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ALPSP Award Proposal: PubPub and Cursor_

Published onApr 30, 2020
ALPSP Award Proposal: PubPub and Cursor_

The PDF for this proposal was generated from PubPub, where a copy of this proposal can be viewed within the context of the platform is here.

Statement of Innovation

PubPub is a free open source collaboration platform created by the Knowledge Futures Group (501(c)(3) for researchers, publishers, and libraries. With 1000+ communities, PubPub offers collaborative authoring (Google docs style) and enables partners to develop workflows for scholarly communications, including engagement through annotation, community review, embedded multimedia and interactives. We feature our partnership with Cursor_, a theological open access journal, by researchers from the University of Heidelberg, an experimental place for discussion and collaboration, particularly for student created content. Shared vision was a key motivator for this partnership to develop tools in support of a digital publishing workflow.

History and Rationale for the Collaboration

The need for open infrastructure is increasingly mentioned in the same breath as discussions on the progress of scholarly content’s transition to open access, because proprietary tools can bring the same risk of vendor lock-in for publishers, societies, and libraries that the big content deals brought libraries. (See Schonfeld, Cochran, and Schonfeld) Open infrastructure offers an opportunity for community-led governance, collaborative roadmap development, and interoperability. Early-career researchers and open-science advocates also push more for new workflows around content creation and research dissemination, including collaborative tools around preprints, experimental publications, and living documents. (See Sarabipour, HHMI and COS Survey) Yet, many hosting platforms, even those created specifically to support open content, seek primarily to replicate a print-based workflow. PubPub, an open source tool, created by Dr. Travis Rich during his time as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab and currently managed by the Knowledge Futures Group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, hopes to provide a sustainable alternative to proprietary tools and to serve as a forum for new experimental models to create and disseminate scholarly content.

Launched in 2017, PubPub is part of a suite of open tools managed and maintained by the Knowledge Futures Group, which was created as a joint initiative by the MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab to give open tools an alternative to venture funding and acquisition. The KFG believes that universities have become disconnected from the platforms that their researchers use to create and distribute their research and thus hopes to inspire more institutional investment and support for such infrastructure. (See Harrington) PubPub enables anyone to create their own free community, which could be a book, a journal—or a collection thereof, a blog, a classroom group, a conference, or more. It currently hosts more than 1000 such communities. For this proposal, we highlight our collaboration with Cursor_, a theological open access journal created by researchers at the University of Heidelberg to bring discussion and community engagement back to the discipline. The Cursor_ collaboration features multilingual, multicultural, and interdisciplinary scholarship and stands as a shining example in the arts and humanities, showing how innovations in workflow and engagement are not limited to STEM fields.

Dr. Thomas Renkert of the University of Heidelberg notes that initial interest in PubPub was reinforced by a shared vision to create collaborative workflow tools that would allow the Cursor_ team to build an explorative space in which anyone could participate in the content creation and discussion process. “Enhancing dialog between practitioners and scholars, interdisciplinary exchange, and collaboration across forms of ‘certified expertise’ were big motivators,” Renkert explains. In particular, Cursor_, whose name was selected to denote “a symbolic space, not yet occupied” just as a cursor serves as “moving, dynamic object, inviting one to type,” wanted students and other stakeholders to create articles, blogs, and more. In practice, PubPub’s developmental roadmap has benefited considerably from the input, user experience, and feature requests submitted by the Cursor_ team. As the journal has progressed, PubPub has served as a sandbox or test kitchen. In 2019, Cursor joined the official catalog of the newly created Heidelberg University Publishing (HeiUP). Stakeholder participation is also growing, as Cursor_ is now hosting two teams from the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD).


As early partners, the Cursor_ team participated fully in the development and improvement of PubPub, including our new dashboard tools. Recently, Cursor_ published a special issue around topics related to Covid-19. PubPub’s Collection functionality makes it simple to create a special issue from existing or new content.

Cursor_ Corona Virus Special Issue Landing Page

Cursor_ Special Issue Articles include content in German and English.

Detail of an article (Pub).

Cursor_ does not want to replicate the past, it wants to change how publishing submissions happen today. Their Work as Progress Page invites author submissions as well as engagement around new content.

Authors are invited to Create a Pub.

With interaction between readers, as well as between scholars and practitioners, as key objectives, PubPub’s annotation feature is used for conversations.

A discussion thread using annotations.

What are the main features and functions of the product or service?

  • Free community creation

  • Open source

  • KFG is a 501(c)(3), committed to maintaining independence

  • Collaborative authoring tool (along the lines of Google docs, but more precise)

  • Hosting of academic content with associated services (metadata creation, format conversion, DOI assignment, version history, indexing, preservation, sharing)

  • Ability to embed math, images, videos, audio or interactive elements

  • Granular contributor assignment with CredIT taxonomy

  • Annotation and discussion

  • Import and export in many formats

  • Collection tagging for issues, topical special issues, books, themes, and more

  • Ability to download to different files types such as pdf1 and host a local copy in fulfillment of national and regional data requirements

  • Dashboard for management and assessment of impact

What was the background and research behind its development or launch? What resources went into its creation?

PubPub was created by Dr. Travis Rich as a Ph.D. project at the MIT Media Lab. It moved over to the Knowledge Futures Group with Rich as a result of a joint vision of the MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab. Now an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the KFG also hosts an open knowledge graph project, the Underlay, created by Dr. Danny Hillis as an alternative to closed proprietary knowledge graphs, such as the one managed by Google. Metadata from content on PubPub will be deposited in the Underlay, which will enable users and stakeholders to append assertions connecting research outputs, providing transparency around provenance.

Rich intended PubPub to provide a flexible publishing and content creation option for many types of organizations, from individual researchers to collaboration teams, publishers, libraries, and more. The platform opened to wider community participation in 2018 and continues to grow rapidly, as it transitions to an earned income model. The KFG promotes wider academic investment in infrastructure and tools and to this end is building a mission-aligned consortia, comprised of universities, libraries, and funders. MIT Press which hosts both journals and books on PubPub in addition to running community review and other experiments usig=ng the tool, remains a primary partner for the KFG.

What makes it significant and innovative?

PubPub was created by a researcher. Researchers inform its ongoing development as an open source project in a bottom-up development process. It provides a free alternative to expensive or resource intensive hosting platforms and also stands as a mission-driven alternative to Google docs and WordPress. Rather than replicating print-driven workflows, PubPub promotes experimentation including collaborative authoring, community review, streamlined traditional peer review, increased interactivity and visual appeal, post-publication community engagement though annotation and comments, as well as private communities for classrooms and document drafting and management. In a short time, we’ve seen early experimental publications become full-fledged journals, like Cursor_, which can then be hosted on PubPub or moved elsewhere. We’ve seen publications like The Good Drone that intend to evolve as living documents, including updates, new content, supplemental or response essays, and multi-media content. PubPub is ideal for hosting livestreams of online events or for preserving such artifacts after the fact. It also offers an open source alternative to WordPress for blogging. Cursor_ stands as a prime example of an experimental publication that “graduated” to be more of an “official journal.”

Cursor_ is distributed by Heidelberg University Publishing.

What value does it offer? How is it measured?

The value that PubPub brings comes from cost savings, flexibility, responsiveness, and transparency. PubPub is a no or low cost option for content creation and hosting. PubPub is centrally hosted, avoiding the need for technical resources on the part of the partner and enabling frequent releases. It can be used for one portion of the research workflow, such as collaborative authoring or peer review, or for a complete end-to-end service. Because of its flexible nature, PubPub can replace the need to manage multiple WordPress sites or different sites for specialized format types like video. All partners can contribute to the developmental roadmap, and all benefit from the continual release of updates and new features. Our community dashboard provides insight into activity across documents (Pubs) within one community or across multiple-communities (for our Organizational partners), as well as management of permissions and metadata. Partners can assess engagement in terms of the number of annotations or discussions or the number of page views on their sites.

Community dashboard

Engagement analytics for Cursor_

What is the business model? What is the scope for further expansion?

PubPub is currently transitioning from a foundation funded to an earned income model. The KFG is committed to maintaining in perpetuity a free version for anyone to create a community. Some partners desire additional support or services that can be obtained by contracting for a Pro Community. Publishers or universities with a need to manage permissions or metadata across multiple communities can explore our Organizational Model. Pricing for the Pro and Organizational options scale according to a seat-based, tiered structure. All collaborative authoring and workflow functionality is available regardless of tier.

The flexible nature of PubPub makes it ideal for small experimental collaborations to get started without risk. New journals born in the PubPub environment include the Harvard Data Science Review, American Psychological Association’s Technology, Mind, and Behavior, Projections (The Journal of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning) and Contours Collaborations—and Cursor_, of course! Many publishers have free to read content, including user contributed or member-focused publications, perhaps scattered across the web on different sites, that can instead be managed centrally on PubPub. We have a recent partnership with the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society (BAAS). Examples of collaborative community review include Data Feminism, Annotation, and the timely Economics in the Age of Covid-19.

While PubPub was developed to support the dissemination of scholarly content, its application can be much wider. PubPub’s appeal extends beyond the publishing space to libraries seeking input on task force or funder reports, governments seeking feedback on official documents or strategic plans, hackers working on software projects, . Any organization that creates a lot of notes and documents, like Responsive Science, some or none of which might eventually be published could utilize PubPub as a solution. Anyone who needs a site for their blog or event could turn to PubPub as an open source nonprofit platform option.

Use of PubPub by a wide array of organizations should ultimately help subsidize smaller entities or communities who lack funding. A consortium of universities, libraries, and museums will support not only PubPub but many open source researcher tools that can provide nonprofit and interoperable options to proprietary vendor lock in. Community governance will ensure collaborative contribution to the product roadmap and responsiveness to researcher needs. The Knowledge Futures Group is committed to providing opportunities for publications like Cursor_ to survive and thrive.

  • Name of product or service: PubPub

  • Publisher or owner: Knowledge Futures Group

  • Date product or service launched: 2017

  • Product or service website:,

  • If a username and password is required to access the content, please supply details with your application. (N/A)

  • Full contact details of person submitting the application

    • Heather Staines, Head of Partnerships, Knowledge Futures Group

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