Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

The pocket library for open content is an application designed to simplify the search for openly available research content and lay ground for a basic quality assurance mechanism.

Over the last years the number of open access publications has drastically increased. The recent Covid-19 pandemic has shown the rising role and relevance of bringing out and exchanging scientific results faster than ever. Tens of thousands scientific articles hosted on preprint servers were published only during the first ten months of the pandemic.  For example, over a thousand articles on Covid-19 have been published since the beginning of the pandemic on bioRxiv alone – a preprint repository for biology (Fraser et al., 2021). This trend represents an opportunity, but also major challenge for the scientific system: On the one hand, researchers share their data across disciplines and publish their knowledge as fast as they can write preprints; on the other hand, most preprint servers do not have adequate quality assurance mechanisms, which makes it difficult to identify the most relevant content and its accuracy (Fecher, 2020). Despite the increasing amount of open access publications and the growing popularity of preprint repositories, their game changing potential for scholarly communication remains widely untapped: added services for dissemination and quality control are largely missing so far. Moreover, mobile devices drive the majority of internet traffic today, but our public digital publication infrastructure is predominantly designed for desktop computers and less so for mobile use.

Funded by the German Ministry for Education and Research, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute together with the FZI Forschungszentrum Informatik designed and developed a prototype of a mobile application that aims to improve visibility of open access content and simplify the process of receiving feedback from other researchers in the field. This way we created ploc – the ‘pocket library for open content’. In this article we would like to present the idea behind as well as reflect about deep systemic problems of the scientific enterprise that make it difficult for innovative impulses to find ground. 

ploc – pocket library for open content

By developing our application we intended to support current trends and transformations in science with a technical feature. ploc is a practical endeavour that aims to assess how selected technologies – such as blockchain based trust systems, or statistical models for text mining –  can improve scientific practices. The application primarily serves researchers and graduate students who acquire or produce scientific content, as well as those who want to broaden their network. Easy-to-understand summaries of scientific artefacts will also allow readers with an interest in science, such as journalists, politicians, entrepreneurs and representatives of NGOs or interested citizens to inform themselves about the state of research. With ploc we tried to address the call for a more open, independent, public and societally relevant science, conceptualizing three functions that would make scientific outputs more accessible and serve as a basis for a more transparent quality assurance process. The app prototype contains following functions:

  • Personalized publication feed: Helps to discover and manage relevant scientific literature through personalized recommendations;
  • Expert search: Helps finding peers and potential collaborators outside one’s own network by defining location and research interests;
  • Open feedback system:  Helps to improve scientific work by requesting feedback from experts. 
Function 1: Personalized publication feedFunction 2: Expert search Funktion 3: Open Feedback System
Recommends new and relevant open access content in the field. Helps find and connect with experts in your own field. 
A transparent and open feedback system that enables exchange at early stages of research. 
Fig. 1. ploc’s basic functions

Sociotechnical challenges & learnings

In the following, we share our experiences and solutions obtained during our surveys, expert workshops, stakeholder, user interviews, and during our technical development sprints.

Native mobile support

As mentioned before, even though mobile devices drive the majority of internet traffic today, our digital publication infrastructure is predominantly designed for desktop computers and not for mobile devices with their restricted input capabilities and their rather small screens. In ploc, we therefore support only tasks that can be comfortably performed on a mobile device, e.g. skimming publication titles, or looking for experts. More complex and time-consuming tasks are left for the desktop. Following the Android UI design guidelines has led to less clutter on the screen and to user dialogs that feel more natural. Beforehand we designed our dialogs and workflows using interactive mockups. These helped us significantly to test and improve our workflows before implementation.

Collaborative low-key reviews 

Science is becoming more collaborative and interdisciplinary (Hicks & Katz, 1996). Open access can not only be understood simply as a means of making content available, but also as a way to increase involvement around it. Preprint repositories could be seized to collect so-called low-key feedback before a publication gets filed for formal peer-review (Schmidt & Görögh, 2017). Such preliminary feedback may help to prevent common mistakes and lower the boundary for inexperienced researchers. Comments can be given anonymously, while low-key reviews are linked to public, non-anonymous research-profiles (e.g. ORCID). These public profiles give more insights about the reviewer and increase confidence in a low-key review.

Transparent incentive mechanisms

Simply having an infrastructure on top of repositories that allows exchanging feedback or reviews is not enough; researchers are not likely to use it without having a clear advantage in comparison with existing practices. Ploc sets up a trSimply having an infrastructure on top of repositories that allows exchanging feedback or reviews is not enough; researchers are not likely to use it without having a clear advantage in comparison with existing practices. Ploc sets up a transparent system based on a distributed ledger that allows publicly keeping track of all feedback-related contributions (Yaga et al., 2018). Ideally, the incentive mechanism is in line with established forms of scientific recognition. Financial remuneration has to be evaluated, but in our experience encounters resistance among the community. An alternative incentive could be a transparent participation and publication record, as visible reputation remains an important asset in science that is hard to gain especially for early-career researchers.

Reliable expert profiles

Information about research contributors is essential in order to link publications and open reviews to real persons and to make them aware of each other. A comprehensive, well-maintained registry of contributor identificators would help to consistently interlink academic publication records. Incorporating affiliation or location data in addition (e.g. town or zip code), in turn, could foster offline scientific collaboration. In ploc, for example, we wanted to recommend experts who are nearby and have the same research interests, but unfortunately we were unable to identify precisely either the persons with their records as the embodiment of their expertise or the country or city where they work. As a workaround, in ploc, we use statistical heuristics, public metadata from repositories and public ORCID profiles to approximate an author’s publication history and their affiliation (Bäcker et al., 2017; Do et al., 2013; Mueller-Langer et al., 2019). Nevertheless, a unique digital identity would significantly improve the accuracy of our recommendations. 

Open data infrastructures

Distributed databases, ledgers and peer-to-peer technology can help to share linked data openly, merge updates from different sources, and may even remove dependencies to single organizations. Provide overlay services on top of multiple repositories, may utilize such distributed infrastructures but needs to establish standardized interfaces and data structures with well-defined semantics. Often metadata records contain inconsistent or ambiguous information that is insufficient for automated interpretation, e.g. copyright information or the author’s identity. In ploc, however, we heavily depend on comprehensive and openly available metadata, which in our case is provided by BASE and ORCID. For both we use our own filter rules and statistical algorithms to merge and interpret their data; and plan to openly publish our derived datasets (Blei, 2012).


There are two main strands of problems that we encountered throughout the project. Firstly, even when developing a mere technical tool, innumerable resources are needed in order to combine all accessible open access publications in one database and make it searchable. This ambition would suffice for a separate research project. On the other hand, more importantly, we can only confirm that providing a technical solution is only part of the solution. Only by developing an app prototype we will never be able to establish and implement new research practices, for example, for quality assurance. Sure, we provide a technical basis, but would need more actions actually to invite researchers to use and acknowledge it. 

On this note, with ploc we would like to set a sign in the debate around research infrastructures and advocate for more openness towards and support for innovative ideas in research. We are keen to continue working on the technical solution, adjust and improve its functionality and develop a fully fledged mobile application that would simplify the search for experts and publications as well as offer a secure, transparent and independent way to provide feedback on scientific research.