Underline Science is a new venture that aims to change the way scholarly conferences are presented and experienced. Although it wasn’t planned this way, the platform could not have debuted at a more auspicious time, having rolled out to the public just before the COVID-19 pandemic-driven bans on travel earlier this year. Underline Science may be a timely new way to sustain and even enhance scholarly communication, especially now that scholars are doing less traveling and conference organizers are faced with excruciating decisions about whether to cancel events.
How It Works
The company is the brainchild of entrepreneur Alex Lazinica, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering and is a former robotics researcher at the Technical University of Vienna. Lazinica is a veteran of OA scholarly publishing. His previous venture, IntechOpen, claims to be the world’s largest publisher of OA scientific books.
Reached by phone at his home in Croatia, Lazinica said that Underline Science represents 2 years of planning and development. He described his motivation for founding it: “I’m committed to open access. Scholarly content should not be behind a subscription wall.” He added, “The idea came from the needs of scholars. Our research showed that scholars attend an average of three conferences a year. They would like to attend more, but are limited by time and funding. Now, with the pandemic, it has become impossible, of course.”
Moreover, as he pointed out, even when in-person attendance is possible, many conferences have multiple concurrent sessions. Scholars have to choose which single session to attend and do not have good ways to catch up on others taking place at the same time. And by catering only to in-person attendees, scholarly societies fail to engage the younger generation of scholars who use video as one of their prime information sources. Underline Science enables scholars to “attend” more conferences—and to experience more of those they attend.
Underline Science has been called “YouTube for Scholars,” so an obvious question is, what does it do that YouTube doesn’t? After all, there are plenty of scholarly lectures and conference presentations on YouTube. Lazinica explained:
YouTube is a totally different user experience. Videos are often of low quality, and there are no added features, functions, or materials. For example, at Underline Science we are building DOIs for every lecture so that they can be properly cited and become part of the scholarly communication process. Also, users can download the PowerPoint presentation in addition to watching the lecture. We include each speaker’s profile to facilitate connecting with the speaker, perhaps initiating new collaborations. We’re adding reference links for further information. We’re including a Q&A chat box to enable users to pose questions to the speakers. So there are many different advantages to Underline Science.
What It Offers
Watching a lecture requires establishing a free account with Underline Science, but other elements, including the PowerPoint slides and a transcript, are accessible without logging in. Some functions are still basic and limited. A Cite function provides a single format, without the DOI. An Underline Science spokesperson told me that the DOI assignment process is under development. The search function searches only titles and other metadata—not the text of transcripts.
The first recorded sessions on the platform originate from a suite of related conferences, sponsored by the Portugal-based Institute for Systems and Technologies of Information, Control and Communication, that were held in September 2019. Each conference is represented by only a handful of video-recorded keynote speeches. Video playback offers typical options for video quality and playback speed. Lecture slides and the speaker are presented concurrently in separate panes. The video playback also includes a unique pane that displays a scrolling transcript, which the viewer can switch among English, Spanish, and Chinese versions. Closed captioning in all three languages is also available. In these first presentations, the speaker’s prepared remarks are captured, but question-and-answer sessions aren’t. In later conferences, question-and-answer segments are included.
The International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems (AAMAS), originally planned for Auckland, New Zealand, but held virtually May 9–13, illustrates Underline Science’s pivot to supporting virtual-only events and its potential to reshape scholarly conferences. The conference video was produced by the company’s own production team, and it employed its proprietary video streaming platform. The conference was livestreamed, with speakers originating from their homes and offices around the world. Afterward, its content was quickly made available: 481 lectures given by 412 speakers, with keynotes, award presentations, and full papers. Moderated question-and-answer segments augment the prepared lectures.
“I’ve been attending AAMAS since the first edition of the conference in 2002,” says AAMAS 2020 general chair Gita Sukthankar, associate professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida. “Viewing the conference on the underline.io platform gave me a new window into my own research community. I saw talks that I might have missed seeing in person by rapidly browsing the whole collection of videos. In the online virtual environment, I met researchers who would not have been able to attend normally. Going forward, I believe that all AI conferences should maintain a virtual presence.”
The Future of Conferences
Looking ahead, Lazinica is optimistic about Underline Science’s prospects. He anticipates that all conferences will be conducted virtually over at least the next 6–12 months, and he believes that Underline Science is well-positioned not only to provide search, transcription, translation, and citation features, but also to host virtual conferences entirely, such as was done with AAMAS. He noted that Underline Science has already signed up 20 events for this year.
When asked about the company’s revenue model, Lazinica told me, “We plan to monetize on the usage of our repository and sell add-on features to the users.” He anticipates that customers for such features will include “universities, corporate R&D departments, and even individuals.”
Lazinica concluded our conversation by noting that “we’re a unique platform to produce virtual events, and after the event, we preserve and enrich the content. In the past, valuable content from conferences has disappeared, and now Underline Science is changing that.”
Photo of Alex Lazinica is courtesy of Underline Science