Some implications of "digital" for scholarly writing and publishing

Will Octopus transform scholarly communication?

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Octopus is a new platform for scholarly research: somewhat like a preprint server, with instant publication, but Instead of a full article, a researcher posts just a component of an article: a problem statement, or a hypothesis.

I attended the Octopus launch meeting (29 June 2022), and from the calibre of the sponsors of the free service (including funding and support from JISC and from Research England, with David Sweeney, executive chair, enthusiastically endorsing it), it sounded at times like Octopus was the biggest research innovation since the scholarly paper was created in the 17th century.

What is Octopus? It simply divides the research process into eight components (hence the name). Instead of publishing a complete research paper, the academic can simply publish something in any one of these eight components, which Alex Freeman, the creator of Octopus, called “publication types”. They comprise:

  1. Problem
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Protocol
  4. Data
  5. Analysis
  6. Interpretation
  7. Real-world application
  8. Review

Octopus looks like this (Alex Freeman pointed out this is sample data only, but it gives a good impression of how the system will work):

Octopus screenshot
Screenshot of Octopus with dummy data

So, if you have a contribution to make or a comment on the methodology, you can post a note about it and it will appear under the “protocol” section. The rules for posting a very simple:

  • Publication is immediate. Any review takes place after publication.
  • Every post has its own DOI (so potentially eight DOIs for one full paper)
  • You can only post in relation to what is already on the platform.

On the crucial question of accreditation for contributions, Steven Hill, director of research at Research England, seemed to suggest that Octopus would be valid for researchers to obtain credit (presumably towards their regular appraisal).

When asked if this supplements or replaces traditional publishing, Alex Freeman stated clearly it would take place alongside published articles, but would not replace them.

The great appeal of this model is that every academic paper can be subdivided into components, such as methodology, so it makes sense to provide access to individual components of the research workflow.

Are there any problems with this model? I can imagine quite a few (not that I am against innovation, but I’ve spent a long time observing the motivation behind the scholarly publishing process)

  1. Researchers publish papers to get promotion. They are interested in the topic, but I think it is an open question the extent to which they are prepared to participate in a debate about details of their research. They may be very reluctant to provide interpretations of analysis that can then be modified by other researchers. At present, this happens by someone publishing a whole article.
  2. One physicist immediately commented that the eight-stages set up within Octopus worked better for life sciences than for physics. More than that, this structure is unlikely to work for the humanities, although it might for social science.
  3. More fundamentally, we were all taught that there are two ways of doing scientific thinking: inductive and deductive. The Octopus method is only deductive. Where is a framework for research based on observation, with no hypothesis behind it?
  4. Reviews were mentioned in the launch event, and Alex Freeman stated they would be quality checked like other peer review. I would love to see reviews given a score, but I don’t know how feasible this will be. I find reviews a fascinating part of the scholarly ecosystem, but that is a subject for another post.
  5. The Octopus system, if used widely would generate many thousands more articles than we currently have. It seems odd to fix a problem of too many articles by creating a system that will generate a multiple of those articles, by several times.
  6. This structure does not work for many kinds of academic article, such as the literature review, of the medical case study, or the discovery of a new species of plant.
  7. There was no mention of any restriction from posting new content to Octopus. The academic publishing system makes it difficult to post new content, or to comment on published content, next to the original content. There could be many people adding “this is a cure for cancer” type of comments, with no curation.
  8. A neutral platform such as Octopus eliminates all commercial publishing, so you can expect the scholarly publishers to respond with modifications to this system if it ever looks like becoming widely used.

More than one of the panellists commented negatively on the idea of a published academic article as a narrative, which seems odd, given that other initiatives are trying to persuade researchers to structure their article more like a narrative, to make it more accessible. After all, we all love a story.

So I wish Octopus well, but it is very early days before there is any indication that it might be a success. I think it deserves all credit for challenging the existing, and very imperfect, scholarly publishing model. I just hope it gets enough usage, and has a good enough feedback loop, to evolve and start to be a genuine research tool.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi Michael. Alex Freeman here, and thank you for the article. I just wanted to correct what I think is a slight misunderstanding about how Octopus works. You say:
    “If you have a contribution to make or a comment on the methodology, you can post a note about it and it will appear under the “protocol” section.” and “Every post has its own DOI (so potentially eight DOIs for one full paper)”

    Octopus does not take ‘notes’ and ‘posts’ – it’s not a social platform in which you cut a paper up into 8 parts to put it on Octopus for others to comment on, which I think is maybe what you’d assumed. It is instead a platform where you officially record everything you do in full (no quick ‘notes’ – this is designed to be the full version of record, whether that’s the full explanation of a theory, a full data set, or a full review and critique etc). As I described, more like a ‘patent office’.

    It sets out to help change the way that researchers approach the work that they do – to move away from the idea that a ‘paper’ and getting to ‘findings’ (let alone ‘findings that have impact’) is the unit of research work. Instead, Octopus makes the unit of research smaller, encouraging and recognising specialism (so yes, each unit of research deserves its own DOI). Chains of research work all addressing a Problem are branching, made up of different people all doing work of different kinds, building on each other. In the example you have screengrabbed above, many of those publications in the chains are by different authors, and there could/would be many more branches (I can’t remember which I clicked on during the demo now, to show the multiple branches!)

    So, although I completely agree that in order for researchers to truly feel incentivised to record their work in Octopus it needs to be recognised and used by those who fund and hire researchers, I don’t think your point “it is an open question the extent to which they are prepared to participate in a debate about details of their research. They may be very reluctant to provide interpretations of analysis that can then be modified by other researchers.” is relevant, as Octopus is not a place to ‘debate’ details (other than reading someone’s Review), and there is no way that another researcher can ‘modify’ a publication such as an Analysis.

    The question of reviews and case studies not fitting into the structure – yes, Octopus is for primary research only. I think narrative reviews work very well for journals. As for whether case studies or species discoveries, or research outside STEM fit into Octopus – I think that they might. It just needs a very different way of thinking about your work. I found that for myself when writing my first Octopus publications (based on a paper written for a journal).

    Finally, “A neutral platform such as Octopus eliminates all commercial publishing” – I absolutely don’t think it does. By contrast, I think that the existence of Octopus as an Open platform for recording work in full detail absolutely opens the doors for journals to remain commercial, as they can then concentrate on providing a different service for their readers: a narrative through research findings relevant to their audience, often with an expert perspective from the article’s author(s). This is something readers will want and – I think – be happy to pay for, whilst the parallel service of Octopus serves the specialist research community in terms of recording and allowing a platform for better research assessment.

    Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, though. I certainly hope that we have a good enough feedback loop to adapt as we need to to fulfil the platform’s potential.

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