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Open research in conversation: two approaches to micropublications

This is a guest post by Dr Alex Freeman, Director of Octopus Publishing CIC and Chris Hartgerink, CEO of Liberate Science.

Octopus and ResearchEquals (formerly Hypergraph) are two projects which have much in common, and which followed a similar timeline from initiation to launch.

Back in 2020, the founders of the two concepts posted an online conversation discussing their inspirations and visions for the future of their projects.

Two years on, we asked Alex and Chris to share another conversation about where the projects are now, and the similarities and differences between the platforms

Alex: Well, Chris, it’s quite funny reading back over our previous conversation and remembering being at the stage where we were both launching our first working prototypes. Now we’ve both been through a busy couple of years, and have new versions launched or about to launch (I always seem to be just a few months behind you!). Hypergraph has been rebranded as ResearchEquals, and undergone a metamorphosis. Can you explain what has changed in your vision? Is it just a name change or have you also made changes to how you see the platform working, and how it fits with the landscape of research publishing?

Chris: We do tend to be separated by only a few months! We published the ideas resulting in ResearchEquals in early 2018 – you publicly announced Octopus in late 2018. Now we relaunched in February and your launch is coming up next month – I’m excited to see what you’ve got in store! Originally, we started our name change because of potential trademark issues and the fact that we were entering a new phase for the project. Hypergraph was our pilot project – and taught us a lot – ResearchEquals is the project where we went back to the drawing board with those lessons. The vision itself hasn’t changed – the primary difference is in the execution of it. Which leads me to ask:

Chris: How has your journey changed in the past two years as you’ve been able to grow the project with an injection of resources from a UKRI grant? What are you most excited about for this next step in the journey – your official launch?

Alex: Octopus itself hasn’t really changed since the first night I wrote it all down in a rush. There are tricky details, like how to visualise the links between publications, and the best criteria to define what ‘good’ looks like for each publication type, but I think rather than Octopus itself changing, what has evolved is how I see Octopus changing the research culture and publication landscape.

When I first conceived of Octopus, I admit that I saw it as a replacement for journals, but then I came to see that there are (at least) two kinds of publication needed:

  1. We need one kind of publication which records everything that has been done in full detail, which acts as the research record – a place where priority is established, and where researchers can learn from and build on each other’s work. This is what Octopus sets out to do – to be the detailed record of what a researcher did and thought, at a point in time.
  2. But we also need publications which concentrate on dissemination. These focus on sharing important findings with people who might want to use them, and less on other parts of the research cycle such as detailed methods, full data, analytical code and methods etc. Journals are well-placed to do this best and I can see journals changing now that they can really focus on the dissemination of findings and leaving Octopus to deal with recording the full detail.

This approach could solve many of the issues current facing the research community. Take Open Access: if researchers make all the details of their work freely available in Octopus, then they can write articles disseminating this work behind paywalls if they like, for specific audiences – whether they be in Nature or The New York Times.

Then take Research Assessment: because the version of record on Octopus aims to be a better representation of what was actually done, and by whom – and the platform is designed to encourage this – we can build in better assessment metrics and methods

And overall, I want Octopus to bring about a real change to the way researchers approach their work, allowing them to specialise and only do the part of the research cycle that they want to and have the best skills for – concentrating on making their publications the highest quality possible and putting those well-baked bricks into the overall research construction that will be going on all over the world and throughout time, to ensure a solid build of knowledge…

But here I am getting over-excited and saying too much again! So, in answer to your question – what I’m most excited about is other people getting to see what Octopus can potentially do for the research community, and hopefully really laying to rest some of the biggest issues that have plagued it for decades now – like publication bias, questionable research practices and Open Access. But of course, that all relies on an issue that we both face… my questions to you are:

Alex: Last time we wrote a blog and discussed how we’re going to make change in the sector work, you said that the first step was giving people an alternative: ‘making it possible’ to do things in a different way. You’re now at that stage – ResearchEquals is making it possible. What’s the next step? How do you plan to encourage people to use it? Are you focussing on one area of research more than another, or one type of researcher more than another? I’ve seen some people characterise our two projects as Octopus being more STEM-focussed and ResearchEquals more social science and humanities-focused (given the example publications we’ve had in our prototypes, I think). Is that a fair assessment, do you think?

Chris: Making it possible is an important step, but that doesn’t ensure anything I’ve learned. We’ve made good progress – the pilot programme that preceded ResearchEquals took 18 months to get to the same numbers we got on the full version of ResearchEquals in a mere 6 weeks. In that local scale, making a change is picking up pace. On the flipside, it requires active work to cultivate and foster a wider change – we are now working on our theory of change so that we can test our hypotheses and validate or update our theory. Making a change is a research project in its own way, because building without validating is a recipe for building something alien.

I don’t think the distinction between fields is a good description of the differences between ResearchEquals and Octopus – sure, the people we talk to may be different but the question for me is what the platforms facilitate. Octopus focuses on an empirical project, which ResearchEquals handles too. Research in a different tradition, potentially qualitative or otherwise, can also be published on ResearchEquals.

Chris: You talked a bit about your journey in terms of Octopus, and I wonder how you see the project sustaining itself over the next decade. I know I’m working a lot on the financial sustainability, and I wonder whether Octopus has any business models in the pipeline to pay for operations? Or are you planning to raise funds to keep the lights on?

Alex: Ah yes, I remember we talked about this before. And things haven’t changed that much for me. We have UKRI funding for 3, maybe 5, years – and that’s a very good start indeed. That funding is partly for an evaluation project running alongside the actual build of Octopus, being done by CARQI at the University of Bristol. They’re going to be looking at whether Octopus is achieving its aims in terms of changing research culture and peoples’ approach to careers and the work that they do.

My aim is still to keep the running costs as low as possible, that’s number one. Then, if Octopus achieves anything like what I hope it can, then I hope someone will recognise the value it brings is worth that very small amount, in perpetuity.

Alex: What are your own sustainability plans? And more generally, your plans for the next phase of ResearchEquals’ development? What does ‘success’ look like for you?

Chris: ResearchEquals is a product that we are creating as self-sustaining – this way we won’t be dependent on third parties like funders. We launched the Pay to Close model as our first business model to help sustain it – people pay for restrictive licenses if they want them. Extensions of this philosophy are in the works, to give the choice of being restrictive if they then fund the platform. We also have individual and institutional supporting memberships, which provide financial resources and also get to participate in our community governance. The main aim of self-sustainability is to be able to pay people for their time and help progress the project. Success in that sense is something that happens at any scale – does it achieve the impact for the people using our platform? We’re now working on our Theory of Change to further crystallize where we go next – it is clear success for us means restructuring power.

Chris: Alex, our chats always end up growing so quickly! It seems like there is already a lot in here and I welcome the invitation to continue the discussion. Our projects are similar, and I want to affirm that this diversity in approaches is invaluable for making impactful change. I look forward to seeing the first production version of Octopus come out soon!

Alex: Yes! It’s always great to chat as I think we have a lot in common, but there are also interesting differences in our experiences and perspectives. Hopefully others who feel the same way can get in touch with us to discuss their thoughts as well, and try out the platforms. Speak again soon!


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