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A New Approach to Article Sharing: Interview with Maria Ritola of Iris.ai

Much has been written about article-sharing, here in the Kitchen and elsewhere. Many researchers expect — and want — to share their work with colleagues, before, during, and after publication. But depending on how, when, and where they disseminate their work this may or may not be easy to do — legally, or even at all.

Today’s interview, with Maria Ritola, co-founder of Iris.ai highlights a different approach. Building on the success of initiatives like the Open Access button, Unpaywall, and Kopernio, Research for Researchers (R4R) enables researchers to share articles with each other, on request, where it’s legal to do so (per their terms of service). While Iris.ai is a for-profit organization, R4R is a not-for-profit initiative, supported by Open Knowledge International; the R4R API will be available for teams who share their technology alike.


Can you tell us a bit about Iris.ai and your role there?

Iris.ai is a for-profit startup of around 20 people. We are building tools that are intended to remove subjective biases or the need to know the taxonomy or vocabulary from the search process, and to allow students and researchers to semi-automate the literature review of their R&D project, PhD, or any other research project — ultimately speeding up the process of scientific discovery. Our AI Science Assistant reads scientific texts; we are also leveraging the recent advances in AI and blockchain to build Project Aiur and, as part of that, a community governed AI-based Knowledge Validation Engine. I’m one of the four co-founders of the company. We started three years ago at NASA Ames Research Center and are currently based in Berlin.

There are all sorts of ways of sharing research articles that aren’t openly available — some legal, others not so much! Why do you think this is such a challenge — for researchers and for publishers?

Although the research community has been clearly riding a growing open access (OA) wave in recent years (thanks to the relentless work of numerous institutions and individuals), some studies estimate that still only about 25-30% of all research articles are openly available.

One of the major challenges that blocks sharing of research articles is confusion. Many researchers don’t know what they’re allowed — or not allowed —  to do or how they’re supposed to make their papers accessible, although some resources like the STM voluntary principles for article sharing seek clarity to these issues. There’s also a need for new tools and functionalities that make legal sharing easier and frictionless.

Not everyone has the option to publish their papers in open repositories due to restrictions imposed by the publisher and when that is the case, many researchers know that there’s another way to share articles legally — by email. Although researchers should always check their contract with the publisher, as per guidelines, email is generally allowed as a means for sharing articles person to person for non-commercial use. It is  an archaic and far from efficient way to share knowledge, but still remains the knowledge seekers’ last resort when content would otherwise be beyond their reach. But, because it’s not readily scalable, the use of email as the last resort for sharing paywalled content legally is unfortunately still not a norm — that caught our attention at Iris.ai.

What’s your solution to the challenge of article sharing and how does it differ from the other options available?

My team got inspired by a tweet from Holly Witteman that went viral a couple of weeks ago: “If you read a paper, 100% goes to the publisher. If you just email us to ask for our papers, we are allowed to send them to you for free, and will be genuinely delighted to do so.”

We thought that by creating a culture around sharing via email as the last resort, we could potentially unlock access to large amounts of information legally. That’s how the R4R initiative got started.

R4R allows researchers to request and authors to share their research papers legally, transparently and in one click, targeting particularly those resources that are not yet accessible via open repositories. The initiative has a technical angle, but it’s not just about new tools. Positive signalling is equally important, which is why, at the beginning, R4R will only allow sending emails to authors who have explicitly expressed their willingness to do so.

Other useful tools allow researchers, for example, to easily find the OA version of an article from a multitude of open access journals and repositories and authors to place their papers into open access repositories when that option is available. We highly admire the work done by these and many other teams and look forward to working together, including by making our API available for those who find it useful. We hope that building these new functionalities will enrich the existing OA infrastructure and contribute to creating a seamless user experience for open knowledge seekers.

How does R4R work — technically and from the user’s perspective?

Here’s what the user journey looks like:

  • Imagine you just found an interesting paper using Google Scholar, or other search engines. It’s relevant, but sadly you don’t have access to it, nor can a copy be found via open access applications.
  • Having installed the R4R browser extension, a tab on your screen will let you know if you can send an automatic email to the author requesting that they share their article with you. A single click on the tab sends an email to the author, which you can manually edit if you wish.
  • R4R automatically drafts a response to the person requesting the paper and adds the relevant scholarly article as an attachment. Authors can also opt to draft their own message if they prefer.
  • The author reviews the email, decides whether to share the paper with the person who requested it, and sends the email (with or without the attachment, per the author’s decision).

The light technical components of R4R include a browser extension that enables sending quick emails to the authors, and a little application that researchers, if wished, can install in their machines. This takes requests and leverages document similarity AI algorithms to look into the researcher’s folder of articles. When automatically preparing the emails, the application then asks for yes/no permission from the author. If granted approval, the article will be sent to the person requesting it. Down the line, guidance will also be provided for researchers to store their papers into open repositories when possible.

Who do you hope will make use of R4R, and why?

We hope that R4R will become a handy and reliable tool for researchers to access paywalled content legally when a version of the resource cannot placed in a open repository or journal.

Have you experienced and/or do you foresee any barriers to adoption or other challenges for R4R?

Some researchers have told us about their earlier disappointments of sending emails to authors and never hearing back from them. We aim to address that by building up momentum through positive signalling. As a starting point, we’ll be gathering a list of researchers who are up for sharing their papers like Holly.

Over the next few months, we’ll be heads-down, working on getting the tools ready. Meanwhile, if you’ve authored articles, and would like to be able to share them with your peers on request, you can let them know by adding your name on this list (don’t worry, we take spam concerns seriously). If you haven’t published a paper yet and would like to be among the first to be notified when the software is ready, you can sign up for the waitlist via this link.

What are your future plans for Iris.ai – where do you hope to be in three to five years time?

Five years from now we’ve hopefully made R4R redundant by reaching the bigger goal of making all funded research openly accessible. We have every reason to believe that the tipping point is around the corner, and not just for papers, but for the data behind them as well. At Iris.ai we’re working towards that by leveraging recent advances in AI and blockchain. Through Project Aiur we’re building tools for fact-checking scientific knowledge and implementing a new model for scientific publishing that is entirely community-owned, self-sustained, and governed. Until then, we hope that, through R4R, everyone who wants to do so will find it easy to share their discoveries legally with everyone who needs them.

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