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The SPARC Innovator Award is an initiative that recognizes an individual, institution, or group that exemplifies SPARC principles by working to challenge the status quo in scholarly communication for the benefit of researchers, libraries, universities, and the public. SPARC Innovators are featured on the SPARC website semi-annually.

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June 2016 Innovator: RIO Journal


                          peerage Penev Ross Mounce

Daniel Mietchen (left), Lyubomir Penev (center) and Ross Mounce (right) are the developers of RIO.

When Daniel Mietchen discovered a 1959 article calling for the creation of a “newsletter or journal devoted exclusively to the publication of unexecuted research proposals,” he was inspired to act.

Mietchen, a biophysicist from Germany, had seen people and groups within the open science community make their research proposals public – sometimes even before submission.

“I wondered how to bring such materials together more systematically. From this perspective, the journal that had been suggested half a century ago seemed like a great idea whose time might finally have come,” he says.

Mietchen, 42, began exploring the concept of a journal devoted exclusively to grant proposals – unexecuted or not – about five years ago. “A public proposal can serve as a call for funders, thereby complementing the traditional way of matching research ideas with funding,” he says. “It can also trigger feedback from and interactions with potential collaborators, future colleagues, students, journalists and others.”

He talked with funders and publishers at conferences who thought it could be useful, but no one wanted to be the first – until he discussed it with Lyubomir Penev. The managing director and founder of the Bulgaria-based Pensoft Publishers thought the idea was brilliant.

As the planning began, they quickly started to think more broadly: Why not include outputs from entire research cycles? It became clear that it made the most sense to try and publish the full narrative about the research.

Research Ideas and Outcomes – or RIO – launched in September 2015 and started publishing in December. The open-access journal is a platform for scientists to share work from all stages of the discovery process, including experimental designs, data, software, research articles, project reports, policy briefs, and project management plans.

For promoting and expanding transparency in scientific communication, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition honors RIO with the June 2016 SPARC Innovator Award.

“It’s inspiring to see researchers step up and create an entirely new channel for sharing information on the work that they are doing,” said Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC. “They’re using the Internet for exactly what it was built for, and at the same time, they’re expanding the working definition of ‘scholarly communication’ ”.

As of June, RIO has published over 50 articles, about half of which are grant proposals. The biosciences are featured prominently, but subjects covered have also included physics, statistics, agriculture, and medicine. Most authors are from the US, Canada and Europe; some are from South America, Asia and Africa.

While traditional journals publish articles at the end of the research continuum, the founders of RIO also try to recognize the value in the lessons learned in the journey.

“There are many research outcomes other than traditional research articles that cost a lot to society, in terms of time and money, and they remain not visible. They are not citable. They are not reused by others. Moreover, they often get forgotten and in many cases simply get lost,” says Penev, a professor in biology who established Pensoft in 1992. “We wanted to establish a journal for both conventional research articles, but also non-conventional research outputs, such as research ideas, data management plans, software and other methods, project reports, policy briefs and others. With RIO, we are expanding the boundaries of the traditional understanding of the research or review article as the most, if not only, significant and meaningful container of scientific results.”

Mietchen, who works as a contractor with the National Institutes of Health in the US, has long been an advocate of open science and engaged with Open Access for more than a decade. Sharing of research proposals and other work in RIO seemed like a natural step to accelerate discovery in science, he says.

Even if a proposal doesn’t get funded, it can be a starting point for others or be combined with other efforts. “It is a way to streamline the research process and make it more efficient,” says Mietchen.

Articles on the RIO site are published through ARPHA, an online and collaborative publishing platform designed to support the full life cycle of the manuscript, from writing to submission, public peer review, publication and dissemination.

Penev says besides focusing on publication of the entire research cycle, RIO distinguishes itself with a three-stage peer-review process including an option for author-organized pre-submission review during the authoring process in ARPHA, mapping of all published articles to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and a flexible pricing model.

RIO’s pricing structure allows authors to choose which publishing services meet their needs and budget. The journal offers fee waivers, for example, for proposals that have been rejected or are still under review. All content receives a unique identifier, are permanently archived, and made available under open licenses without any access embargo.

To those who are skeptical and protective of their ideas, Mietchen maintains that cheating happens in the current system, and that RIO actually provides greater transparency to help guard against it.

“Most scientists are honest, want to do good stuff and help research move forward,” he says. The platform is especially attractive for newcomers to a field. “If you have a good proposal, you are sticking your flag into the ground. It can get noticed, and others may provide support and get engaged. Or, some may say it’s already been done or explain why it may not be feasible the way it was proposed.”

“If a scientist publishes a research idea, it can’t be so easily ‘stolen’ because it is formally published and should at least be cited and the author hopefully invited for collaboration,” adds Penev. “Besides, what is good in a situation when so many possibly brilliant research ideas remain unknown and not used in case they do not get funded?”

Chris Hartgerink, a Ph.D. student in statistics at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, published his Fulbright grant application in RIO in December. In the end, the proposal was not funded, but it did get some traction. Hartgerink says readers were intrigued by the topic (clinical trials and research integrity), and he gained followers on Twitter. In April, he published another proposal in RIO that has garnered some interesting comments.

The added value of RIO, especially for an early career researcher, is getting credit even if the work doesn’t get funded, he adds.

“It has been fruitful,” says Hartgerink of the exposure in RIO. “It’s very worthwhile to shift from after-the-fact assessments to before.”

Earlier feedback can prevent mishaps and help researchers tweak their approach as they are working on a project, he says. “The idea of having intermediate publications at different stages is a different way to think about research. I’m interested to see how this goes into the future. I hope we will see it more,” says Hartgerink.

Publication of each stage in the scientific process allows authors to get recognition for their work and stops needless duplication of research, says Ross Mounce, a co-founding editor of RIO who focuses on its marketing and communication strategies. Mounce, 29, is a biodiversity informaticist in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

“I know from experience that people spend a huge amount of time on grant proposals and no one gets to read the outputs,” he says. Making early stage research publicly available has the potential to make a significant impact on collaboration and discovery. “The response has been fantastic so far. It has exceeded our expectations with high quality outputs,” says Mounce.

For funders, it can be a resource to see where the field is moving and scout out potential worthy projects. RIO can also be a venue for grantees to share their progress publicly and get more exposure from their investment.

If the public is able to download the proposal and see it step by step as the project unfolds, they will have more trust and faith in the process of science, says Carly Strasser, program officer at the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, Calif. “The value is really in the transparency,” she says.

Someday, Strasser says she’d like the majority of scientists share the entire life cycle of their research in venues such as RIO so their work is reproducible.

“RIO is a great example of a group of people that have really learned to capitalize on these conversations that are happening and push technology to meet the needs of the community,” says Strasser. “Journals like RIO have the capacity to develop new ways to measure research, and it can respond to the needs of the community…I’d love to see RIO grow and for the community ideally to see RIO as a place to put their research.”

The mechanics of RIO builds on earlier efforts by Pensoft, particularly the Biodiversity Data Journal and its XML-based workflows. Mietchen, in turn, had helped develop an automated system that uses the XML from open-access journals to repurpose their supplemental multimedia materials on Wikimedia projects. For that innovation, Mietchen was one of the winners of the Accelerating Science Award Program.

Like many new ventures today, RIO operates as a virtual community, with its founders living in three different countries. (They’ve only met in one room three times in three years.) It has advisory board members and subject editors around the world. “We all live complicated lives,” says Mounce. “It really works to have a better international perspective on things.”

As for the future, the founders are optimistic about RIO. The hope is that more scientists will share their material by default because it makes sense and that scholars will start citing grant proposals in their grant proposals, papers and other research outcomes.

“We want RIO to stimulate Open Science more broadly, so that individuals and institutions think more about publishing the research process than the final narrative,” says Mietchen. “RIO is a vehicle for that – and I hope there will be other such vehicles popping up.”

-by Caralee Adams


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