Defending one’s PhD is a daunting, time-consuming endeavour. Now imagine doing it while running a multimillion-dollar tech start-up and you’ll begin to get a picture of life right now for Sam Molyneux.
In 2010, Mr. Molyneux co-founded Sciencescape, a web-based platform to keep track of scientific discoveries, with his web-developer sister Amy. This was shortly after the 34-year-old University of Toronto doctoral student found himself in a situation that every academic dreads.
“When you start off a PhD project or postdoctoral thesis, you have to find an area that is open for you to innovate within and then you very rapidly have to make that innovation and write a paper with your findings,” he explained. “I was pretty ambitious and set off to identify a gene that causes osteosarcoma,” said Mr. Molyneux, who specializes in cancer genomics research.
After months of pouring over the literature and four years of lab work, Mr. Molyneux and his colleagues discovered the gene that causes bone cancer in mice. “It was very exciting,” he recalled. That is, he added, until they started writing up their findings for publication. “Lo and behold the field had caught up,” he said. It turns out that other teams working around the world had been drawing similar conclusions.
Although Mr. Molyneux’s research was eventually published in a reputable journal, the young researcher couldn’t shake the sense that this situation could have been avoided. “I started to ask myself, how could that happen? How wasn’t I able to know that they were working in the same area?” He found his answer in the startling fact that between 2,000 and 4,000 new scientific papers are published every day. “Any of those could be relevant to the work that you’re doing. They could change the nature of the path you want to take for your experiments. They could scoop you on your finding, or they could totally invalidate the work you’re doing,” he said. “That can be devastating to academics.”
What was needed, he realized, was a web-based platform for scientists to organize, explore and keep up-to-date on research papers in real-time. And from that idea Sciencescape was born.
Academics can sign up for Sciencescape at no cost. Once registered, they’re prompted to select an area of interest. As new or relevant papers in the field are published, a citation and research summary automatically show up on a user’s live feed in similar fashion to a Facebook timeline or Twitter stream. A social function allows users to share or “broadcast” important papers to colleagues registered with the platform.
Thanks to partnerships with publishers like Elsevier, Taylor and Francis, and De Gruyter, Sciencescape’s algorithms sort through a vast archive of research publications – roughly all 24 million articles listed with PubMed. The platform, therefore, doesn’t just recommend the latest papers published in a given field, but offers suggestions for key papers in the history of the discipline.
It’s a powerful tool that’s taking off. Mr. Molyneux reported that in four years, the project has scaled up from two staffers to 20 and they’ve secured over $3 million in funding. In the last three months, 42,000 people used the service. This fall, the team at Sciencescape will further integrate the platform with existing online tools by allowing users to sync their Sciencescape account with popular reference management programs like EndNote and Mendeley. And in the near future, Sciencescape will launch a new article recommendation tool and broaden their coverage from the biomedical sciences to include fields like physics, chemistry and the social sciences.
It’s no surprise then that Mr. Molyneux has had little time to dedicate to his own research. He admits that he hasn’t worked full-time in the lab at the Ontario Cancer Institute for more than a year now, effectively putting his PhD defense on hold. If he doesn’t seem particularly down about it, it’s likely due to the fact that Mr. Molyneux sees Sciencescape as a project that will have a significant impact on the speed of scientific development. “We’re working on something big that matters,” he said. “I think that drives growth.”