Speeding up science

WELLINGTON-based startup Publons took its name from a nerdy physics joke about the academic publishing industry.

According to the joke, the elusive ‘publon’ is the elementary particle of scientific publication, but the academic publishing business is no laughing matter. Co-founder of Publons, Andrew Preston, says the industry is big. “Last year 1.6 million journal articles were published, so there’s a huge amount of activity going on.” Preston states that the company’s mission is to speed up science by optimising peer review, becoming ‘the platform at the centre of all peer review that happens in the world’. Instead of the traditional anonymous peer review system that has existed since the days of Sir Isaac Newton, Publons aims to transform peer review into a citeable, indexible, objective academic opinion. There are currently two types of peer review: prepublication, which happens before an article is published to make sure it is factually correct and significant enough to be published in a journal; and postpublication, where discussion is added after publication.

“What we’re doing, combines pre and post-publication peer review on a single platform, turning these peer reviews into publications in their own right, by assigning Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs),” says Preston.

Publons was founded this year after joining the Lightning Lab startup accelerator, and the company has received $350,000 in seed funding. It has 12,000 authors on its database. “Authors are easy to collect, what you really care about are reviews,” says Preston. “That’s been slow going, and we’re up to nearly 50. Which is, I think, pretty good at the stage we’re at.” Preston studied physics at Victoria University and debated travelling overseas to complete a PhD but ‘The MacDiarmid Institute really was the thing that convinced me to stay, because it made for more interesting science and I was better paid’.

His PhD was in condensed matter physics, researching how electrons behave in the rare earth nitrides. He did postdoctoral work in x-ray spectroscopy at Boston University. “I loved doing scientific research, but the one thing that frustrated me is you work incredibly hard and then eventually publish a paper that expands the sphere of human knowledge, a bit, but not by much. I  knew that I wanted to figure out ways of building tools that make everybody more productive, […] expanding the sphere of human knowledge faster. Hence our mission, which is to speed up science,” he says.

Though a self-confessed fan of the United States, Preston returned to Wellington to start Publons. Not only was his Publons co-founder Daniel Johnston based here, Preston’s younger brother had also moved to Wellington. “Wellington is a small place with quite a nice developing ecosystem of all my contacts from The MacDiarmid Institute, so it just seemed like a sensible place to get started.” “Doing a PhD, especially at a place like The MacDiarmid Institute, where you are exposed to a range of people doing super interesting things, you have a huge opportunity to go out there into the world […] and essentially create your own thing.” He says that starting Publons has been the best year of his life. “I think it’s important to have the biggest effect on the world that you possibly can.”