Real-life IP: Publons

The second company in our Real-life IP series, Publons, is a peer review system for scientific research helping researchers record, showcase, and verify peer review activity. They have been in operation since 2013, and are alumni of the first Lightning Lab programme.

We sat down with Andrew Preston, their CEO.

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Andrew Preston, and I have a background in Physics. I did a PhD in Physics here [at Victoria University], worked over in the US for a few years, and learned what it’s like to be a professional researcher. Based on that knowledge, we founded Publons with the aim to speed up science. Current science could go a lot faster, and if it goes faster we could get to the future sooner, which would be ideal.

If you look at the way we communicate science, the big slow part of it is the peer review process. Publons really aims to improve the peer review process to speed that up.

Andrew Preston, CEO Publons
Andrew Preston, CEO Publons

The way we do that is we start by giving reviewers credit – something they can put on their resume for their peer review, because right now if you’re a reviewer and you review academic articles, you don’t get credit for it and you certainly don’t get paid. We’re going to solve that problem for reviewers.

How long has Publons been in business?

About two years now. We’re about six staff now and thousands of users.

What phase do you see Publon in… Are you still ramping up or are you settling in?

I think we are definitely still in the growth phase. We’ve found something that people like to use and we’re just trying to get as big as possible now.

So where to next?

Well, the mission is still to speed up science. Hopefully, in the next few years we can start to actually make peer review go a little bit faster, which is our goal. The plan is to start working with established publishers to help them to do their job better. Publishers do a great job in peer review and we plan to develop tools to help them to do their job better.

Who do you go to when you need advice?

I think it’s always an ongoing process to find the right advice for the right stage that you’re in. It all comes down to your network. I always just reach out to people and try and develop relationships and identify where we’re weak and find people that might be able to solve that problem.

It’s all about your network and you build your network through introductions, through reaching out to people, through people reaching out to you.

What type of intellectual property do you use in Publons?

That’s a tricky question. I think of it [IP] as where’s the value in the business, right? For us, the vast majority of, I believe, our value lies in the data that we’re collecting. What we’re learning about reviews. I think that’s probably the majority of our IP.

I guess in the long run we do want to build our brand, become a well-known name, and [protecting] Publons is next. I guess that becomes a trademark then – but that’s really the only one.

Do you have any problems with copyright and uploaded materials on your site?

Good question. The way we developed the system, we specifically have tried to avoid that problem [using other’s copyright materials]. And actually in publishing, everybody cares about the article and the content. We’ve been very careful to stay away from that and focus on the review and the meta-data around the article. Which everybody is fine with [us] indexing.

Have issues arisen from contractors or partners?

For our publishing partners this is important. The big trend in academic publishing, which is probably different from a lot of other publishing industries, is toward open access. It’s a little bit like open source but where the author pays for their content to be made freely available. That’s been a big change in the last 10 years and it’s something that people are slowly getting their heads around.

This means dealing with lots of new copyright licences. There’s lots of different open access licenses but they’re still copyright licenses. You have to understand all these things. A big thing that we do in Publons is we collect the reviews from any source. We try to support any source, so we support a lot of different licenses.

You can have a review in Publons that’s “CC BY 4.0” or it could be public domain, CC0 or it could have a copyright. We support all those different licenses.

[more information about Creative Commons License CC by 4.0]

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the last two years around Intellectual Property?

I want to say that I’ve learned that other people care about it a lot more than I do!

The biggest lesson I’ve learned around IP… I won’t say it’s a lesson but I’ve always just thought just be sensible. Don’t do anything that’s obviously a bad idea and you’ll probably going to be fine. I don’t know if that’s a lesson.

Has the IP question ever come up in sales, negotiations, or investment talks?

Yes, absolutely. It’s a not [a problem] in investment because in the end the thing is – what drives the value in your business? Obviously, when you try to work with partners and everything, IP does come up – but it hasn’t been an issue. It’s been just a discussion point.

In due diligence, I think the big thing is different copyright licenses and who owns what. It hasn’t been a massive issue for us but it’s something that people do talk about, so it’s important to be clued up to know what’s going on and understand the space.

Have you made any mistakes that you’ve had to fix? Like having an employee leave with IP or something?

That’s the one thing I haven’t screwed up. I got everybody to sign IP transfer agreements. Looking back I honestly don’t think that we’ve made any mistakes. I wouldn’t have done anything differently, with respect to IP.

Do you think you will use IP differently in the future of your business?

Yes. I think it’s part of growing up right? Just worrying about trademarks, worrying about copyright, worrying about licensing, all these things. We will for sure use it differently, but there’s a time and a place for all those things I think.

I guess the last question we’ve already touched on, but – is there any advice you’d give to other businesses about Intellectual Property?

You need to know what drives value in your business. If it is IP then you need to be serious about it. If it’s not… There’s a lot of things you can worry about in business – IP is one of them.

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