Mark Hahnel: multimedia PhD research

Mark Hahnel, PhD student and creator of Figshare

Mark completed his PhD in stem cell biology at Imperial College London in 2012. He is founder and CEO of Figshare, an online repository where researchers can upload and make all their research outputs available, citable and shareable.

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Figshare came from a dissatisfaction with being unable to present your research in the way that you would choose

The stem cells in bone marrow can help repair tissue and organs. Mark’s PhD research investigated a pharmacological approach to encourage those stem cells to move from the bone marrow increasing numbers in the blood.

During his PhD experiments he made videos of cells to track movement. He generated a lot of imaging data including fluorescent data and high resolution images. His research produced a large amount of spreadsheet data, data sets about how cells were moving and counts. From this wealth of multimedia research Mark was given only the option to submit an electronic copy of his thesis in PDF format to his university’s institutional repository. Altogether he created 10GB of data during his PhD, yet his thesis contained only 50 static images, no datasets and no videos.

Mark, passionate about open science and open data, was dissatisfied with the options for recording his PhD research. By not providing access to Mark’s spreadsheet and raw data sets, future researchers wanting to build on his team’s main findings would have to start again from scratch and create their own set of data. Their starting point would have to be to repeat the experiments before building on the research, leading to much wasted time, and an economic waste since the experiments can cost thousands of pounds a time.

If multimedia research, for example videos of cells, were included in the thesis it would be easier to show how one set of cells are moving faster than another set by allowing the reader to view and compare the videos. In text based theses the researcher must describe the videos textually, supported only by a series of screenshots. A multimedia approach allows future researchers to interpret the video themselves, perhaps making different observations about the speed and movement of the cells and therefore make new findings.

After handing in his thesis Mark could find no avenue in academic publishing to share his multimedia research so, purely to publish his own data, he started an online repository where he could upload and make all his research outputs available and citable. From there he opened up the repository to other people. Researchers started uploading all of their digital assets, posters, videos, data sets, code. Seeing the potential for sharing this valuable and untapped data resource, he secured support and investment from Digital Science and founded Figshare.

Figshare logo

On Figshare individual researchers are able to make all of their research outputs available online in a citable shareable and discoverable manner. Figshare works with academic publishers so they can display videos in the articles. Mark and his team work with an increasing number of universities to provide digital repositories that can accept any file format.

“Now those universities can say to researchers, if you have digital assets you can go to this URL, you can log in, you can upload your files, add metadata, make them publicly available. You can create collections, these files could then go in a PhD thesis.”

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Key points

  • The nature of PhD theses is changing - video, websites and massive data files are all valid outputs
  • Big data and video files of research experiments can be challenging to submit, store and manage for future researchers
  • Mark started an online repository to store and share his own PhD research outputs - which went on to become Figshare