STARTUP UCSF: Journal Lab Could Transform Scientific Publishing

Graduate Division


Online “knowledge network” improves post-publication review process

Big changes are afoot in the world of biomedical scientific publishing. Recently, the National Academies, including UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellman, Vice Chancellor Keith Yamamoto and Dr. Bernard Lo, director of the Program in Medical Ethics at UCSF, released a report focused on ways to make biomedical publishing more efficient so that researchers can better study and treat complex diseases. Their proposal for a “knowledge network of disease” requires a fundamental restructuring of how we organize and make available published and unpublished research.

Journal Lab is developing this knowledge network of disease by providing a place where all scientists can publish commentary on research papers, thereby generating new metrics of paper valuation and providing open-access commentary on articles from all journals.

Recent UCSF graduate Robert Judson and social media entrepreneur David Jay co-founded the online community in 2011, and in a short period of time, have amassed an impressive user base with lively, high-level scientific discussion.

Journal Lab is funded through grant awards.  The company is currently focused on building a solid user base, and the founders say that Journal Lab will always be free to use.  In that sense, the founders seem more focused on providing a framework for research discussion than on generating immediate revenue. However, Journal Lab is not a nonprofit organization and clearly has potential for income generation in the future.

You know each other from college, but are both in very different fields now. How did you start Journal Lab?

Judson: I was a grad student here at UCSF; being involved in publishing as a user, there are lots of frustrations. When I run into frustrations, I tend to poke around and ask, “Why am I frustrated?”, “How does the system work?” which got me interested in open access, the peer review system, and [journal] impact factor, and how those things combine.

Jay: My background is in social user experience — I study how conversations happen online so that I can build meaningful places to have conversations. The birth of Journal Lab was when the two of us went on a hike and we started talking about how much the world of scientific publishing would change if there was a really good place to talk about research online.

What is Journal Lab?

Judson: It’s a database meant to collect expert opinion and observations. It’s meant to exist on top of what is already published. A lot of the idea of Journal Lab is that by collecting and archiving observations by all of us is that it makes more granular data that can be shared.

Do you anticipate partnering with any journals? Have you started that at all?

Jay: We’re already partnered with PLoS, which is great because they’re local and they really share our values. PLoS, like a lot of people in the open-access community, really want to build alternative metrics to “impact factor” to gauge the impact of papers, and they’re excited to work with us to help to build that.

How does the “knowledge network of disease” play into the goals of Journal Lab?

Judson: We have almost everything we need technologically speaking — we have all this data, and the barrier is that we can’t talk to each other. This network needs properties like constant validation — if data has been repeated, will you ever know about it? Evolution — is there new data and if so, how hard is it to find? Is it widely accessible? I think in the academic sciences, the way that we report our data doesn’t meet any of these qualifications. We’re looking to supplement that with the <a?>more granular, widely accessible, easy to evolve, easy to validate data system that will connect into that knowledge network, ideally.

What is the user experience like?

Judson: You come onto and you see a dashboard with all the terms that are relevant to your research on PubMed. You can very quickly see across 20-40 research terms if there are any new papers and if there’s any new discussion on those papers. Soon, you can also join the equivalent of journal clubs, where you can see papers that are put up and discussed every week on a particular topic. Then, when you read the paper, you can leave your own insights about individual figures.

How can people get involved with Journal Lab?

Judson: If a group of people is meeting to discuss a paper and they have outstanding questions that they don’t have an answer to, is a place to put those questions — and where other users, or the authors, could answer.

Jay: The only thing I’d add to that is: If someone’s process is already to go through and in the margins write what the figure is about, if you put that information into Journal Lab, then, all of a sudden, it makes the paper much more discoverable to other people.