My experiences with figshare

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[Disclosure: I am a figshare advisor.]

Last year, I had one of those ‘aha!’ moments. I, like many scientists, have too many valuable research outputs gathering digital dust on my computer. Figures, posters, manuscripts that have yet to find homes – they may not all be journal worthy, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. I made it my goal to put all that research somewhere others could access it, discuss it, and hopefully even build on it. For a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve outlined previously, I chose figshare. In October of 2012, I created my profile and started uploading my work. And so far, my experiences have only been positive.

I began by posting author versions of my published articles. Two of my articles were published in subscription journals, so posting them on figshare was a great way to ‘go green’ and make sure everyone could freely access my work. My first pleasant surprise was how quickly information traveled. I had just made my first posting when I refreshed the page a few minutes later and saw that it already had views. “That can’t be right”, I thought. Then I realized my post had been immediately shared by the figshare team via Facebook and Twitter. People were already reading my work.

Over the next few months, I posted a variety of other research outputs and I was interested to see the type of information people seemed to find useful. In academia, the most weight is put on articles. I assumed that author versions of my manuscripts would be the most viewed and most shared of my outputs. In fact, of the five items I have posted, the one with the highest number of shares and the third highest views is a fileset including a poster, bibliography file and figures from my work on modeling the effects of vaccination on mitigating influenza outbreaks. It could be that the topic interests a wider audience than my neuroscience work. But I suspect it’s more than that. The fileset includes a template for creating posters in LaTeX. It’s not perfect, but it’s something others can use, and I imagine this is the reason people are sharing it. It goes to show that sometimes the work other people find most useful isn’t necessarily what ends up as part of a polished article.

The item with the second highest views doesn’t even derive from any of my regular research projects. In response to a frustration about the lack of openness in the field of neuroscience, I compiled a list of open access (and hybrid) journals that publish neuroscience research, including their licenses, fees and whether they provide waivers. I originally posted the list here on the blog, but later decided that figshare was a more permanent place to deposit the list where I could hopefully reach more people. And the DOI makes it a citable resource.

I’ve also started posting preprints of my manuscripts. (To read more about why you should post your preprints, see this great article, which incidentally was posted as a preprint itself on figshare almost two months before it was published in PLOS Biology.) Before doing so, I contacted publishers of journals to which I was interested in submitting. Many journals do allow manuscripts to be posted to preprint servers such as arXiv, but most do not yet specify that figshare is permissable and I was particularly concerned about whether the assignment of a DOI would affect the determination of prior publication. I contacted PeerJ, PLOS, and BMC. Both PeerJ and PLOS responded saying that not only was posting preprints (including to figshare) allowed, it was encouraged. The last message I received from BMC in December of 2012 said the specific case of figshare was being discussed and they would get back to me. I have yet to receive a definitive response. For the manuscript I was working on at the time, I eventually decided to go with PeerJ. I posted the preprint to figshare and submitted to PeerJ on the same day, allowing people to read the manuscript over three months before it got published in a journal. And I had some great discussions with people on Twitter who sent me questions after reading the preprint.

The sharing hasn’t been one-sided. Researchers have sent me links to their posted work on figshare. For example, just a few days ago Bala Iyengar (@balapagos) sent me a link to a description of a device he and his colleagues have designed for use with Drosophila larvae. It was originally made to stabilize preparations during imaging, but it could also be used by people like me who do electrophysiology and are always looking for ways to stabilize preps during recordings. This is just on example of how researchers are sharing knowledge that others can use and build upon outside of the classical journal venue.

The only thing I have found disappointing so far has nothing to do with figshare itself, but rather the lack of receptiveness by some academics. On Twitter, I am often preaching to the choir; many people I interact with are open science advocates and have no problem seeing the advantages of figshare and other open access repositories. However, I have had minimal success so far taking that message outside social media. I have offered to give talks to several academic groups about figshare and to help them set up departmental or personal profiles. The response is usually positive, but lacking in commitment: “Sure, maybe next month.”  Let me clarify that it is not their apathy about figshare per say that disappoints me. I don’t want to force academics to use any particular open platform. I just want them to use something to share their work.

And I know how well figshare has worked for me so far. It has helped me to be a more open scientist.

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14 Comments

  1. Thanks for this encouraging post. My own experience with Figshare was a while back, I think before they’d got the workflow down, an I found it all rather cumbersome. You and others’ experience makes me think this has changed; I’ll try it again.

    Also very interesting that the corporate inertia of BMC (“the specific case of figshare was being discussed”) resulted in PeerJ getting your paper. I wonder how much the preprinting issue is going to draw papers away from more traditional venues and to newer ones? (In this specific case, I guess BMC is position itself as “traditional”, which may not have been its intent.)

    Two nits.

    First, you propagated the “only things with DOIs are citeble” myth in this post. It’s really not true: I don’t know of any journal that requires a DOI for citation, and I cite papers that lack one all the time. I’ve also successfully cited blog posts, when relevant, including in relatively traditional journals. DOIs are useful identifiers, and help with persistence, but they are not a sine qua non.

    And second, your use of the styling “figshare” thoughout the post is not necessary. The bolding is not part of the spelling of the name, just part of a specific logo (which may change at some point). For more on this point, see BIll Walsh’s excellent comment.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike! A few points:

      very interesting that the corporate inertia of BMC…resulted in PeerJ getting your paper

      I should mention that there were other factors that contributed to my decision to submit to PeerJ, but definitely their quick, positive response to my inquiry about figshare was one major point in their favor. I was very disappointed by BMC’s response. They do many things right with respect to open access. I have published with them before and was very happy with the overall experience. I hope in the future they clarify their position on figshare.

      you propagated the “only things with DOIs are citeble” myth in this post. It’s really not true

      You’re absolutely right that DOIs are not necessary for citation. I’ve also cited materials that didn’t have a DOI. Maybe I should have said something like “easily citable”, my point simply being that DOIs can facilitate citations. For interest, I found this article in which editors at PLoS Biology argue the benefits of DOIs and explain why they use them. I do think it’s a plus that figshare uses DOIs.

      your use of the styling “figshare” thoughout the post is not necessary.

      Indeed, though I was following the styling they use on their own blog. Besides, I’m always happy to emphasize the word ‘share’ 🙂

      1. Yes, I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with BMC — only that all large organisations seem inevitably to suffer from a certain ossification, whereas PeerJ is young enough and agile enough not to have this problem.

        “I’m always happy to emphasize the word ‘share’” <– Fair point! 🙂

  2. The DOIs are citable idea is a difficult one. Figshare push it, because it’s actually quite hard to get a DOI as an individual scientist; hence it is a significant point of their value add. The difficulty with figshare is that they own the DOI. If you use this DOI to refer to your work, this gives figshare a lot of control; you can move your data away to something else. But then you have to update all of your references to use a different identifier, because you cannot move the DOI, nor where it points to.

    Of course, the same is true for the WordPress URLs that you are using for this blog. For myself, I’d rather you use by own domain name; it has pointed to many different locations and many different web servers in it’s lifetime. For data, I am not starting to use purls (www.purl.org) which is a very useful service indeed.

    Nowadays I add a URL to every single reference in my papers. I think this is a good thing and something worth replicating.

  3. On domains: Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week is hosted by WordPress.com, and they do a fine job of it, too. Rather than use the free domain svpow.wordpress.com, I pay them a little something (I think it’s about $20 a year) to use svpow.com instead. I could probably move off WordPress if the need ever arose, and self-host on that domain.

    … except I don’t own that domain, WordPress.com does. I imagine that if I stopped paying for it, they’d release it, and I could register it myself. But it’s not a done deal: they could conceivably hold onto it, or someone else might hijack it, leaping in as soon as it becomes available and getting it before me. (There may even be companies that routinely do this on an automated basis, in the hope of getting the original users to ransom their domains.) And at best there would be an interregnum between the availability of WordPress.com’s version of the domain and my self-hosted version.

    I’m not sure what to make of all this.

  4. Academics are very busy people, so offering to give talks about figshare will naturally be met with “sounds good; maybe later.” What I do instead (I’m also a figshare advisor), is insert a plug for uploading research output to figshare into other talks: at conferences, invited seminars, panels, etc. I also insert references to my figshare objects into manuscripts and I talk to my collaborators about it. So far, I have encountered more cultural push-back from biologists than anyone: some of them object to sharing *anything* before peer review of the associated paper!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lorena! I agree that in many cases it will be more effective to work in figshare as part of another talk, rather than a talk in itself. I will definitely be doing this in future research presentations. (In fact, I’m thinking of ditching the dress shirt in favor of giving all talks with my figshare hoodie on :).) However, in at least one case, I was trying to promote figshare to a group of academics who are exclusively involved in teaching. In other words, there was no way for me to get my foot in the door using a research seminar. One might ask, “Why would they need figshare if they don’t do research?” My idea was that the department could use such a open platform to share all the valuable teaching materials they create every semester. Do you have any advice on how to better reach groups like these?

      On your last point, I’ve also encountered a lot of resistance from biologists (neurobiologists, in particular) to being open. I really hope this selfish culture changes soon, but I think it will require some major changes in the incentive system. There should be more incentives at the institutional level for being open than being selfish, and unfortunately we currently have the opposite.

  5. Interesting article. I wonder, since these figures are published CC-BY, what happens when they are published in a subscription journal, where the copyright is no longer with the author? Is the data hosted in figshare still open access?

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