Neurosynth is joining the Elsevier family

[Editorial note: this was originally posted on April 1, 2016. April 1 is a day marked by a general lack of seriousness. Interpret this post accordingly.]

As many people who follow this blog will be aware, much of my research effort over the past few years has been dedicated to developing Neurosynth—a framework for large-scale, automated meta-analysis of neuroimaging data. Neurosynth has expanded steadily over time, with an ever-increasing database of studies, and a host of new features in the pipeline. I’m very grateful to NIMH for the funding that allows me to keep working on the project, and also to the hundreds (thousands?) of active Neurosynth users who keep finding novel applications for the data and tools we’re generating.

That said, I have to confess that, over the past year or so, I’ve gradually grown dissatisfied at my inability to scale up the Neurosynth operation in a way that would take the platform to the next level . My colleagues and I have come up with, and in some cases even prototyped, a number of really exciting ideas that we think would substantially advance the state of the art in neuroimaging. But we find ourselves spending an ever-increasing chunk of our time applying for the grants we need to support the work, and having little time left to over to actually do the work. Given the current funding climate and other logistical challenges (e.g., it’s hard to hire professional software developers on postdoc budgets), it’s become increasingly clear to me that the Neurosynth platform will be hard to sustain in an academic environment over the long term. So, for the past few months, I’ve been quietly exploring opportunities to help Neurosynth ladder up via collaborations with suitable industry partners.

Initially, my plan was simply to license the Neurosynth IP and use the proceeds to fund further development of Neurosynth out of my lab at UT-Austin. But as I started talking to folks in industry, I realized that there were opportunities available outside of academia that would allow me to take Neurosynth in directions that the academic environment would never allow. After a lot of negotiation, consultation, and soul-searching, I’m happy (though also a little sad) to announce that I’ll be leaving my position at the University of Texas at Austin later this year and assuming a new role as Senior Technical Fellow at Elsevier Open Science (EOS). EOS is a brand new division of Elsevier that seeks to amplify and improve scientific communication and evaluation by developing cutting-edge open science tools. The initial emphasis will be on the neurosciences, but other divisions are expected to come online in the next few years (and we’ll be hiring soon!). EOS will be building out a sizable insight-as-a-service operation that focuses on delivering real value to scientists—no p-hacking, no gimmicks, just actionable scientific information. The platforms we build will seek to replace flawed citation-based metrics with more accurate real-time measures that quantify how researchers actually use one another’s data, ideas, and tools—ultimately paving the way to a new suite of microneuroservices that reward researchers both professionally and financially for doing high-quality science.

On a personal level, I’m thrilled to be in a position to help launch an initiative like this. Having spent my entire career in an academic environment, I was initially a bit apprehensive at the thought of venturing into industry. But the move to Elsevier ended up feeling very natural. I’ve always seen Elsevier as a forward-thinking company at the cutting edge of scientific publishing, so I wasn’t shocked to hear about the EOS initiative. But as I’ve visited a number of Elsevier offices over the past few weeks (in the process of helping to decide where to locate EOS), I’ve been continually struck at how open and energetic—almost frenetic—the company is. It’s the kind of environment that combines many of the best elements of the tech world and academia, but without a lot of the administrative bureaucracy of the latter. At the end of the day, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

It will, of course, be a bittersweet transition for me; I’ve really enjoyed my 3 years in Austin, both professionally and personally. While I’m sure I’ll enjoy Norwich, CT (where EOS will be based), I’m going to really miss Austin. The good news is, I won’t be making the move alone! A big part of what sold me on Elsevier’s proposal was their commitment to developing an entire open science research operation; over the next five years, the goal is to make Elsevier the premier place to work for anyone interested in advancing open science. I’m delighted to say that Chris Gorgolewski (Stanford), Satrajit Ghosh (MIT), and Daniel Margulies (Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences) have all also been recruited to Elsevier, and will be joining EOS at (or in Satra’s case, shortly after) launch. I expect that they’ll make their own announcements shortly, so I won’t steal their thunder much. But the short of it is that Chris, Satra, and I will be jointly spearheading the technical operation. Daniel will be working on other things, and is getting the fancy title of “Director of Interactive Neuroscience”; I think this means he’ll get to travel a lot and buy expensive pictures of brains to put on his office walls. So really, it’s a lot like his current job.

It goes without saying that Neurosynth isn’t making the jump to Elsevier all alone; NeuroVault—a whole-brain image repository developed by Chris—will also be joining the Elsevier family. We have some exciting plans in the works for much closer NeuroVault-Neurosynth integration, and we think the neuroimaging community is going to really like the products we develop. We’ll also be bringing with us the OpenfMRI platform created by Russ Poldrack. While Russ wasn’t interested in leaving Stanford (as I recall, his exact words were “over all of your dead bodies”), he did agree to release the OpenfMRI IP to Elsevier (and in return, Elsevier is endowing a permanent Open Science fellowship at Stanford). Russ will, of course, continue to actively collaborate on OpenfMRI, and all data currently in the OpenfMRI database will remain where it is (though all original contributors will be given the opportunity to withdraw their datasets if they choose). We also have some new Nipype-based tools rolling out over the coming months that will allow researchers to conduct state-of-the-art neuroimaging analyses in the cloud (for a small fee)–but I’ll have much more to say about that in a later post.

Naturally, a transition like this one can’t be completed without hitting a few speed bumps along the way. The most notable one is that the current version of Neurosynth will be retired permanently in mid-April (so grab any maps you need right now!). A new and much-improved version will be released in September, coinciding with the official launch of EOS. One of the things I’m most excited about is that the new version will support an “Enhanced Usage” tier. The vertical integration of Neurosynth with the rest of the Elsevier ecosystem will be a real game-changer; for example, authors submitting papers to NeuroImage will automatically be able to push their content into NeuroVault and Neurosynth upon acceptance, and readers will be able to instantly visualize and cognitively decode any activation map in the Elsevier system (for a nominal fee handled via an innovative new micropayment system). Users will, of course, retain full control over their content, ensuring that only readers who have the appropriate permissions (and a valid micropayment account of their own) can access other people’s data. We’re even drawing up plans to return a portion of the revenues earned through the system to the content creators (i.e., article authors)—meaning that for the first time, neuroimaging researchers will be able to easily monetize their research.

As you might expect, the Neurosynth brand will be undergoing some changes to reflect the new ownership. While Chris and I initially fought hard to preserve the names Neurosynth and NeuroVault, Elsevier ultimately convinced us that using a consistent name for all of our platforms would reduce confusion, improve branding, and make for a much more streamlined user experience*. There’s also a silver lining to the name we ended up with: Chris, Russ, and I have joked in the past that we should unite our various projects into a single “NeuroStuff” website—effectively the Voltron of neuroimaging tools—and I even went so far as to register a while back. When we mentioned this to the Elsevier execs (intending it as a joke), we were surprised at their positive response! The end result (after a lot of discussion) is that Neurosynth, NeuroVault, and OpenfMRI will be merging into The NeuroStuff Collection, by Elsevier (or just NeuroStuff for short)–all coming in late 2016!

Admittedly, right now we don’t have a whole lot to show for all these plans, except for a nifty logo created by Daniel (and reluctantly approved by Elsevier—I think they might already be rethinking this whole enterprise). But we’ll be rolling out some amazing new services in the very near future. We also have some amazing collaborative projects that will be announced in the next few weeks, well ahead of the full launch. A particularly exciting one that I’m at liberty to mention** is that next year, EOS will be teaming up with Brian Nosek and folks at the Center for Open Science (COS) in Charlottesville to create a new preregistration publication stream. All successful preregistered projects uploaded to the COS’s flagship Open Science Framework (OSF) will be eligible, at the push of a button, for publication in EOS’s new online-only journal Preregistrations. Submission fees will be competitive with the very cheapest OA journals (think along the lines of PeerJ’s $99 lifetime subscription model).

It’s been a great ride working on Neurosynth for the past 5 years, and I hope you’ll all keep using (and contributing to) Neurosynth in its new incarnation as Elsevier NeuroStuff!

* Okay, there’s no point in denying it—there was also some money involved.

** See? Money can’t get in the way of open science—I can talk about whatever I want!

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