In recent years, major publishing houses have increased the attention they have been giving to preprints, as my colleague Oya Rieger and I outlined this spring. Springer Nature’s initiative in this arena is in partnership with the Research Square Company, in which it recently invested further to become the majority owner.
Together with Research Square Company, Springer Nature is attempting not only to expand its coverage into preprints but also to build new author services businesses. To learn more about their directions, I recently spoke with Eugenie Regan VP, Research Solutions at Springer Nature and Research Square Company’s president Rachel Burley.
To begin, can you share a little bit about Research Square as a company? How big is it? Beyond Springer Nature, what other owners does it have? When was it founded? How has it evolved over the course of time?
Rachel Burley (RB): Research Square Company was founded as AJE (American Journal Experts) in 2004 by Shashi Mudunuri, and at one point included Journal Guide and Rubriq. Many in the industry know of Shashi or have heard his story, but for those who don’t, he is the son of an academic who became passionate about research communication after seeing his father struggle to get published due to language barriers. Sixteen years later, his vision, to help researchers around the world overcome the challenges his father faced, has certainly come to life in unimagined ways — thanks largely, of course, to our team of nearly 300 employees who are dedicated to making research communication faster, fairer, and more useful.
Looking ahead, our business continues to grow and change as part of the scholarly publishing ecosystem. Over the years we’ve supported more than 2.5 million authors in communicating their research. With the rapid growth of the Research Square platform, we see our role in shaping research communication evolve further and becoming more central in helping researchers at all stages of the publication process.
Central to this is being uniquely positioned to support the changes happening in the research communications and academia, but in our world at large as well — beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Rapid advances in technology will improve the speed at which research can be communicated. Our team is developing and expanding on AI and other technology-enabled services built using our 16+ years of experience delivering high-quality editing expertise. These new tools and services are already being integrated directly into the Research Square platform. We expect exceptional growth in terms of the volume of preprints on Research Square next year and believe that authors will benefit greatly from the end-to-end support and transparency we can provide.
Please tell us a little bit about the model you have been developing for integrating preprints into the publishing workflow and some of the benefits you are seeing as a result.
RB: The Research Square preprint platform was launched in 2018 with the In Review service underpinning the model. Our aim was to increase the uptake of preprinting in the biological sciences by making it simple for authors to elect to preprint their manuscript on submission to journals. In addition to a preprint, the service gives authors and readers information about the peer review status of the manuscript, without making any subsequent rejection of that manuscript public. The model was piloted with 4 BioMed Central journals initially with high author uptake (average 37%) and lots of very positive feedback from those authors.
There are currently 292 journals offering In Review and just over 40,000 preprints posted through the service since it’s launch.
Some of the benefits we have seen as a result of this initiative are increased visibility and transparency into the publication timeline and process, and a lot of positive feedback from both authors and journal editors about the service. There has been increasing usage of the preprints as authors share a link to their preprint through social media to gain feedback. We’ve made it easy for authors to preprint by building it into the journal submission process — authors no longer need to supply files and information through a separate platform in order to post a preprint. Once they’ve opted in, they get all of the standard benefits of preprinting along with detailed information about the status of their paper in the peer review process.
And do I understand that you plan to use the submission of preprints as the basis for a larger platform or marketplace of author services?
RB: Through our AJE brand we are piloting AI tools that enable authors to see a language quality assessment for their preprint and opt for an automated language edit. We are also piloting partner tools such as Ripeta and SciScore through the platform. These tools help scientists assess their manuscripts for transparency, reproducibility, and adherence to rigor standards.
Offering authors tools and services to improve preprints we believe will help to ensure a faster peer-review process on submission to journals and these pilots will enable us to test that theory.
Ultimately we see the Research Square platform as a town square where researchers can access a range of optional free and paid services, some developed and owned by us and some by and from third parties – the only criteria being that they offer real value to researchers and help them to communicate their research faster and more effectively. For example, should an author submit a preprint on submission to a journal (via In Review) we want to be able to help them once accepted with video abstracts, video bytes, lay summaries, visual abstracts etc and with language editing, scientific editing etc should they be rejected. As 60% of manuscripts submitted to Springer Nature journals are not accepted, that’s the majority of papers and those authors may need support.
In addition, direct submissions now make up about 10% of RSQ submissions, a level that we hope will continue to rise as it includes increasing numbers of returning authors who have previously used the service via In Review. We can help these authors, who have a dashboard and account enabling them to keep track of their preprints in one place, before they even submit to a journal.
Springer Nature has been a leader in gold open access through APCs (Article Processing Charges). You probably have more transformative agreements than any other publishing house, turning what had been a “consumer” business into B2B transactions. Is it your vision that author services will be the new APCs, in the sense of developing revenue streams from researchers and research grants to support these services?
Eugenie Regan (ER): Our vision is for researchers to be supported throughout both their publishing journey and careers, able to seamlessly access the right information, tools and services at exactly the point at which they need it; to help authors get published and create a level playing field for researchers around the world.
Academic publishing is continually evolving to meet the needs of its customer and the wider research community. Phase One was the transition from print to digital, with Phase Two seeing the shift from subscription to open access (having been enabled by the digital transition of phase one). This opened the door for publishers to transition into service providers and introduced the concept of publishing as a B2C business.
Why is this relevant? Phase One is nearing completion and Phase Two is developing. We believe we are now entering a third phase which will complete the shift in our business from being one which would have been described as ‘content centric’ to one which is more ‘service centric’. This phase is still at an early stage with a very fragmented market but is one where we see huge opportunity to, by using content, technology, and people, create new solutions that better help meet customers’ needs. We have entered this market in the last few years and have significant long-term ambitions. Our majority interest in Research Square is important in helping us realise these ambitions.
Springer Nature’s increased investment in Research Square Company is helping to inject fresh capital that will be used to develop the services more quickly. What can we expect to see in the coming months and years?
RB: As with any start-up or new initiative, developing the core features of a minimum viable product and understanding the needs of the customers that you are serving has been the primary focus. The injection of investment will enable us to scale the service to support hundreds of thousands of papers each year through upcoming investments in UX, engineering and infrastructure. The capital also allows us to develop features and services of value to researchers along their publication journeys, particularly by expanding on the suite of AI tools we offer. This year we piloted integration of automated language assessment and editing tools into the platform. Following that successful pilot, we are now further developing the UX based on feedback we received. We will also be automating more manuscript assessment and screening processes and building on the suite of badges that we offer to preprint authors.
How does Research Square Company work with other publishers beyond Springer Nature? Should we expect to see such relationships change in any way as a result of the majority ownership?
RB: Research Square Company has been and always will be a publisher-neutral organization. We provide services and partner with multiple organizations and are adept at providing both white label and co-branded partnerships. We have partnered with the leading publishers and associations for many, many years and have built solid relationships with the people at those organizations.
We’ve been transparent with our existing partners at every step in the process and have built in reassurances, such as Springer Nature not having access to Research Square’s data or underlying systems into the operating agreement.
We do not anticipate any negative impacts with other partners as a result of this investment as ultimately we would never treat non-Springer Nature partners differently. Collaborations across publishers in the STM space are common and where there are mutually beneficial opportunities these collaborations are very successful.
When I previously raised questions about Digital Science’s independence from Springer Nature, given their respective ownership structures, Digital Science asserted its independence. Here, though, it seems that Springer Nature does not see any conflict from owning Research Square Company and in fact may see benefits from having more influence over its development. Can you tell me a little bit about the benefits of becoming a majority owner of Research Square Company?
ER: The two sets of relationships are really not analogous. Springer Nature and Digital Science have a shared (part) owner in Holztbrinck, while Springer Nature itself is now the majority owner of Research Square Company. We thought that we could be most supportive of Research Square Company via a combination of direct investment and careful cooperation. In terms of cooperation we also take a very similar approach with Digital Science but we don’t need to provide direct investment as Holtzbrinck already provides that.
Springer Nature and Research Square Company share an ethos – a desire to level the playing field for researchers so that all, no matter how well funded their lab or institution or advanced their language skills, are able to be judged fairly and equally according to the quality of their research.
We want to champion the needs of the research community, help researchers improve their draft articles prior to submission, provide faster, better, quality assured author communication so that we can publish more submissions for the benefit of authors, the research community and the whole discovery process.
Preprints also have an increasingly valuable role to play in the research cycle. They help authors in many ways including establishing priority of findings (citing a preprint in funding and other applications as evidence of progress and to satisfy increasingly growing funder mandates to preprint their work, especially important for early career stage researchers), improving their work through community input, and gaining visibility and early citation. And it is this value to authors and the research community which prompted us to take a majority stake in the Research Square Company and be able to offer not only high quality, specialized services to our authors, particularly during the pre-submission period, but also support them in realizing the benefits of early sharing.
Becoming a majority owner of Research Square Company will enable us to deliver high quality, specialized services to all researchers, particularly during the pre-submission period, and support them in realizing the benefits of early sharing.
In this “year of research data,” I would be remiss not to ask: Do you see research data connecting to any of the author-facing initiatives we’ve been discussing here today?
ER: Absolutely. At Springer Nature our goal is to achieve an open research future where every element of the research process is instantly available, discoverable, usable, re-usable and widely shareable – from protocols through to data, from code to metrics, and of course to research results. Delivering this vision will speed up the advancement of science and academic research, facilitate increased collaboration and interdisciplinary research, and support an evidence-based approach to pursuing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Opening up research data is key to this, particularly as research articles with open data are cited up to 50% more. But 30% of researchers have lost research data and 60% rarely or never create a data management plan. Springer Nature’s Research Data support services have been designed to help researchers make their data easier to find, access and cite, and more than 85 funders are now encouraging or mandating research data sharing. Services like this will be integrated into and available via the Research Square platform alongside other tools and services we have created or worked closely with the research community to develop.
I thank Rachel and Eugenie for helping us better understand the directions they are pursuing. In addition, I am grateful to Springer Nature for supporting several research studies on the effects on the pandemic on the research enterprise that my colleagues and I at Ithaka S+R be releasing in the coming weeks. I will be speaking (with Rob Johnson and Susie Winter) about some key findings next week, and you can sign up here to attend our virtual Frankfurt presentation.