Alberto Pepe on Authorea's Business Model (AMA)

The Authorea Team

On September 15th, 2016 Authorea CEO and Cofounder, Alberto Pepe, encouraged the Reddit science community to ask him anything. Below are a few excerpts from the AMA on the topic of Authorea's business modelClick here for the full thread.
Read general AMA excerpts here or specific discussions on the topic of quality control in publishing or metrics/ranking/impact.

How can you claim to be in support of open science/open scholarship when authorea is closed source and a commercial application?

Co-Founder | Authorea

hi Hipstie- I am glad you ask the question and I am sorry I did not get to answer this yesterday. I see you make two separate points, namely: how can you claim that Authorea supports Open Science if it is (1) not Open Source, and (2) a commercial application? I'll answer the two points separately.

(1) First off, Open Source and Open Science are not the same thing. I understand that they are related, but I would need a bit more convincing as to why the only way to support Open Science is via tools that are Open Source. I know a number tools, companies and initiatives that are not "Open" but that have nevertheless made a contribution to Openness. Is that a bad thing? One example which comes to mind is Github which is NOT Open Source, but it has served as a catalyst for Open Source in the last decade. I am not sure what is Github's decision behind being closed source, but I will tell you why Authorea is (currently) closed source: as much as we strive for openness in as many departments as possible, and we remain fully committed to opening up access to scientific research, we need to be sustainable as a project. Which brings me to the second point.

(2) When I was in academia, I was myself under the impression that commercial applications were detrimental to openness. All my academic work has mostly been funded by research grants (NASA and NSF). Most academic projects I created and worked on, however, ended when the research grant was over. The advantage of building a commercial application which has an underlying business model (that works) is that the chance to create a sustainable, long term, more impactful project is higher. Authorea is a commercial application not because we are aiming to make huge profits, but because we believe that it is great to make a product that is so good that people and institutions will pay for it (to create long term sustainability) and with a strong social mission that can truly change an industry in dire need of change (academic publishing).

I understand that being a commercial application does not mean that we need to be closed source. There are some great examples of commercial Open Source projects. We have decided to experiment with our current model, at least for now. If you take a look at our open product roadmap, you will notice that we are actually open sourcing a fundamental part of Authorea very soon: the document exporter. We are doing it because a lot of power users felt that the way the export process works today is too much of a "black box". Plus, they would love to contribute themselves to new export styles. It is a no brainer and we are now open sourcing the exporter. Open sourcing the entire platform is a possibility in the future. We need to determine if we would still have a business if Authorea was fully open source. Installing Authorea on a dedicated server for an experienced programmer takes about 2 hours and if we had to fully open source the code, there is a chance our business model would fail.

I hope that regardless of the availability of Authorea's codebase, we will be able to encourage scientists and scholars to publish in a different, more open and transparent way.

  1. How would you monetize your alternative system? Elsevier and cie are extremely profitable because of the ridiculous subscriptions that universities and research centers pay for. But even free alternatives like PLOS had to be monetized to pay for servers, editing, and website management. They chose to do so by making researchers pay to publish. Would your system do the same?
  2. How would you measure the impact of a "paper" (or whatever that non-static publication would be called) without any ranking system? Indexes are questionable because of how they only rely on citations to measure impact, but they serve a purpose and a need and cannot be removed without alternatives.

Co-Founder | Authorea
  1. Our business model is a Freemium model whereby Authorea is free to use as long as you produce public content. You can write as many documents as you like on Authorea for free as long as you keep them "open". If you want to create private documents, you pay for private hosting. By using this model, we are encouraging authors to do "open research". Please note that Authorea does not have copyright on the content. All content produced is the ownership of authors. An author can delete, download, modify content at any point in time. So, in that sense, we are very different from traditional publishers (including PLOS, which is basically a traditional publisher). For the time being, we plan to keep charging scholarly authors, who pay because they are using a collaborative tool writing tool built exactly for them. We are getting increasing interest from institutions, departments, research labs who want to buy group licenses.

  2. As I said in a couple of other answers, I am not advocating for "no ranking system". However, scholars' contributions should be assessed across more components than simply number of citations. I suggest, in another answer, "number of forks" as a way to assess the impact of a scholar in "giving birth" to new research results. In other words, if a piece of code you wrote in, say, a genomics paper, is readapted by astronomers to bring about an amazing new discovery in, say, exoplanetary science, we should be able to reward you, and visualize the provenance.

PhD | Microbiology 

Napster and other file sharing services helped revolutionize the music industry, which gave birth to iTunes (and 99-cent songs). Do you think that your organization (and Sci-Hub) will do something similar to the scientific publishing industry?

Co-Founder | Authorea

Hi Vilnius2013. I am fascinated by the rise in popularity of Sci-Hub and, in a way, I support it because it is bringing scholarly and scientific knowledge to people that would not otherwise access to it. At the same time, I think that it is absolutely inconceivable that in year 2016 we need to resort to the dark web and illegal mechanisms to disseminate scholarly content which should inherently be public, open, and free. What is even more irritating is that we have a solution already, today, to freely and publicly disseminate scholarly knowledge. The solution is called preprints. Astronomers and physicists have been doing it since before the web and net existed (libraries would print out new unpublished manuscripts and they would send them around by mail to partner libraries). As I said in another answer, a pre-print is the version immediately prior to what is published in a journal (and post-print immediately after). The pre-print version of an article is ownership of the author and can be deposited in a repository (or if an article is written in Authorea it is already there). So, my question is: why exchange publisher-formatted (illegal) PDFs on a peer to peer network when we can exchange those same articles, in html format, and legally?

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