Digital Science is 10! Looking Back on a Decade of Research.



On 7th December 2020, Digital Science celebrates its official tenth birthday (though it existed as “Project Babbage ” more than a year before it was launched publicly). To mark the occasion, we will be releasing a few birthday posts over the course of the year. We’re kicking off celebrations with our very own CEO, Daniel Hook, who will be reflecting on the key developments in the research landscape during our first ten years.

What did the world of research look like on 7th December 2010?

After ten years of Digital Science, I’m not used to looking back. Most pieces that I get asked to write and the majority of speaking opportunities are usually asking me to future gaze. Looking back over the last decade has been a fun task but also a difficult one: This is a personal selection with limited space, so there are many things that I’ve had to miss out. Nevertheless, I hope that you enjoy this whirlwind tour of the world of research since 2010.


The Research Excellence Framework (REF) was yet to arrive in the UK in 2010. However, talk of the new exercise had been circulating for several years. Even before the completion of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), a bibliometrics pilot was being developed in 2009. In November 2010, the results of the Impact Case Study Pilot were announced, heralding the beginning of what I like to refer to as the “Age of Impact”.  Over the next few years we saw funders adding requests for Impact Statements to their application processes,  universities developing Impact Statements for the REF, and other countries, such as Australia, developing their own approaches to Impact. Nature released a special issue on Impact in 2013 in which Figshare’s Mark Hahnel wrote a comment on data reuse and impact. In 2014, Digital Science worked with what was then the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE; now a part of UK Research and Innovation, or UKRI) and the Policy Institute at King’s College London to analyse the case studies and make these statements available to the world in a fully indexed and searchable database.


The effects of the financial crisis began to filter through to the research sector in the UK as the government’s austerity measures came into force. Outside the UK, the EU announced an investment into research, significantly increasing funding for the European Research Council to help economies develop. These funds were largely to support research into huge global issues such as climate change, food security and health. Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, commissioner for research, innovation and science, said that “innovation is the best way to create good jobs that will withstand globalization”.

Closer to home, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) wrote to the government about the impact of its 10% real terms spending cut for science over a four-year period. At Digital Science, we too were beginning to think about Research Funding. We started an internal project to look at the landscape of grant funding that had been awarded, and ultimately merged this work into our investment into UberResearch in 2013.


The scholarly communications community would see many changes over the decade starting in 2010: The rise of article-level metrics, the establishment of a vibrant start-up scene, acquisitions, mergers and the emergence of new and exciting technologies. In 2010, many of the changes that would define the decade were already in motion. Anne Wil Harzing published the influential book Publish or Perish, which foreshadowed the San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA) movement. Although it was still an age when authors of research articles could revel in ambiguity (and deal with all the inefficiency and annoyance of computer systems which required them to re-enter all their basic details) ORCID was only 2 years away from being established. Altmetrics did not yet exist as a movement but it was already an idea that lived in the head of’s founder Euan Adie. Like ORCID, it was not until 2012 that Altmetrics appeared on the research landscape and started to move the community toward metrics beyond scholarly citation.

Technology was starting to play a more significant role in research communication. Mendeley, still before its acquisition by Elsevier, celebrated its third birthday, having become European startup of the year in 2009. PLOS One published 7,000 publications, and was about to enter a phase of significant expansion; in 2011 it doubled its publications to 14,000, and in 2012 reached 24,000. Scholarly networking was already an important concept as Nature Network and Mendeley collaborated with the British Library to host the second Science Online London conference. In the US, VIVO was one year into its funding from the US National Institutes of Health, and held its first conference in New York.

Open Access was starting to gain more significant momentum, with university repositories becoming commonplace in the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the US – EPrints, DSpace and Fedora were already widespread. The Open Science agenda was still in its early phases and Open Data had yet to catch the attention of most communities: there was no Figshare yet! In the wider academic world, three million academic publications were published in 2010 (for comparison, there were more than five million publications in 2019) of which around 450,000 (15%) were green or gold open access. In 2019, more than 1,000,000 publications were published via either green or gold open access modes, a testament to how far the Open Access movement has come in just a few years.


The beginning of the second decade in the new millennium began with a hectic year for research. 2010 was designated the United Nations Year of Biodiversity. Cedric Vilani was one year into his tenure as Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris and also was among the four winners of the Fields Medal. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Elon Musk’s space exploration company SpaceX launched the Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft to be retrieved from orbit. Closer to home, I wrote a report on African research with Jonathan Adams. In sadder news, Martin Gardner, the popular writer and populariser of recreational mathematics, and Benoit B. Mandelbrot, the pioneer of fractals, both passed away. What does the B stand for? Nerds would argue that it stands for Benoit B. Mandelbrot, of course.

If I had to choose, from a personal perspective, the ten greatest research achievements that have either amazed or delighted me in the last decade, I would choose to highlight two different aspects of research; firstly, developments that have advanced research infrastructure, and secondly, developments that have positively contributed to a change in research culture.

Developments that advanced research infrastructure

  1. Launch of ORCID: A key resource that has changed the research information management landscape immeasurably over just seven years since October 2012.
  2. Launch of BioRxiv (in 2013) and the subsequent “arXiv spring” in 2017: It has been exciting to see pre-prints gain a new level of acceptance across academia in the last few years.
  3. Launch of Dimensions on 30th January 2018, through the collaboration of six Digital Science companies (Altmetric, Figshare, IFI, Symplectic, ReadCube, and UberResearch) we brought together publication, citation, altmetric, awarded grant, patent, clinical trial and policy document data in one place and launched the idea of “contextual search”.
  4. Launch of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) by the University of Sheffield, University of Leiden, Wellcome Trust and Digital Science on 30th September 2019, to create a focus around the translation of research on research into research practice and research policy.
  5. The ascent of the open research movement: Building on the advances made with digital repositories, pre-prints and the early open access publishing initiatives to become mainstream, while simultaneously developing the open data movement, and now moving to open infrastructure, open software, open methods and beyond.

Developments that change the culture or impact of research

  1. Coming of age of AI technology: Alpha Go
    …because this breakthrough potentially impacts all other areas of research, and beyond.
  2. Confirmation of Gravitational Waves
    …because this advances our understanding of one of the most fundamental aspects of our universe.
  3. Cure for Haemophilia on the horizon
    …because this is the beginning of how medicine will change humanity itself.
  4. Jocelyn Bell Burnell Breakthrough Award and her subsequent donation of the prize money to help students
    …because she was completely selfless in receiving the award and will inspire a generation of women.
  5. Maryam Mirzakhani winning the Fields Medal in 2014
    …because she was a great mind of a generation, and made it to the top of a traditionally male-dominated field.

The last ten years have seen profound and fundamental results across all fields of research. However, they have also been marked by significant changes in the culture and landscape of research. Research in almost all fields has become more data driven. Changes in research policy, often as a result of a more challenging global financial climate, have been oriented more directly toward application. A rich ecosystem of tools has sprung up to support and increase the effectiveness of researchers.

The next ten years will be exciting, and we at Digital Science have a hopeful vision for the next 10 years. We will see how AI changes research; data will become even more present in research, with every researcher needing to become part data scientist; openness in research will encounter existential challenges around trust, ethics and citizen science but will ultimately find approaches that not only allow research to survive and thrive but also to inspire; Sustainable Development Goals will replace traditional economics as the basis for the evaluation of applied research; collaboration will increase. In short, scholarly communications will come of age.


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