Thursday, 13 August 2015

ALPSP Awards Spotlight on… Overleaf, the collaborative writing and publishing platform

John Hammersley, Founder and CEO at Overleaf (Writelatex Limited), in the fourth of ALPSP Awards for Innovation in Publishing finalists' posts, explains what the collaborative writing and publishing platform is about and how it works.

Tell us a bit about your company

Founded in 2012, by me, John Hammersley and my friend and colleague, John Lees-Miller, Overleaf is an academic authorship tool that, in essence, allows researchers to spend more time saving the world by making it much easier for them to write and publish their work.

How do we help? Overleaf is an easy-to-use, intuitive editor that enables efficient collaboration and effortless manuscript submission on all types of research articles. So you spend less time worrying about formatting and versions, and more time doing your research.

We've seen amazing growth since we started, with over 250,000 registered users in just over 2 years – and this is something we originally built simply for our research group. We have been growing rapidly since our launch, mainly through the grassroots movement that has formed around the platform – Overleaf users are incredible.  We always say we have the best users on the planet, especially given our recent milestone!

What is the project that you submitted for the Awards?

Overleaf submitted our cloud-based, academic authorship platform for the ALPSP awards.

By providing an intuitive online collaborative writing and publishing platform, Overleaf is making the process of writing, editing and publishing scientific documents quicker and easier. Researchers and academics can now write, collaborate, and publish with a single click, directly from the Overleaf web-app. Publishers and Institutions are partnering with Overleaf to provide customized writing templates, simple reference tool linking, and one-click publishing submission links.
Overleaf brings the scientific documentation process into a Google-docs like environment, developed to seamlessly connect the academic and publishing workflows from writing-to-review-to-publication.

Tell us more about how it works and the team behind it

Overleaf’s free service allows the entire scientific documentation process to move into the cloud – from idea to writing to review to publication.
Users can collaboratively view and edit documents in either a simple word processing interface or as native LaTeX source code – from anywhere. Users can choose from multiple template options, including customized book or journal templates, which can be publisher specific. All the required components – such as chapters, sections, title pages, glossaries, references and acknowledgements – are pre-defined and ready to be populated. Authors simply open the template and start writing, safe in the knowledge that the output conforms to the editorial guidelines of their target journal or publisher. Automatic formatting significantly reduces editorial costs and reduces time to publication.
As a user types or makes changes, the environment provides an automatic preview of the fully typeset document – allowing everyone to see exactly what the finished document will look like.  Authors can link their preferred reference management tool directly to their Overleaf account – allowing fast, simple and correct in-document referencing and citation without worrying about editorial guidelines. Once the document or project is complete, there are multiple output options. Authors can submit directly to a publisher, journal or repository from within the Overleaf platform, through a simple one-click submission button, or output the file in cross-platform LaTeX or PDF formats.
Overleaf greatly reduces editorial and review turnaround times with powerful change tracking, commenting and project lifecycle management features. Publishers can quickly and easily make notes or edit a document, share those changes with other editors, peer reviewers or authors and move through the editorial and peer review process quickly and easily. No more emailing papers back and forth and manually marking up changes. 
Overleaf has also been a beneficial service for publishers and societies who are looking to simplify the LaTeX writing and submission process for their users, or to provide a powerful, value-add tool for their authors. Overleaf makes the scientific writing, review and publishing process simple – for everyone.

The new word-processing environment, allows non-LaTeX users and journals to experience the same advantages of seamless collaboration, easy templating and one-click submission.

As for the team behind it… Overleaf is really the brainchild of my colleague, John Lees-Miller –  who, while we were doing research on driverless cars and publishing papers with the Bristol University Engineering Mathematics group, saw a need for a collaborative scientific writing tool, and he built one! In the past, LaTeX, the scientific writing language required for many hard sciences, was only available as a single-user desktop writing application. As an open source application with a number of commercial distributions, LaTeX suffered from fragmentation, resulting in a lack of interoperability, undermining its cross-platform origins. In other words, the hundreds of LaTeX desktop writing application options only added to the difficulties in collaborative scientific research and writing. Researchers would usually find that collaborators used a slightly different distribution - meaning that their documents could not be read. With no good way to collaborate on individual files – authors would compile and output large typeset files, and email or FTP the read-only output back and forth. Obviously, the process was far from ideal. Thus, the idea for Overleaf was born!
Our answer was to build a cloud-based scientific writing and collaboration tool for LaTeX documents which we called ‘WriteLaTeX’.  As a cloud-based web app, WriteLaTeX did not require authors to download or install any software and allowed co-authors to collaborate in LaTeX in real time for the first time. Think Google Docs – but for complex scientific papers and formulas! As colleagues learned of this new, easy-to-use tool, word spread and WriteLaTeX grew. Soon we found ourselves dedicating more and more time to developing and growing this popular new scientific service – leading to what is now our London-based start up: Overleaf.

Why do you think it demonstrates publishing innovation?

Overleaf has had a phenomenal first two years, with close to 250,000 registered users from 180 countries worldwide who have created in excess of three million documents from over 2,000 publishers, institutions and universities across the globe.

Researchers love the innovative and easy-to-use writing and collaboration web app, and publishers love the cost savings from receiving perfectly formatted submissions first time, the groundbreaking online editing tools, automated typesetting and pagination, and clean outputs. 

This is a new tool for the scientific community that was previously unavailable – something needed and wanted by researchers across the globe and a clear win-win for authors and publishers.  It is a great fit for the ALPSP Award as it provides a crucial digital tool for scientists - advancing the scientific writing and publishing process. Overleaf supports scientific writing, editing and collaboration in the cloud better than anything available today.

What are your plans for the future?

Overleaf has been focused on growing in the Publishing and Institutional space since 2015 and has already signed with more than 10 institutions – including Stanford University – and more than 10 publishing partners – including Nature Scientific Reports and PeerJ. These publishing and institutional partnerships will be fundamental in the growth of Overleaf.

Overleaf is also partnering with organizations who help the researcher and academic writing and publishing workflows. Overleaf believes that these integrations are also crucial for expansion of the service. Providing users with a winning platform includes seamlessly integrating the tools and services that are needed by researchers, academics, publishers and institutions. Partnerships and integrations have been established with multiple organizations, such as: Mendeley (reference management), Aries Systems (peer review system), Figshare (data repository), Editage (Editing service), and more. Additional partnerships and integrations are being established monthly.

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