for journals as well as reviewers and authors.”

Being at Lightning Lab gave Andrew and his co-founder Daniel Johnston the ability to focus on the concept full time.

“It was a great environment, being surrounded by all the other teams and mentors. It opened our eyes to different potential customers. The Lab also helped with traction with investors. The contacts and preparation really helped when it came to raising money.”

Getting people to use Publons was initially difficult. It was a system that not many scholars or authors had heard of or used before, and it was disrupting the entrenched system that has been around for hundreds of years. Personally communicating with each user has seen Publon’s user-base and engagement rise drastically.

“We try to interact regularly and personally with every user that signs up for the site now.”

Andrew has found the service Intercom.io to be very helpful in interacting with Publons’ users. Intercom.io allows administrators to see how their users are utilising their software, and engage with them closely based on that data.

Publons is destined for great things. Large publications like TechCrunch and Ars Technica have recently praised it, while also stating that the market Publons is in has a large amount of room for growth.

Andrew said that Publons intends to announce an “exciting new product release” this year which, if all goes to plan, should get into market by early next year.

“The obvious next step after that is to scale.”

Do you think the next few years are good years to be an entrepreneur in New Zealand?

It’s always a good time to be an entrepreneur anywhere. It’s hard work, but the toughest challenges are all internal and I’ve loved the journey so far.

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