Imperial College London

Academic and alumnus team up to take hassle out of journal searches

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(L to R) Ben Kaube and Dr Peter Vincent

(L to R) Ben Kaube and Dr Peter Vincent

A Spotify-like app that lets scientists quickly access research papers online has been developed by an Imperial researcher and an alumnus.

Dr Peter Vincent, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London, and Benjamin Kaube, entrepreneur and Imperial alumnus, have developed an app called Kopernio. It enables academics to surf multiple journals online - much like users search online for music - to find research papers.

Colin Smith caught up with Dr Vincent and Benjamin Kaube to learn more about the hassles that academics face when trying to search for papers and why they think Kopernio could really improve this process.

In one sentence, describe what Kopernio does?

PV: A tool for fetching PDFs of research articles with a single click while you browse. We have a video that explains it in more detail.

What is the major challenge for academics trying to access journals?

PV: Researchers waste hours jumping through hoops to access research articles hidden behind publisher paywalls. For academics and students with access to well-resourced libraries like Imperial’s, this is a frustration that slows down research. However, for many researchers around the world lack of access to academic literature is a fundamental barrier to progress. Imagine putting together a music playlist by browsing the web pages of each music label, logging into each label's web page separately, and only then finding out you don’t have access to 50 per cent of the music. It is a major impediment for academics.

What have journals done to address this problem?

BK: There has been a trend towards open access publishing, which reduces a number of publications behind paywalls. However, the overwhelming majority of content remains ‘paywalled’, across a fragmented landscape of journals and publishers, so I don’t think this problem is going away anytime soon.

Why did you both feel that you needed to respond to this challenge?

BK: I had just started writing up my PhD thesis and was frustrated at how hard it can be to access research articles. Compared to Netflix and Spotify, the process felt antiquated. Peter and I thought we’d try to remove some of the technological barriers preventing the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

How does it solve this problem?

BK: Kopernio automatically activates on journal web pages and integrates with popular academic search tools, such as Google Scholar. Behind the scenes, Kopernio interfaces with your university library to find the PDF. Or, for researchers without subscription access, Kopernio looks for “open” alternatives from pre-print servers, institutional repositories (e.g. Imperial Spiral), and other openly available sources.

Has anyone else developed similar apps?

BK: Pirate article sharing website Sci-hub was widely used by researchers (in fact even by those with subscriptions) but has now been blocked at many universities. There are tools such as the Open Access button, but these are limited to open content, which remains the minority of published works.

Does this break any rules regarding copyright restrictions?

PV: We point users at content to which they fundamentally already have access e.g. their library subscriptions or “open” versions of PDFs on pre-print servers and other databases. We just make that access much, much, more convenient! The idea is to give researchers a convenient alternative to potentially infringing sources such as Sci-hub.

How do you and Dr Vincent know each other?

BK: I founded a company called Newsflo with Freddie Witherden, and Freddie did his PhD with Peter in Aeronautics at Imperial.

Is this a business venture or are you doing it for the love of it?

PV: So far we have kept costs low and self-funded. But we recognise the need for a sustainable business model if this is to work long-term. With this in mind, we are currently developing a range of premium offerings that should come online later in the summer.

What are the next steps?

PV: In the first instance we want to grow our user base and gain valuable feedback, so we can root out any bugs and continue to improve Kopernio. We currently support around 5000 journals but are looking to extend this coverage. Beyond this, we have a whole bunch of ideas that we are currently evaluating, watch this space!

Reporter

Colin Smith

Colin Smith
Communications and Public Affairs

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