Figshare: a new way to publish scientific research data

Mark Hahnel, product manager at Figshare, introduces a free service aiming to push forward open access.

Man writing lines on a paper
Credit: Ed-Grace, CC-BY-NC-SA

Wellcome has a strong view on open access and scientific data, expecting authors of research to "maximise the opportunities to make their results available for free". Other funders have statements along similar lines and the UK's science minister, David Willetts recently declared a "commitment by the coalition [government] to transparency and open access to publicly funded data".

Yet scientists are notoriously secretive, due in no small part to the current model of scientific publishing.

Scientists carry out research to push the boundaries of knowledge. In the current model of dissemination, a small fraction of this knowledge is handed over to journals in the form of scientific articles, or 'papers', for them to sell at a profit (with profit margins increasing).

Is this how science should be disseminated? The current process is based on a 17th century model, which was undoubtedly the best way to share this knowledge at the time. But today, the internet offers new ways to publish scientific data that many argue to be better.

Over the past decade, open access publishing has flourished, perhaps even begun to dominate, scientific publishing – it was recently claimed that PLoS ONE may be the largest journal in the world in terms of article numbers.

Yet one problem that remains is the amount of data that remains unpublished, unshared and essentially wasted. But why is this? As Professor Colin Blakemore suggested in a Radio 4 interview recently, "Memory is getting cheaper, access to information is getting much, much easier. So why shouldn't we just simply put the raw data for everything that scientists do up on the web, accessible to every other scientists, so that they can scrutinise it, use it, data-mine it, combine it with other information and gain more useful evidence?"

This is where our venture comes in.

Figshare is a free service allowing researchers to publish all of their research outputs to the web in seconds in an easily citable, sharable and discoverable manner. We aim to show researchers that they can get the credit for all of their research, whilst at the same time moving research forward in a more efficient manner.

Researchers can publish figures, datasets, tables, videos, anything. All file formats can be published, including videos and datasets that are often demoted to the supplemental materials section in current journals. Up to 1GB of data can be stored privately for free, and users have unlimited space for publicly available research.

Using this, researchers could easily publish null results, avoiding the file drawer effect and helping to make scientific research more efficient by opening up the peer review process.

We also use Creative Commons licensing to allow frictionless sharing of research data, while allowing researchers to choose when and if they make data publicly available. Scientists are notoriously secretive. As Professor Peter Murray-Rust of Cambridge points out, "the primary purpose of publication for most academics is self-advancement". Yet the idea that secrecy in research will ultimately lead to individual success means that scientific research as a whole is suffering.

We focus on giving users credit for all of their research. There's increasing evidence for open access increasing impact. By using both traditional measures of impact (ie the number of citations) alongside new ones such as altmetrics, Figshare gives researchers a greater level of information, and realtime measurements, of the true reach of their research, without having to wait for other researchers to cite it in another research paper.

For the first time in over 300 years of academic publishing, we could access the sum of all scientific knowledge. By providing a way to store all research data in the cloud, and share it in a quick and simple manner, we hope to help make this possible.