Solving the problem of literature overload: An interview with Sciencescape’s Sam Molyneux

Q: Can you tell us a little about your background and how Sciencescape came about?

A: As a PhD student in cancer genomics at the University of Toronto, I was working on a disease called osteosarcoma. During my research, we identified a gene that caused bone cancer in mice. Our team at the institute went to publish a major paper on this, and realized that we had been scooped on different aspects of the paper by multiple groups within 12 months of the time that we were producing the manuscript.

I had worked for 4 years on the work that underpinned that discovery, and others in my lab had done so for much longer, so as you can imagine, the experience was pretty jarring. But this story isn’t uncommon – in fact it’s very much the opposite. And the reason has to do with information overload, coupled with a lack of ability to stream and explore the literature effectively.

Lucky for me, my sister Amy is a brilliant developer. So we decided to team up and take on the challenge of building an online platform that would solve the problem of literature overload and allow people to stream and discover the literature. Sciencescape was born from that challenge.

Q: Given researchers already have so many demands on their time, can you give us the “elevator pitch” for Sciencescape?

A: Sciencescape is a literature discovery platform that lets you stream and discover papers through the people and things that you follow in your world of research.

At the heart of Sciencescape is the world’s largest scientific knowledge graph – a network of entities that form the universe of scientific research.

Through it, you can follow almost every entity mentioned on PubMed, get every paper that matters to your research as soon as it’s published to PubMed, explore landmark papers from throughout history, build libraries, and share your discoveries with others. And it’s free for researchers.

Q: What are the main benefits for a researcher using Sciencescape?

A: By incorporating Sciencescape into your daily workflow, you’ll always know what is happening in your personal world of research. That is by far the biggest benefit to any researcher.

One of my favourite features is the ability to examine papers on a specific topic as a timeline throughout history. This allows you to easily spot the most ground-breaking publications, and it’s also a great tool to quickly scan new fields, and to eliminate the arduous task of playing leapfrog through multiple papers’ references to find the original source.

Q: How does using Sciencescape change a researcher’s workflow?

A: Rather than spending countless hours trying to pull the information they’re looking for through search, researchers can now automatically receive every paper that matters to their research through the people and things they follow on Sciencescape.

It used to be that to stay on top of your research, you’d have to open up PubMed, type in the thing that you’re working on, find the last publication you remember seeing, then scan all the new publications since then to try to get up-to-date. But there are two major problems to this. The first is as a researcher, you don’t just work on one thing – so you need to track a broad range of things to cover your personal world of research. The other problem is it doesn’t help you dig into the hundreds of thousands of other papers that were published throughout history – papers that could be vital to your research.

We view search as a pull function. If you know how to describe the paper you’re looking for, it’s trivial to find it. It’s all the other papers that you can’t describe that are the problem. By following the people and things in your personal world of research, Sciencescape can essentially push every paper that matters them – from breaking papers to seminal ones throughout history. This saves researchers time and gives them the confidence in knowing that they are truly on the front lines of their work.

Q: You have a partnership with BioMed Central. What does that mean and how do you work with publishers?

A: Our partnerships with publishers like BioMed Central give us full-text access to their peer-reviewed journals. This allows us to fully index all elements of the literature and identify all of the entities mentioned in the texts.

We use machine learning and data science to create connections between those entities and extend that information into our knowledge graph. When scaled across millions of entities and nearly every paper ever published in biomedicine, you get the largest scientific knowledge graph in the world, and with it, the most complete picture ever of the history of scientific progress, updated to the minute.

It’s win-win for the researcher and for the publisher. For the researcher, they’re able to stay up-to-the-minute on new publications that matter to their work. And for the publisher, more of their manuscripts are being accessed by researchers – publications that likely would not have been accessed, simply because the researcher wouldn’t have known they existed.

Q: Who are your primary users? Are they Early Career Researchers or …?

A: Our primary users are biomedical grad students, postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and principle investigators. Currently, we have researchers from over 1000 institutions around the world using Sciencescape.

Q: What’s next for Sciencescape?

A: Biomedicine is just the start for us. We began here because it’s a part of our roots, but also because it publishes such a high volume of papers that require a really fast turnaround. So we figured we should do the most challenging subject area first. Next we want to move into physics, chemistry, information science, and social science.

We are also working on some very big announcements we are excited to share with the world, likely in the early Fall. It’s an exciting time for Sciencescape, and it’s only getting better!

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